Sunday, November 30, 2008

Alvin Lucier


The purpose of this blog is for Alex and I, two interested more-or-less outsiders, to try to figure out what is going on in contemporary music composition. Cage, Feldman and Stockhausen are dead. LaMonte Young, Elliot Carter, Steve Reich & Philip Glass have been around forever. Who are the people writing the new music, now? And what is new concert music now? Who will be the next Nono, Partch or Cowell? Its a conversation between friend, one I am delighted to have because much of my interest in this music comes from Alex’s having turned me onto it years ago. But for me- perhaps because I am now much better versed in electro-acoustic and computer music, especially of a non-academic variety, I would like to center around conventional notation and instrumentation, allowing ofcourse for augmentation.

That all said I’m going to write first about, not a youngster, but a true bad ass, the person I’ve thought of as the greatest living American composer for some time and if you’ve made it here- someone I assume you know about: Alvin Lucier. In the future hopefully we’ll delve into younger folks and newer works.

If, like me, you cut your teeth on conceptual and process art, or really anything other than music theory- if an explanation of how something is made helps you enter into contemporary art(s) like it does so many others, then Lucier is a godsend. The work involves process, which becomes a way of understanding, of contextualizing the intriguing sounds generated. His now ubiquitous “I am sitting in a room” is a super obvious example, it is a piece so process driven and so conceptually hermetic that it becomes almost impossible to not get. By contrast Milton Babbitt’s works only makes sense if you understand the history and ideas of serialism and that is something which leaves a lot of people on the outside not able to enter it. The language used to explain a Lucier is not music language, but quotidian language. “I am sitting in a room” literally explains itself to you.

"I am sitting in a room different from the one you are in now. I am recording the sound of my speaking voice and I am going to play it back into the room again and again until the resonant frequencies of the room reinforce themselves so that any semblance of my speech, with perhaps the exception of rhythm, is destroyed. What you will hear, then, are the natural resonant frequencies of the room articulated by speech. I regard this activity not so much as a demonstration of a physical fact, but more as a way to smooth out any irregularities my speech might have."

There are problems with “I am sitting in a room.” Or I think there are problems as it exists in its recorded form (at least the CD reissue of the 1970 recording). It is in mono which is distressing for a piece so much about how space affects sound; and is all one track- which makes one have to listen to it straight through but also makes it impossible to tell how many permutations have happened- although this has really only been an issue when using it in an educational context. The live version he performed in Chicago a few years ago [full disclosure, I worked on organizing that concert] was in stereo and in the course of a performance one can’t really be bothered to try to follow the number of cycles. There are simply more important, less academic, things to be concerned with- like basking in its reverby glory.

The above is all a digression; I don’t really want to talk about “I am sitting in a room”. The bad ass piece I want to write about is the unfortunately titled “Wind Shadows” (1994) which I know from his CD Panorama (Lovely Music LTD, 1997) but still takes advantage of the physical properties of sound propagation. The composition utilizes two electronic oscillators and trombone. With the oscillators set to almost the same frequency (five hertz apart) the sound is nearly unchanging with a slow beating coming in briefly every few seconds and a trombonist who, as I understand it, plays notes between the oscillator frequencies while they are beating. The sounds come together surprising well. The trombone reminding me somewhat of a foghorn, the whole piece has the feeling of watching a lighthouse at night- waiting for the beam to slowly make its revolution and once again illuminate the thick air.

The thing about Lucier’s work for me is that even though it is process driven, it is still a compelling listen. Somehow within his process he manages to include tension and release, the fundamental building blocks of holding human interest. There is a structure comprehendible beyond academic circles but at the same time, especially on works after “I am sitting in a room” understanding it becomes supplemental to enjoyment of it, unnecessarily to its appreciation, pure lagniappe.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Jacob Kirkegaard

Linked up from the ever helpful aworks, available on lala - "Labyrinths" by Jacob Kirkegaard is 37 minutes of closely-pitched hums, tiny waves going in and out of phase making little ripples in the air as it plays. I love this stuff, I think it's like listening to the tumblers as you crack the safe containing the Universe's secrets, but I can fully understand how someone would hate it. To me, this is perfect car trip music - bliss out on a laser pointed at there, but it is exactly the kind of thing that I suspect the ATF uses to drive rogue apocalyptics out of their concrete bunkers. Perhaps doomsday cults should start trolling music blogs for recruits.

"Labyrinths" is easily described as boring - not much obvious happens in it, but if you look at the double meaning of boring, pieces like this have a way of boring holes in your consciousness, acting as sonic trepanning chisels or as cleansing radiation, evaporating the bad and leaving the good via some obscure protocol. There is tremendous beauty in the small details of this music, or even in the projection of detail the convergence of situational dynamic and wanting something to happen can create. Or, if I may co-opt a bit about marriage from the more famous Kirkegaard:

Often I have sat by a bit of purling water. It is always the same, the same soft melody, the same green plants on its floor, swaying beneath its quiet waves, the same little creatures running about at the bottom, a little fish which glides under eth protection of the overhanging flowers, spreading out its fins against the current, hiding under a stone. How monotonous, and yet how rich in change! Such is home life of marriage: quiet, modest, purling—it has not many changements, and yet like that water it purls, yet like that water it has melody, dear to the man who knows it, dear to him above all other sounds because he knows it. It makes no pompous display, and yet sometimes there is shed over it a luster which does not interrupt its customary course, as when moonbeams fall upon the water and reveal the instrument upon which it plays its melody. Such is the home life of marriage.

Kirkegaard Anthology, pg 93. Pulled from here

Jesús Jara

Thanks to some very famous pink elephants, the mighty tuba is generally thought to be a jolly, happy instrument

Jesús Jara will relieve you of the illusion. On this album (lala) of complex tuba and electronic compositions, the king of brass becomes a whale lurking in the inky water of modernity, occasionally coming to the surface but more often acting as an impossibly huge shadow gliding by in the deepest level still perceptible from the surface. His tuba becomes a subconscious to these works, where the tremors of its presence through the complimentary electronics becomes the physical manifestation of the the whole. The listing on lala does not say who composed what, but even across these composers, Jara finds a common thread.

Jara performs his own Profitfürfabi with a video by Daniel Lupión

Nico Muhly

Nico Muhly is the benefactor of an improbably popular genre - serial minimalism. He played with Philip Glass and is the defacto arranger of strings for things among the indie elite, and through that, his album Mothertongue (lala), a scintillating piece of post-Robert Ashley glittering wonder garnered a review in Pitchfork, albeit a less than charitable one. What, does he need a Brooklyn mailing address and pants that don't reach his ankles to pass muster? But, I can see why they (used loosely to denote a general aesthetic, I know they have different writers writing from different viewpoints) didn't like it - they seem to like it when you ride out on a tricycle and hit them with a giant inflatable banana and then guilelessly drone "Ha I just hit you with a giant inflatable banana..." - in other words, they like transparency. Mothertongue is secretive and quietly difficult while being imminently appealing - everything I want out of modern composition, and life in general.

Part of the first movement of Wonders sounds a lot like that harpsichord song by Joanna Newsom, which my daughter Maya and I heard last night at the sandwich place. She smiled started mock-singing with the elfin harpist minx and remarked "This sounds like one of those terrible Disney princess songs, like 'yaaaaaaaaa, ya YAAAAAAAA' - not the good ones, but the terrible ones." I predict my bloodline will be trashing art for limited returns and a laugh for generations to come.

Most of the material on Mothertongue burbles like a signal coming through everyday appliances, a distress signal being transmitted by the coffee pot on an otherwise lazy morning perhaps. It sounds not unlike the similar qualities practiced by Radiohead, but Muhly's surface is shimmers more than theirs does, and the occassional dive under in which he leads the swimming listener reveals a glimpse of gorgeous coral reefs and the occassional menacing octopus before ascending back to the sun. It is hard to imagine this as art music because it is so effortless and fun to listen to , but art it most asuredly is.

And of anyone I've encountered, I am deeply envious of his mad blogging skills.

Michael Gordon

Here are three excerpts from Michael Gordon's Lightning at our Feet, as performed by the Ridge Theatre.

Gordon is one of the founding members of Bang on a Can, and my theory its is through the more band-like ensembles and the immediacy of YouTube and MySpace and other carefully capitalized outlets that the real stuff will be discovered.

This piece reminds me of one of my favorite out-there bands Bardo Pond, not so much in direct instrumentation or sound, but in the heavy haze that surrounds the music, like you and the music are both moving through this thicket to reach each other. The wall between this and groups like Bardo Pond and Beme Seed is a thin one, but rather than taking the drug-ravaged ecstatic approach the aforementioned bands with laconic female singers take, Lightning at our Feet seems to come from a high art direction, like it is walking away from an accident, stunned and processing.

Here is a less romantic but equally spectral piece Industry (1992), a solo piece for amplified cello, performed by Jeffrey Zeigler

At first it appears to travel the same wires as Tony Conrad, finding bliss in the physical and metaphoric grind, but as it progresses, the electronics become more integrated into the sawed cello, creating something monstrous and other out of their coupling.

More transparent in its processes and impact is XY, a 1998 piece for solo percussion.

Gordon here explores a natural impulse to repeatedly bang on something. If you have ever witnessed a kid (or me) at a drum kit, this is the default setting - pound away. Actual drummers tend to cringe at this behavior- rightfully so, it is annoying - because the art of being a musician is as much about restraint as it is release, and it is in that restraint/release that the world's great music is crafted. XY is close to the raw experiential, a drum echoing in a room, action fusing with reaction. I realize there is more than that going on here, of course, but that impulse to repeat something that sounds/feels good to do is something that art tends to fight against in the efforts to contour expression, and it is, to me anyway, rather exhilarating when art doubles back on itself.

Kitty Brazelton

Kitty Brazelton is a strange bird, straddling the chasm between mannered art song and listen-to-my-amp-hum out rock, at least on the What is it Like to Be a Bat album listed above. The songs here travel through ragged wires until they find a short and they explode in a shower of sparks, further complicated by cavernous tape delay and slam-bam rock/jazz drums. Positively frightening music. There is a bit of the crone-holler of Carla Bouzilich up in this, but Hazelton's approach is harder, more contained, sharper, and ultimately more devastating.

Even in the more subdued confines of her chamber music showcased by the California EAR unit on Emergency Music (lala), there is a bit of the powderkeg waiting impatiently for the spark. In R, the trumpet twitters and honks like a bird, not a Platonic birdsong bird, but a real bird - reptiliian and a little panicked but still in a fuller physical awareness than the human listening to it. This same is true of the more jazz-informed pieces: Sonar como una tromba larga would not sound completely out of place in a brass band repertoire, and Sonata for the Inner Ear is almost coffee-house ready in its worldly ambiance, with just enough pull from the expected to keep it interesting.

Somewhere in between the rabid bat and the barsita counter lies her sweet spot, as exhibited in this performance with SONYC, String Orchestra of NYC

Here is an NPR piece on her (opens up the mp3 directly)

And dig her crazy website! It sparkles!