Posts filed under ‘blather’

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

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

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

George Lewis and the Apple II in 1984

takingthestageHere’s a nice slice of history. In the 1980s, IRCAM, the French institute for music, sound, and science, hosted a series of concerts called “Écoutez Votre Siècle,” and one of the installments was an early presentation of George Lewis‘ work with computer-generated sound.

A bit of that concert survives on the web, part of a 26-minute TV documentary that IRCAM produced. While we don’t get to hear the whole concert, the real treasure might be the interviews and rehearsal footage, which offer a look at the state of computer music in 1984.

Lewis’ piece, “Rainbow Family,” was created for a combination of human and computer players interacting. He assembled quite a team for it: Douglas Ewart (saxophone), Joëlle Léandre (bass), Steve Lacy (soprano sax), and Derek Bailey (guitar).

Lewis manned the computers and coordinated the rehearsals, during which the human players got acquainted with the tendencies of Lewis’ programs, much like feeling out another musician they’ve met for the first time.

lewis computers 80It’s fun watching Lewis work with fellow musical giants. I’ve known about Ewart but haven’t heard much of his playing; getting to know the man a little bit, while also hearing bits of his music, was enjoyable. He has some keen insights — noting, for example, that one strategy would be to consider the computer “an improviser who might not have the seasoning that we do.”

I’ve never heard Steve Lacy speak, something that didn’t occur to me until watching his video. His voice has an east-coast hip-cat lilt — which shouldn’t have been such a surprise, considering he comes from exactly that era.

Lewis himself is interviewed at length, mostly in French; he seems nearly fluent in the language. (Again, maybe I shouldn’t be so blown away. “Never mind that he’s a trombone great, an AACM biographer, and a computer-music pioneer — the dude speaks French!”)

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Early in the show, Lewis switches to English to explain that his work is the barest glimmer of what artificial intelligence should eventually be capable of. He knew that his then-exciting technology was still a limiting factor; 1984 was a long way off from Tim Perkis’ real-time laptop musicianship. Still, the sounds Lewis wrests from the Apple II aren’t as dated as I was expecting. In the end, it does sound like the players found a rapport with the machines.

Interestingly, the documentary ends with the sound of trains — found sound, another type of sonic experimentation.

You can find the half-hour mini-documentary, along with others in the “Écoutez Votre Siècle” series, here.

Hat tip: Andrew Raffo Dewar on Twitter.

October 8, 2017 at 11:15 pm Leave a comment

Feldman & Me

I’ve been listening to Morton Feldman’s second string quartet one movement at a time.

It’s similar to the strategy I undertook with Einstein on the Beach. The String Quartet (II) is nearly five hours long, and even with that kind of time on my hands, my media-saturated brain probably couldn’t take that much stillness in one dose.

feldman-2One difference, though. I listened to Einstein in order. I’m sampling the String Quartet in shuffle mode, absorbing one of the 13 movements per sitting. It’s helping me discern the “personality” of each movement. Any one of them could be described as a light, subtle pulse, but of course there are differences — the ocean-waves patience of “XII”; the slow, neon dissonance of “IX”; the irregular rhythms of “X” and its oddball ending.

Here’s a characteristic passage: the pastoral and relatively bright strokes that begin “III”.

 
You know how a line on a computer screen can be so thin that you can’t quite tell what color it is? I’m getting that effect with the string pulses. At times, they don’t sound like strings at all, but like tiny puffs of horns or woodwinds. That’s especially true during passages when the notes vanish quickly, dissolving into white space. My brain is left wondering what that sound was.

The piece certainly doesn’t sound like a traditional string quartet, but with that horn illusion at work, it doesn’t even sound like a quartet of strings

I was pleased to find that each movement does not consist of 20 minutes of the same idea. Each one is a mini-journey unto itself, going through at least two distinct phases — the surprise pizzicato section near the end of “X,” with trilly, swirly violin punctuation, is probably my favorite moment. I also didn’t expect the occasional swirls of darkness interrupting the pervasive cloudy-light mood.

What I don’t have is a feel for the large-scale narrative. Is there a trajectory here, a series of moods you’re meant to be led through? I’m suspecting not. Maybe I don’t know Feldman well enough. Or … maybe I’m doing this exactly the way I should be.

September 30, 2017 at 10:57 pm Leave a comment

9 Artists and a Treasure Trove on Bandcamp

Not sure how long this has been on Bandcamp, but it’s a cool idea: Nine artists have joined forces to offer a ton of releases under the collective name of Catalytic Sound.

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Ab Baars, Mats Gustafsson, Ig Henneman, Terrie Hessels, Joe McPhee, Andy Moor, Paal Nilssen-Love, Ken Vandermark and Nate Wooley make up the Catalytic collective.

vandermark-drinkCatalytic Sound was founded in 2011, according to their Facebook page. That’s probably referring to the group’s web site,  which appears to be a vehicle for selling CDs. In fact, much of what’s on the Bandcamp site is available in physical form only — CD or vinyl.

Bandcamp, though, makes it easy for the artists to sell music digitally — which means Catalytic Sound dips deep into into the artists’ back catalogues. That’s the part I’m really excited about. Vandermark, in particular, has stacks of out-of-print 1990s CDs represented — such as Drink Don’t Drown, a live recording from the famed Empty Bottle jazz series in Chicago.

One oldie worth checking out is Caffeine, an obscure trio with Jim Baker on piano and Steve Hunt on drums. It’s one of so many “lost” CDs I remember sampling in the KZSU-FM library.

 
Combined with the Destination: Out store, which is re-releasing the old FMP catalogue of European improv classics, Catalytic Sound is turning Bandcamp into a dangerous vacuum for discretionary dollars. Not that I’m complaining.

July 14, 2017 at 10:02 pm Leave a comment

Masada String Trio

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No, I haven’t sampled all of the Book of Angels CDs in John Zorn’s Masada series. Haven’t even come close.

So, despite the players’ pedigrees, I hadn’t yet heard the Masada String Trio.

Then this popped up. Posted to YouTube just last month, it appears to be a French TV broadcast of a live String Trio performance. Greg Cohen on bass, Erik Friedlander on cello, Mark Feldman on violin, and Zorn doing the conducting and grinning ear to ear. There’s some brilliant playing here.

This combination seems dear to Zorn’s heart, because Masada String Trio was granted two entries in the Book of Angels series (wherein each band in succession got to pick from Zorn’s “Masada Book Two” compositions). They also recorded the inaugural CD in Tzadik’s series celebrating Zorn’s 50th birthday in 2003. All of those discs are concerts recorded at the late, lamented Tonic.

Well, why not? Three downtown NYC veterans playing good music at a beyond-expert level — who wouldn’t be game for that? Glad I finally took the time to listen.

July 9, 2017 at 8:38 pm Leave a comment

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