The Read: Apr. 21, 2011

Things I’ve found recently:

1. Tim Berne is on NPR! A review of Insomnia on Fresh Air: (My review of Insomnia is here.)

2. Gutbucket gets interviewed by the Fracture Compound blog. Learn about the compositional and rehearsal process behind their frenetic jazz/rock/punk songs.

(Gutbucket is coming to town: Tue. May 10 (Revolution Cafe, San Francisco); Wed. May 11 (Cafe Van Kleef, Oakland); Thu. May 12 (Hotel Utah, San Francisco). I haven’t reviewed their new one, Flock, on this blog, but I did write about the previous one.)

3. Steve Lehman‘s latest project: “Impossible Flow,” sounds pretty cool. You’ll recall he infuses his jazz with things like spectralism, a very scientific-sounding approach to harmony. Here’s a review of an “Impossible Flow” performance, written by the very cool Steve Smith:

4. Now on Ubuweb: a 60-minute documentary about Einstein on the Beach and its impact. It “changed forever the image of opera,” the narrator says at the beginning. But did it? My impression has been that Einstein is now viewed as a unique event in opera, a monumental, one-time accomplishment. People heard, experienced, absorbed, and moved on; even Glass’ subsequent operas were more conventional, right? Anyway, I’ve written before about my puzzlement and wonder at this major work, and it’s nice to have some explanations and to see some rehearsal footage to help me muddle my way through. I’m doubly glad to find this resource after hearing the whole opera.

Music and Things

Did I just go through my longest stretch yet without a blog post?  I hope so, because I’d hate to think there had ever been a longer one in there…

Various factors including work and, yes, the start of baseball season have curtailed my music listening lately. I should have kept being a good blogger, typing one or two sentences a day and hitting PUBLISH just for the sake of keeping up appearances. Instead, I’m gonna do all those missives at once, right here.

* It was great to see Lisa Mezzacappa’s Bait & Switch play to a packed house at Yoshi’s on Monday, March 28. A packed lower section anyway — fullest I’ve ever seen it. For the first time, I had to be ushered to a seat, sharing a close-quarters table with strangers. Lots of great music, including a new song in the vein of the album Air Lore (by Air, the Threadgill/Hopkins/McCall trio) — meaning, an inside/outy jazz tune derived from old, old-timey jazz. They also played “Evil Bohemian” from Go-Go Fightmaster, a band that has exactly the same people but a different mission.

* Breaks my heart, but tonight, I’m missing an sfSound performance of part of Einstein on the Beach.  It’s at Amnesia, a friendly San Francisco bar that houses weekly jazz (hot club style, that is).  Would have loved to support the cause.

* My previous blog post mentions The Lost Trio playing at the Ivy Room weekly. Apparently, that’s ending as of right about now. Crud. Keep an eye out for other good (and probably free) creative music there, though.

* Cardiacs music continues to impress. I’m starting to understand how some people could be so viciously opposed to the band. One possibility: Tim Smith’s chord progressions often go intentionally out of tune (a C major to an A major seems to be a favorite leap), creating a sound like a warped record or a warbly circus act. It rocks, but if you’re not buying into the band’s premise, I can see how it might grate. I don’t care. These guys are awesome, and you should attend the May 8 Cardiacs tribute (and Tim Smith benefit) at Cafe Du Nord in San Francisco. It’s a good cause.

* More Cardiacs: There’s a Tim Smith tribute/benefit album, Leader of the Starry Skies, available at It’s very cool, if melancholy; most artists seemed to either pick the sadder songs or do sadder versions of the songs. Best-of-set, at first listen, goes to prog band Knifeworld, which includes former Cardiac co-guitarist Kavus Torabi.

* I mainly knew of guitarist Antoine Berthiaume through his times recording with Fred Frith. Then, one year, he surprised me by releasing a fairly straight jazz album. Now he’s doubly surprised me with a fairly straight country/folk instrumental album called Small Tease. Engaging and breezy stuff.

Thanks to those of you who actually keep tuning in here. I’m not gone, or done, just flaky. It’ll pass.

Einstein on My CD Player

I’ve started working through Einstein on the Beach, and I do mean “working through.” The liner notes say that audience members were encouraged to wander in and out of the hours-long opera at will, so that’s what I’m doing, in a virtual sense — digesting one of the three CDs per night, and even allowing myself to doze off during scenes.

Why bother? Well, I actually have fond memories of mocking a friend’s copy of the CD set. He played me one of the knee plays — segments between acts of the opera, which can stand together as a play of their own — where one female voice is chanting along with the rhythms: ONEtwothree ONEtwothree ONNNE-two-three ONNNE-two-three ONEtwothree ONEtwothree… and so on.

This was 1988. I didn’t listen to any remotely avant-garde music, or even anything classical. I laughed heartily.

Years later, I’d been exposed to more of Phillip Glass, and I’d learned how to listen to minimalism, to admire the tapestry while studying the weaving, the tiny shifts making up the whole. And I’d developed a sense of humor for the avant-garde — ONEtwothree ONEtwothree is still amusing, but I feel like I’m in on the joke.

That first listen had stuck in my mind all these years. I wanted to go back and discover what I’d missed.

I was also inspired by Eric Bogosian. The introduction to his book, Drinking in America, is a longtime favorite, something I reread a few times every year. He describes his immersion in the New York avant-garde art world of the ’70s, and how he departed that phase to do the solo works that made his name. Of Einstein, he wrote:

“I was a true believer and sat dutifully in my seat for the full six hours. I found an excitement I couldn’t find in traditional theater. Einstein was a visual and aural masterpiece, intellectually stimulating, bold, loud, bohemian, young and unfettered by commercial stodginess.”

To be fair to my 1988 self, there is quite a visual element to Einstein that a listener can’t grasp. That’s the Robert Wilson contribution, as I undertstand it: big, spare, minimal, abstract sets. Large spaces and oddly robotic movements by the actors. Musicians scattered about the landscape of the set.

Yeah… none of that comes across on CD.  ONEtwothree ONEtwothree…

Don’t get me wrong. I’m enjoying the opera. Minimalism is not my preferred style of classical, but as I said, I can appreciate its intricacies. I’m amazed at the concentration it takes to keep one’s place in that maze of twisty tunnels, all alike. And I’m really enjoying the knee plays, where violinist Gregory Fulkerson, who nominally “plays” Einstein in the cast, really tears through those arpeggios.

There’s an athleticism to the singing, too. I don’t understand where the chorus takes their breaths! There are times when they’re barking out wordless rhythms, keeping up with that Glassian patter, and they seem to go minutes without a break. It’s impressive.

The opera certainly has punch and energy, sometimes accentuated by Glass’ bright major-chord tendencies. A very large percentage of the music comes from the two keyboards, for a very non-classical sound that must have been invigorating (or off-putting) to 1976 ears.

On top of everything else, I think one of my goals here was simply to add the opera to my library. Like my copies of Kind of Blue and Sgt. Pepper, it feels essential. I can’t wait to hear my kids giggle at it — and then, maybe years down the line, return to it with open minds and earnest curiosity.