Friday, October 31, 2008

Préludes tous seuls

Along with Daniel Wolf and Phil Ford, I've found it somewhat difficult to concentrate what with all the election sludge in the air.  Arizona permits early voting, so we've already cast our ballets.  I no longer need pay any attention to the proceedings (at least Tuesday evening).  

So in the meantime, I have found an alternative listening to Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier that I would never have occurred to me before iTunes playlists:  only the preludes, and play them in Chopin order (up the circle of fifths instead of chromatic ascent).  Everything sounds completely different, as varied a program as one might desire.  As far as I know, this hasn't been programmed anywhere, but it's no more unorthodox than the current sacred practice of playing the whole set of preludes and fugues in order.  Bach intended them as teaching pieces, after all, not for performance.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Friday Canyon Blogging

On the road again, this week at Canyon de Chelly in northeast Arizona. The national park is on the Diné (Navajo) reservation, so access to the canyon floor is only through a tribal guide.

One of the reasons I like canyons is that every one is completely different. Canyon de Chelly is wide and flat, with farms scattered around and a road up the middle. It used to be flatter. Edward S. Curtis has a famous photo (reproduced on the cover of Marianne Wiggins' novel The Shadow Catcher) taken in Canyon de Chelly in 1905, and you can see the wide, treeless riverbed underneath the canyon walls.  In the 1930s, the CCC planted cottonwood, olive and tamarisk trees to control erosion, but they have taken over, sucked up all the water, and in many places caused deep washes where the water passes through. Now the park service is trying to eradicate all of the olives and tamarisks in order to restore the canyon to its prior state.   

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Steady-state prose

Last month, the National Books Critics Circle held a panel at the New School on "Merging Genres," and two of the panelists posted articles on the subject at the NBCC blog. Robert Polito included a long list of books that "operate along the seams of poetry, fiction, and essay," one of which was Lynne Tillman's American Genius, A Comedy. The novel, narrated by a middle-aged woman named Helen who is residing in some kind of group institution. Polito thinks it's an artist's colony, but I saw no evidence that Helen was actually making anything. On the contrary, she seems to be escaping her daily life for a period, and although she is free to come and go as she pleases, I had more of an impression of a sanitarium of some kind. In any event, her account reminds me of Samuel Beckett's obsessive characters, placed in ambiguous dwelling places, telling a story full of trailing dependent clauses that rob the thought processes of any kind of decisiveness.

For most of the book, nothing happens. Helen keeps returning to the same thematic material over and over, until it seems less like a symbolic event and more like the eternal rise and fall of the tide. And it struck me that if novels are similar to musical works, American Genius, A Comedy is like a lot of contemporary drone music. For Helen, images and thoughts fade in and out, loosely attached by a thin and nearly random thread of association to whatever was in her mind before. And drone music slowly recycles some basic material, avoiding specific events, creating a placid steady state. Helen's narration is sprinkled with found objects, impersonal snippets of text that she has absorbed unreflectively into her consciousness, with an obsessive detail on dermatological issues and the Medical Sex Dictionary that she has found in the institution's library (and whose presence inclines me to a medical asylum of some kind). Drone music also uses field recordings obsessively, often processing them beyond all recognition of their origins, so they become a subliminal symbolic presence known only to the composers.

Eventually, of course, novels are different from music, and Tillman's static text has a conclusion and a goal that strongly contrast with the ever-present murmur of drone music. Helen's obsessions are her guardian spirits (the "genius" of the title), and title shows that Tillman is connecting Helen's insular institutional sojourn with much larger currents in our society. A prose art form like a novel channels our thoughts more directly than music, while music provides an unfocused access to the threshold of symbolic experience.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The song isn't the same at all

Recently I've been drawn more than occasionally to a genre blend of electro-acoustic improvisation (EAI) and song forms, a no man's land represented in my recent listening by two groups: Autistic Daughters, and The Magic I.D. The former is a trio led by New Zealand guitarist Dean Roberts, along with bassist Werner Dafeldecker and drummer Martin Brandlmayr, both from Austria. The Magic I.D. combines the talents of Christof Kurzmann on laptop, Margereth Kammerer on guitar, and clarinetists Kai Fagaschinski and Michael Thieke. There is a lot of history for these seminal performers, who have been at the forefront of possibilities opened up by technology and music for the last decade.   Dafeldecker was a charter member of the lowercase (as it was called at the time, the mid 1990s) improv group Polwechsel and has played with nearly everybody even remotely associated with the scene.  Kurzmann has a background in journalism and broadcasting and was one of the earliest laptop improvisers.  In 1999 he launched the Charizma label, still active and home to several releases whose myriad influences cross the entire spectrum of western music, composed and improvised.

Although both groups present themselves as pop music, it's easier to pare away more commercial song elements that are missing from Autistic Daughters' release Uneasy Flowers. Sometimes the music seems unrelated to the lyrics, as if the group set up some kind of improvisational background and Roberts tosses a little sprechstimme into the mix. Since I got the album from emusic, and neither Kranky (US release) nor Staubgold (EU release) release cover art on the web, I think I'm missing a lot from the lyrics. Other reviews and interviews have indicated that this album is a chapter of a continuing story that started with Roberts' solo albums, but Roberts' voice is often so buried in the mix that I can only pick out phrases, and not enough to get any particular meaning. Most often there isn't a melody to speak of, more like a recitation. The group often sets up drone-like atmospheres that serve as interludes between the songs, overdriven guitar chords in shifting harmonies with hissing cymbals and laptop noise, repeating in a loop. When a melody hook does appear, or a song-like structure that one can recognize, it's a memorable event.

If Autistic Daughters' perversion of the power trio aligns the group obliquely to a rock tradition, the absence of a rhythm section and the inclusion of two clarinets in The Magic I.D.'s album Till My Breath Gives Out almost recalls the classical lieder tradition. The album cover provides much more information about the music than I could find for Autistic Daughters, so I can safely report that the extra-musical references are literary and widely scattered, from revolutionary Assata Skahur to Argentine poet José Hernández and American poet Douglas Crase. The music is considerably gentler than A.D., with Kurzmann deploying the laptop both as background and looped rhythms, and the clarinets providing soft, sustained harmonies, sometimes merging to seem like a single instrument. Where Uneasy Flowers integrates the performers into a single complex and noisy sound, the guitar, clarinets and electronics on Till My Breath Gives Out remain delicately distinct.

EAI differs from jazz improvisational forms by subsuming the performers into a collective sonic texture, whereas most forms of jazz provide the performers with opportunities to step out as individuals. In pop music, many lyricists tend to see the music simply as accompaniment, with instrumental interludes serving as a break between verses when they are present at all. Autistic Daughters and The Magic I.D. find unique solutions on both sides, improvising a collective instrumental element while interweaving a more poetic lyric. With straight EAI, especially on recordings, my mind wanders (as it does during most instrumental music), and it's difficult to distinguish structural and ornamental events.  But on these releases, the song elements provide the direct access to the musical framework, bringing the arrangement into a sharp focus, so that repeated listening can more easily bring out musical details and provide a moment for lyrical reflection.

Both albums are available from better record stores and the usual suspects, and The Magic I.D. is also available directly from Erstwhile Records.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Long term music

In my last post, I mentioned that Neal Stephenson's recent novel was at least partially inspired by the millenial year clock currently in design at the Long Now Foundation. There are a couple of musical parallels. La Monte Young's performances can last for several hours, and some fully notated pieces (such as Morton Feldman's second string quartet) do the same. Several years ago, Scandinavian sound artist Leif Inge slowed Beethoven's Ninth Symphony sufficiently to require 24 hours for a complete performance. 9 Beet Stretch has been played several times since its initial concept in 2002, both as installations and as a concert. The most notable long-form project currently underway to my knowledge is the organ performance of John Cage's ASLSP that takes the inspirational abbreviation "as slow as possible" beyond the capabilities of human comprehension. Starting on the composer's birthday in 2000, a performance in Halberstadt, Germany, is projected for 639 years, with a metronome mark of quarter-note = four months (only one month if it's marked staccato). Tone changes, when specified in the score, occur on the fifth day of the month.

Somewhere in between these extremes lies the work of Craig Colorusso, whose MB 89 is a continuous piece that spans the greater part of his life, with spaces between performances treated as musical rests (video excerpt above).  He realizes and acknowledges the presence of MB 89 in his life, although he continues to perform other music as well.  First presented as a weekly radio broadcast at the University of Massachusetts over ten years ago, MB 89 has evolved into a timeless environment, including light and sculpture in an installation, from which Colorusso performs a drone on bass clarinet with various digital delays.  He had an installation earlier this year in Las Vegas, which I unfortunately missed, but he will have two performances at the end of this month in Wisconsin: Saturday, October 25 at The Borg Ward Collective in Milwaukee, and on Sunday, October 26, at the Escape Java Joint & Art Gallery in Madison.  If you're in the neighborhood, wander in and check it out.

Friday, October 3, 2008


I've been spending the last ten days immersed in Neal Stephenson's new novel Anathem, to the detriment of much music making or contemplation. At slightly more than 900 pages, and with Stephenson's imagination, there are a lot of themes and ideas at work. Briefly, Stephenson was inspired by the Millenium Clock of the Long Now Foundation to imagine a world (not Earth) where such a clock is enclosed in a monastic environment, separated from the rest of the world (called the 'Saeculum' in Stephenson's wonderful invented vocabulary) except for a brief period every year ('Apert'). In addition, other areas of the monastic ('mathic') complex are only opened once every ten years, once every hundred years, or even once every thousand years. Inside the monastery, the monks ('avout') can see civilizations rise and fall outside their walls, but except for the brief carnival-like annual periods, there is very little interaction.

Music plays a large role in the discourse about the novel, with the ritual chanting of the monks getting a fair amount of attention. Composer David Stutz has written a number of chants inspired by the novel, which is available on a CD from the Long Now Foundation, and some of which are sampled at Disquiet. But the chants are really only a part of life in the monastery, and events in the world outside the walls ('extramuros') form the plot of the novel, about which I won't say much other than it's great space opera. But the part of the novel set inside the walls is essential for appreciating the mindset of the monks, with their unusual vocabulary (definitions are scattered throughout the novel, with a glossary at the end) and the kind of philosophical musings that one would imagine in an environment isolated from 'the infinite clown-fight that was Saecular politics' and other worldly concerns. I found the novel's ambition refreshing, and at only 900 pages (compared to the 2,600 in his previous work, the Baroque Cycle), a fairly quick read.