Posts filed under ‘blather’

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

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

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.

bloodcount

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

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.
ecm block

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

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