Ornette and the Piano

Gratuitous rabbits. Photo by Maria Lupan (@luandmario) on Unsplash.

I’ve never deeply listened to Ornette Coleman’s Sound Museum, the band with Geri Allen on piano that produced two albums, each featuring mostly the same tracks as the other. Both are snapshots of malleable compositions, captured in different incarnations that are necessarily born of different moments in time, different pseudorandom number seeds.

That came to mind with the death of Ellis Marsalis at the end of March. His obituary in the Associated Press featured this paragraph:

“Ornette Coleman was in town at the time, and in 1956 when Coleman headed to California, Marsalis and the others went with him, but after a few months Marsalis came back home. He told the New Orleans Times-Picayune years later, when he and Coleman were old men, that he never did figure out what a pianist could do behind the free form of Coleman’s jazz.”

It’s easy to sympathize with Marsalis, and in fact the story is a bit comforting, because Ornette’s music doesn’t seem pian-friendly. Ornette, of course, didn’t play to chord structures. His music was about building off of lines of melody. 

From the book Ornette Coleman: His Life and Music by Peter Niklas Wilson, discussing the Sound Museum albums:

[Pianist Geri] Allen and [bassist Charnett] Moffett, still relative newcomers to the harmelodic labyrinth, show no false modesty in the master’s presence but bravely accept the challenge of egalitarian interplay, where every instrument is both central and peripheral. Coleman did not often work with keyboards and Geri Allen has a difficult task inventing the art of harmelodic piano; she can be forgiven for resorting a little too often to the simple device of tone repetition.

Pianist Joachim Kuhn’s duo album with Ornette is a more wide-open space. He supplements Ornette’s composed lines with florid, harmony-packed playing — heaping doses of ornate classical harmony next to harmelodics. It still has Ornette’s sound but sometimes feels incongruous, too weighty. Some of the best moments feature Kuhn single-note pecking alongside Ornette’s bobbing sax, creating interweaving melodies.

Before any of this, guitar was a chordal instrument in Prime Time, particularly Bern Nix, adding color to a danceable type of avant-jazz. Here’s something interesting though: Ornette’s band in Italy in 1975, with James “Blood” Ulmer on guitar adding extra slash and zig-zag. It’s an exciting way to apply a chordal instrument to Ornette’s music, and it’s too bad Ulmer never appeared on an official Prime Time record.

A Cavalcade of Solos

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While music sales can’t make up for the loss of gigs, recordings are the main product musicians can offer right now. Assuming social distancing stays in place for months to come — which it should — what happens when the backlog of ensemble/band album releases dries up?

A pop band can record an album piecemeal in home studios. But jazz and improv, even chamber music, rely more on the artistry and strength of real-time interaction. Track-by-track recording doesn’t seem ideal. It’s certainly possible, as the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra shows with “Quarantine Blues.” Likewise, group performances (and therefore group recordings) over the internet are certainly possible. Mark Dresser has been researching that angle for more than a decade with his Telematics project, and technology has largely caught up to the ideas he was first envisioning.

But the more likely route for most improv-heavy, free-form experimental music, especially given the budgets involved, is a burst of solo recordings.

It’s already started. Saxophonist Steve Lehman fired an early salvo with Xenakis and the Valedictorian, recorded literally in his car. (His wife, filmmaker Olivia Newman, caught some of the magic on video.) As Nate Chinen explains on his WBGO blog, Lehman’s EP one of several solo/duo projects that Pi Recordings plans to issue in the coming weeks, with all proceeds going directly to the artists.

On the local front, clarinetist Ben Goldberg is recording an ongoing Plague Diary, measuring 56 tracks and counting. Kyle Bruckmann likewise recorded a quarantine sketchbook called Draußen ist Feindlich. Both are available on Bandcamp.

 

Tim Berne even recorded his first-ever solo album, Sacred Vowels.


Of course, solo performance is an established genre of its own. Just about every free-improv performer puts out at least one solo record, it seems. And computers and looping can turn live solo performance into a multi-layered experience; Goldberg started doing that with even the earliest Plague Diary tracks.

Stray thought: On the rock/pop end of the spectrum, music is recorded piecemeal in the first place, so it’s easy to envision a band recording all their parts at home and engineering them into a normal-sounding album. What if you tried the same thing with free improvisation — passing a recording from one musician to the next, layering something together “exquisite corpse” style? There must be a recorded example of this out there somewhere, but whether there is or not, it would be fun to see someone try.

Photo: kylejglenn on Unsplash.

Back Pages #6: Beaver Harris

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

harris-earsThe most heartbreaking CD in my collection is Thank You for Your Ears (Dizim, 1998) by the Beaver Harris Trio. It’s not the music — which is joyous, powered by Hamiet Bluiett on sax/flute and Vincent Taylor playing steel drums. It’s the liner notes, written by Harris’ widow, Glo.

I was in Paris in 1999, ambling through every CD store I could find. Of course, the shoddy-looking small stores had the best selection of obscure jazzy stuff (this being an era when such stores were still plentiful). One had its avant-jazz collection in boxes, arranged not by artist but by record label — a sign that they catered to a knowledgeable crowd. Among the dividers was Rastascan Records, the Bay Area label run by Gino Robair. I hope he managed to get paid for those CDs.

I picked up a CD from the Eric Barret Quartet, because it had guitarist Marc Ducret on it, whom I knew from Tim Berne’s Bloodcount, and also a cover of Yes’ “Five Percent for Nothing,” a 30-second blip of a song that Barrett’s band expanded to five minutes. Fun stuff, and it’s interesting to hear Ducret in a more conventional setting (but still not “inside” jazz). I bought a disc called Terra Nova mainly because the artwork looked interesting — kind of artsy and mildly abstract. Turns out it was modern classical with heavy jazz influences. The disc’s highlight is a catchy 15/8 theme in a concerto for bandoleon (an instrument like the accordion), written by guitarist David Chevallier.

But also … I found Thank You for Your Ears. It was on a short-lived German label called Dizim, which I knew from Monk’s Japanese Dream Song, a jazz trio led by Miya Masaoka on koto, backed by Reggie Washington and Andrew Cyrille. That album includes energetic jazz covers and zen-like improvisations, and it got a lot of attention from me both at KZSU and at home.

So I recognized the Dizim packaging and was eager to hear what else they were into. I didn’t know who Beaver Harris was, I’m sorry to say. But I did recognize Hamiet Bluiett‘s name, and I was excited at the thought of having found more output from this new label. I gave it a shot.

Back at the room, I read Glo Harris’ liner notes:

Towards the end of Beaver’s life he was still practicing on the drum pad. (Could he have been preparing for the music he would create as he moved on …?) He never stopped practicing and he wanted to play until his breath ceased and he would finally be at peace. For his desire to keep playing was so powerful and he was so sad that his dreams were to be shattered by the cancer that took his life [at age 55]. I saw a man, the last six months of his life, fight to stay alive, to keep the music happening. His optimism never ceased.

He even wanted to play with Sonny Rollins again. I remember when he called Sonny when he was very ill and he finally began to tell his colleagues that he wasn’t well. Several days later, a photograph of Sonny arrived in the mail inscribed: “To Beaver, My Drummer, All the Best, Sonny Rollins.” As Beaver introduces the members of this trio at the end of the concert he tells the audience “… and thank you for your ears,” an expression he learned from Sonny Rollins and a sentiment that led our daughter, Portia, to name this recording.

The night before Beaver passed away he came to terms with his anger in a complex, spiritual way and he thanked God for making him “new and well again.” He closed his eyes forever not long after that.

Beaver, thank you for making my life with you a unique experience. We have your music to always keep close to our hearts … forever lasting. I knew another side of you, a gentle man that always thought of others first.

I knew that jazz was a difficult life, but this essay really drove the message home. Here was a man who, as I would learn later, had accomplished quite a lot but was still underappreciated and still wanted more.

Recorded at a 1984 concert, Thank You for Your Ears serves as a fine send-off for Harris. With steel drums (an instrument that factored into his 360 Degree Musical Experience), it can’t help but be happy. And as Glo mentions, Harris thanks the audience at the end: “Thank you for your ears.”

harris-africanIn the following years, I pieced together more about Harris. I discovered The 360 Degree Musical Experience and his work with Don Pullen and his lengthy relationship with Archie Sheep. I bought African Drums (Owl, 2002; originally released 1978), an album of mostly solo drumming, to get the “full” Beaver Harris experience. I pay attention anywhere I encounter his name. It’s a pittance, but it’s also all I can do. I can remember Beaver Harris and lend him my ears.

Here’s the longest track on Thank You for Your Ears: an ebullient 23-minute rendition of “African Drums.”

 

Monk: The Work

Miles OkazakiWork (self-released, 2018)

From Kevin Whitehead’s book, New Dutch Swing, regarding Thelonious Monk’s “deliberate lack of polish”:

What some heard as fumbling, thick fingers crushing so many adjacent notes, Misha [Mengelberg] heard simply as a liberal use of minor seconds. Monk in a way took diatonic harmony to its extreme, hiding every basic triad in an obfuscatory thicket.

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Early on, I encountered the assertion that Monk’s hand size made him imprecise on the keys, and that his genius was to turn those would-be mistakes into stunning special harmonies. Over the years, I’ve learned that idea is more or less debunked. Monk was purposefully crafting something that was his. He was innovating.

So, when someone plays Monk on an instrument other than piano — a non-chordal instrument like a saxophone, or even a guitar, where those piano chords might be challenging to replicate — what happens then? It seems to me that you would get a very personal reading.

First, it would be Monk heard through the layer of translation from piano to a different instrument. But more than that, the solo aspect would provide a “purer” version of that musician’s take on the material. Broccoli tastes different to you than it does to me. I can say this confidently because other people seem to actually enjoy the stuff. Maybe Monk sounds different to you than it does to me — or, more clinically, maybe the details that stand out to your ear aren’t the same ones that stand out to me.

These ideas linger in my head when I listen to Miles Okazaki’s Work, a six-volume collection of all of Monk’s compositions performed on solo guitar. Certainly, Okazaki gives some songs novel treatments. But I like to think that underneath it all, there’s a chance to peek into a musician’s brain for a “clean” read of what Monk could sound like — the Monk that Okazaki hears.

That feeling is particularly strong on Work because of the rules Okazaki set for himself. No funny time signatures (every song was originally in common time, it turns out). True, recognizable readings of the melodies. One guitar for the entire project, with one amplifier and no effects. There was leeway to experiment, but the goal was to present Monk as Monk, keeping that translation layer thin.

The familiarity of Monk’s songbook gives any jazz musician a preset level of expertise, much like the tens of thousands of pitches thrown by a baseball player by the time he makes the Major Leagues. Okazaki started out knowing how to play around with these tunes. The challenge was how to present them as a whole, and how to vary them enough to create a compelling 70-track album. I’m especially grateful for Okazaki’s liner notes, which detail the evolution of the project and include track-by-track comments that nod to musicians and recordings that inspired him. 

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Of course, Okazaki is a modern artist full of tricks and angles. He’s part of the regular crowd on the Pi Recordings label. So these aren’t meant to be pristine, sober readings of Monk. Some, like “Think of One,” dabble and stray as Okazaki’s improvisation progresses. Others, like “Misterioso,” dive down for a new, undiscovered perspective. (“Despite the way it sounds, the performance is in common time the whole way through,” he writes in the liners.)

 
Monk’s Mood” opens with some dissonant dabbling that feels out the chords and melody of the song. That’s normal for any solo jazz piece, I suppose, but there’s a closeness to the homebrewed recording, as if you’re in the workshop watching Okazaki think his way through the piece, decoding its mathematics and deciding which elements to wring out. On other tracks, the sound is almost tactile — close enough to feel the delicious tension on the strings as he chops his way through “Bright Mississippi.”

 
I’m skipping around Work rather than powering through all the tracks in sequence. I’m surprised at the sheer number of Monk songs that I’ve never heard of. I can’t point to specific revelations about any given composition yet, but it’s fun hearing Okazaki pick the tunes apart. There are more lessons to be found in there.

One last thing. Yes, you can listen to the entire album for free on Bandcamp. But please consider purchasing it, at the fair price Okazaki is asking. Musicians should be compensated for projects like this — after all, it was work.

What Just Happened

Two sources of inspiration for this blog are Wil Wheaton dot net and Real Life Comics, partly because both are so long-running. Both also slowed as they aged, in terms of posting frequency. Wheaton recently took a month off. Real Life Comics went away for four years before reviving for a spell in 2018-19.

There’s no rule that says I have to explain the hiatus that this blog took between June and December, but why not. It’s nothing crisis-level. No depression or family tragedy, nothing like that.

Mostly, it was the day job. I call it that, flippantly, but in reality I have a grown-up career that I enjoy devoting time to. A few consecutive busy months left me allotting less time for music in general — not only seeing shows, but also taking time to seriously listen and think about music.

There’s also the kids. They’re teenagers, and I don’t want to miss what little time I have left with them, especially with the oldest having reached college age.

Then there’s the writing itself. Originally, this blog (and its stick-figure predecessor, which still survives) was an outlet for a kind of writing I wasn’t able to do at work. Oddly, the writing at my current job uses the same mental muscles as the blog — not in terms of style or subject but in terms of process. At the end of a writing-heavy day, I find I’m less inclined to sit down and go through the same motions for my hobby. That’s an issue I’ll have to wrestle with.

And of course, there’s inertia. Once I got out of the habit of blogging and going to shows, it was easy to stay out.

Why come back, then? First, the blog is a point of pride, even though I don’t really tell anyone about it. I like seeing the long history of posts. And despite what I said about writing, those muscles could use the exercise.

But secondly, I got inspired. Real Life Comics came back.

Real Life is a web comic that started in 2000, based loosely on Greg Dean’s real life, plus some liberties such as a holodeck and wormhole-style teleportation. After Greg and his wife had a child (in the comic, but in real life, too), the posting frequency petered out until it finally stopped in 2015. Understandable. I’ve been there. I don’t know why I kept checking the site, but I did, and bam — in late 2018, I discovered that the strip had started up again and had run a couple of months’ worth of steady updates.

Real Life Comics seems to have fallen back into hiatus, but … if he can revive his work for at least a little while, I can do it too, right?

Back Pages #5: Amy X. Neuburg and Men … and the Spatula of Eternity

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

I don’t have much of a story to go with this one. What I have is the spatula:

amyxspatulaIt’s from an Amy X. Neuburg and Men concert at the Starry Plough in Berkeley. They were promoting the album Sports! Chips! Booty!, which came out on the Racer label in 1998. The spatula, made of simple flexible plastic, lasted from then until November 2019. That’s possibly 20 years of flipping kid-sized pancakes and frozen hash browns patties — multiple uses per week, with breaks only for vacations.

I’m not exaggerating. This thing got mileage, and I like to believe it was the last of its litter still in active use. It finally cracked this past November, and after some tense moments in the trauma center (Krazy Glue station), it’s been retired to a place of honor atop my CD cabinet.

Looking at that spatula, really looking at it for the first time in years, made me think about the band. Oh wow, the band.

Amy X. Neuburg has built an impressive career mixing songwriting, electronic percussion, dense loops of precise harmonizing (a one-woman choir), and a prog-rock degree of difficulty. Catchy melodies, thoughtful introspection, and a giddy sense of humor permeate her work, including The Secret Language of Subways (MinMax, 2009), the tour de force suite she wrote for herself and three cellists.

Amy X. Neuburg and Men was a playful prog-pop outfit with Neuburg fronting on lead vocals and percussion while the all-“men” band added backing vocals, usually as a unified block. Her husband, Herb Heinz, played guitar (he released some worthy records himself during this era), and Joel Davel added MIDI-driven xylophone and marimba. In good ’90s prog fashion, the band had a Chapman Stick, played by Micah Ball. J.T. Quillan III didn’t play an instrument but looked good in a tux (and sang), which was part of the whimsy.

Following the more serious Utechma album (Racer, 1995), Sports embraced the band’s goofy side, with tongue-in-cheek artsy tunes like “The Shower Song” But the band was also about crisp musicianship and Neuburg’s gift of rich melody, as on the languid “Orange County.” Live, the band was joyous and bouncing, and I’m sure I saw them at the Starry Plough at least twice.

The spatula was a nod to Sports single, “Big Barbecue.” But the track that really sold me was “Naked Puppets.” It opens with some electronics improvising, then bursts into King Crimson-worthy guitar, some fun rhymes, and a prog-circus finale.

You can hear tracks including “Shower Song” and “Big Barbecue” on Amy X. Neuburg’s website. The band’s albums are available on CD Baby and Amazon, where you can sample other treats such as the cover of King Crimson’s “Waiting Man.”

Part of My Childhood Died

kfog-logo-2019-billboard-1548I’m still surprised at how deeply I mourned the lost of KFOG, a radio station I hadn’t earnestly listened to since about 2008. Even in the years leading up to then, I would tune in occasionally only for the “10 at 10” show (which inevitably lost some luster after Dave Morey retired), nothing more. College radio and avant-jazz gripped my soul around the turn of the century, and I’ve mostly left the classic rock world behind.

But KFOG wasn’t a normal rock station. For its first 15 years or so, DJs had a lot of leeway. The station did have a rotation and a specific “sound” — it had parameters. But the occasional deep album track was permitted, even encouraged. Weekly theme shows dug deep to fit their themes. It was on the eclectic “Headphones Only” program that I first heard 10cc’s epic “One Night in Paris” and Thomas Dolby’s shimmery, floating “Screen Kiss.”

More importantly, KFOG grew up with me. The station switched to a rock format in 1982, my sophomore year in high school. It became our soundtrack, and it stood out as superior against the four or five similar options on the dial. I carried KFOG with me through college, becoming a fringe member of the “fogheads,” as fans called themselves.

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M. Dung, host of the a.m. commute time slot and the Sunday Night Idiot Show.

This was the kind of community that commercial radio no longer tries to foster. Late in the ’80s, the station ran a poll to pick the top 1,045 songs of all time (matching the station’s 104.5 frequency on the dial). Local rock stations did this all the time, with “Stairway to Heaven” always coming in at No. 1. Not this time; KFOG listeners picked “A Day in the Life.” And the top choices from major bands were deep cuts that I had never encountered. The top Supertramp song was “Hide in Your Shell.” The top CSN (and sometimes Y) song was Graham Nash’s “Cathedral” — and holy cow, I had no idea Nash had ever written something so intense.

KFOG was never a perfect blueprint for my tastes. They didn’t like prog rock; I didn’t like Led Zeppelin. But we were sympatico in that dance of discovery that radio can be so good at. As I started dating my wife, she would comment that I seemed to own everything KFOG played. It wasn’t remotely true — but they could easily spin four or five songs in a row that were on my shelves, and I would always point this out just to annoy her.

By the mid-’00s, KFOG began succumbing to corporate blandness, and the decline kicked into full gear by the time Dave Morey left in 2008. I stopped listening shortly after.

But if you don’t know: Cumulus Media, KFOG’s final owner, understood the station’s impact and gave it one last farewell. Radio stations don’t normally get that. When KFOG switched formats in 1982, it simply switched. It was planned and pre-publicized (as opposed to a WKRP-style coup) but also abrupt. That’s the business. In contrast, KFOG’s final night — Sept. 6, 2019 — was a marathon of old shows from the archives, the familiar voices of old friends long gone and tunes that I had not heard for 10 or even 20 years. It was all pre-recorded, but the shows were selected with a fan’s ear. It was closure.

All this reminds me of another high school memory: reading William Faulkner and his famous quote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Even though I honestly wouldn’t enjoy hearing peak-era KFOG for hours on end, so many of my musical choices tie back to those early days. The KFOG I loved has been gone for nearly two decades, but it’s different to know that it’s now gone. This is what it really means to move on, I suppose.

Down the Spectral Rabbit Hole

lehman-travail-pi-recordingsI love sfSound Radio. It’s a continual shuffle-play of experimental and improvised music, from fully scripted modern classical to spontaneous noise. And during work, it’s a great way to shake the cobwebs and bring some avant-garde street cred to my desk.

Like any good radio, it’s also a way to discover new sounds. And so it was that I recently heard a sparse strings piece that I liked, which pulled me into the world of spectral music and made me reconsider Steve Lehman’s recent octet albums.

grisey-espacesThe piece was the introductory movement of Gerard Grisey’s Les Espaces Acoustiques — solo viola, it turns out. That led me to give the complete album-length composition a listen. As with minimalism, Grisey’s music is a rethinking of what the orchestra can do. Les Esapces is a roiling sea of sound, not so much divided into discrete events (like waves on a beach) as presenting continuous shades of emotion. Abstractness aside, it does feel like a narrative, one full of unsettling emotions.

I’m not sure what to make of the Epilogue, where a pair of horns lash out on composed unison phrases, almost playfully. Behind them, the orchestra maintains a sparkling sheen hinting at heavy thoughts and universal mysteries. But as the piece ends, the sheen drops — we’re left with the horns and a drum. The contrast feels like it’s meant to be a silly touch at the end of this epic piece, but that seems out of character. It can’t be that simple.

Only after doing all this listening did I look up Grisey and learn that he’s the composer tied to the idea of spectral music — compositions that use the lingering harmonics of notes to create the “spectral” sheen that sounded so special to me. (Grisey did not coin the term “spectral” and apparently didn’t like it.)

I’d heard of spectral music before. It made jazz headlines thanks to the Steve Lehman Octet.

But when Travail, Transformation, and Flow (Pi Recordings, 2009) was released, I gave it only a cursory listen, to see what this “spectral” stuff was about. And I didn’t immediately get it. I think I was expecting some overtly complex or ugly musical language, something brutally obvious as with microtonal music. The albums were good, but I didn’t feel “spectralized.”

The problem is that I paid too much attention to Lehman’s angular saxophone soloing. It’s fantastic, but he does that all over his other albums. What I should have noticed was the sheen, that uncomfortable rustling built out of subtle, off-kilter harmonies. After sitting with Grisey for so long, it was so obvious.

In contrast to Grisey’s overhang of impending doom, Lehman’s spectral sheen is bright, like sunlight bouncing off glass. Chris Dingman‘s vibraphone is the foundation, and it’s necessarily complemented by the horns to create a dissonant and lingering effect. You hear it right out of the gate on Travail, with “Echoes,” combining a ringing vibraphone chord with a combination of horns sounding a bright but slightly “off” harmonies.


On a track like “Segregated and Sequential” (from Mise en Abîme, Pi Recordings, 2014), the sheen is more implied, spoken in horn fragments while the vibraphone — a custom microtonal version, still played by Dingman — chimes away at a different tempo. “Autumn Interlude,” also from Mise, is based on a snappy theme and rhythm but intentionally drags itself down — both in tempo and mood — through the use of what sound like microtones on the trombone.

Tristan Murail is another composer strongly tied to spectral composition, and it turns out I’ve already enjoyed his piece “Winter Fragments” in my collection. Before, it just sounded nice; now it sounds all “spectral” to me. It’s interesting how much we can influence our own musical experiences. It makes a difference when you know what you’re listening for.

Shuffle Bach Viola

Does anybody else wonder if classical compositions can work modularly?

I know it’s a silly question. I understand that those allegro and andante movements are sequenced to tell a story, in an abstract sense, whether it’s a roller-coaster of a symphony or through your usual fast-slow-fast sonata. But if you took the fast introductory movement of String Quartet No. 4 and replaced it with the fast introductory movement of String Quartet No. 6, would you even notice? Would the (probable) change of keys matter? Might it even be better?

From the few experiments I’ve done, the answers seem to be “yes,” “probably not,” and “no.” In other words, the exact selections of movements does matter, and when you do the kind of substituting I suggested above — well, even if the original piece didn’t seem to completely “flow,” the new version tends to flow even less.

kashkashian-bachSo, along comes Kim Kashkashian’s recording of Bach’s cello suites (ECM, 2018), upshifted for viola. It’s not the first time a violist has done this, but Kashkashian’s rendering, aside from being novel for simply being new, has a lightness that makes it attractive, an frictionless glide like the footfalls of ballet. I can see why so many artists have recorded the complete suites: The six suites are divided into six movements each, for an attractive symmetry, and of course, every movement is oh so unavoidably Bach. There’s a suggestion of orderly self-similarity that just feels satisfying, in a math-geeky sense.

And it also made me wonder. How interchangeable are the pieces of these suites? All six seem to follow similar patterns, after all.

So, I tried building my own viola suites by hitting shuffle play. Even if an ear-pleasing fast-slow-fast pattern didn’t emerge, the parts should still make some sense together, right?

No, not right. I gave it three tries, and the first one showed why this is such an improper use of Bach.

I. Strategy: Shuffle play, stopping when it feels “done”
A) 6.5 [Suite No. 6, movement 5] Gavotte (D major)
B) 6.4 Sarabande (D major)

The gavotte movement was a bright midtempo, a cautiously optimistic opening. That worked. But it was followed by a slow movement in the same key. Fast-slow is a natural progression, but this just felt laconic. The lack of key change actually hurt; the slow movement felt like a lazy deceleration. I think the problem is that the gavotte is setting itself up to be followed by something even faster — which of course is exactly how the original suite is written. Faced with immediate failure, I had to hit Stop. Grade: D (fittingly enough).

II. Strategy: Shuffle play until “done.”
A) 3.2 Allemande (C major)
B) 1.2 Allemande (G major)
C) 3.6 Gigue (C major)

That’s a little more like it. The “Allemande'” movements are regal: formal but still lighthearted. They aren’t meant to be openers, because that’s what the Prelude movements are for, but I thought 3.2 did the trick well. That the same mood carried into 1.2 wasn’t a problem; it felt like a reasonable continuation, and maybe the key change from C to G added some new color. The gigues are crowd-pleasing conclusions, so 3.6 felt like the right time to call it. Grade: B+.

That was fun, but both mini-suites were awfully “mini.” I’d hoped to last for something like eight movements, not three. One problem was that the lack of minor-key movements was driving me batty. There’s only so much upbeat Bach or Mozart that I can take before I have to go crank some gloomy Schnittke for balance. So, I gave it one more go with slightly different rules, and I lucked out:

III. Strategy: Four movements no matter what
A) 4.6 Gigue (Eb)
B) 6.1 Prelude (D)
C) 5.1 Prelude (C minor)
D) 2.2 Allemande (D minor)

The gigue, meant to be a closer, made for a bouncy, crisp opener, but it clashed mightily with the D major Prelude, because the latter piece just screams “intro segment.” Interesting how music has that language, like the cadences of a speech: Certain rhythms and timing work better in certain situations. But by the end of the Prelude, I acclimated. It was like when the first song on a rock album is the hit single, and the second song is a less intense one that feels like filler… but over time, that second song ends up being your favorite.

With movement three, I finally got a minor key, and in the perfect spot for toning down the mood. I didn’t even notice the key change to C minor. In general, I hadn’t found the key changes very jarring; the only problem I had was with the lack of key change in that first  attempt. The C minor Prelude ends with a gentle sigh that would have been a good way to conclude a suite — but the rules said I had to add one more segment, so, into the D minor Allemande we went. More of a minor key. It didn’t feel like overkill, but it did mean the suite would end with a gray sky, not a happy field of flowers. And it did just that, dying out with quiet understatement that felt like an interesting artistic “choice.” Grade: A-.

I’d envisioned doing a lot more of these, but having found two permutations that I liked, and one that I really didn’t like, I figured it was time to call it quits. Maybe next, I’ll build a truly modular suite: Movements 1 through 6, in order, but each taken from one of the six suites selected at random. (Should repetition be allowed, or should it be one movement from each of the suites? Hmm.) First, though, I think I’ll show the old man some respect and try to dig into some of these suites in the proper order. They’re written that way for a reason.

Navigating Meredith Monk

As the DVR recorded the Tony Awards for my daughter, who was working Sunday evening, I was absorbing music theater of a different kind: Meredith Monk’s opera Atlas.

I’m not exactly a Meredith Monk devotee, but Atlas was a nice surprise. Like Einstein on the Beach, it’s built from bright and downright pleasant musical phrases (repeated in groups of four, versus Einstein‘s groups of 40 minutes). But it feels more operatic. Atlas has concrete characters and a storyline, with the action occurring through mostly wordless singing. Sometimes it’s melodic; sometimes it’s vocal swooping, shrieking, half-spoken bird calls — different vocal quirks that emerge based on what the scene and story are calling for. Experimental vocals aren’t always my thing, but I mostly enjoyed Atlas.

The catalyst for listening was a New York Times article about the Los Angeles run for Atlas, happening this week. The performance is special in itself, because this thing ain’t exactly Hamilton. It sounds like Atlas hasn’t re-emerged since debuting in Houston in 1992. But what makes the upcoming show interesting is that Monk isn’t directly involved. Normally, her operas are only partially scripted and involve a lot of intuition in the casting and rehearsals, with Monk overseeing what I suppose is the loose “feel” of the project. This time, all the big decisions are up to Yuval Sharon, with Monk being kept in the loop but not directly involved.

Monk’s process sounds new-agey, but listening the ECM recording of the opera, you can tell where it comes from. There are “normal” melodies and harmonies, and many downright pretty segments filled with “ahhs” and “da-da-da-das.” But some scenes brim with abstract vocal sounds — improvised, not formally scripted, but not chaotic. The right people are playing the right parts, and they’re building a cohesive scene, but it must be largely improvised, and from what I’ve read, I would also guess that the exact sounds are tailored for each performer’s voice. (The operatic precision of the voices really does matter. It elevates the whole project.) This seems like the kind of work that won’t work unless the performers are collectively in the right frame of mind. The L.A. production is apparently the first time the vocal parts were written down; the Houston cast learned their parts by ear. No wonder Monk is normally so closely involved.

Like EinsteinAtlas has a clean, pared-down sound and pleasant, airy tonalities. It’s certainly different and minimalist but doesn’t feel like the kind of avant-garde meant to send the audience screaming to the exits. [Note to self: An opera built from angry yelps and shouting, where the sound of the audience departing loudly in disgust is actually part of the composition…]

Bits of dialogue appear here and there. “Choosing Companions” has travelers introduce themselves to the main character (a female explorer) in plain speech, then reveal character traits in vocal wandering. For one man, it’s kind of a clumsy, meandering “aah,” as if his brain is stalling during a job interview. I hope it’s meant to be a comic moment, because I did laugh. Another character launches into a scripted tune that the heroine joins in on. He must be a better fit.

Some feature operatic tones sung in what might as well have been composed form. “Loss Song” plays like a through-composed piece, a quiet break featuring vocals and harp. It’s pretty and straightforward and would make a nice standalone piece during a college radio show.

I get the feeling that on stage, Atlas uses the singers’ more abstract sounds to convey elements of character, in-the-moment emotion, and setting. There’s some shrieking in the segment titled “Ice Demons,” for example — no big surprise. And the visual aspect probably helps convey a sense of story. Probably. The L.A. production puts some or possibly all of the action inside a massive sphere, with video projections on the outside. Audiences might walk out puzzled, but I do think they will come away with a sense of a story amid all their questions.