Monday, June 28, 2010

Drumming on a Street Light

Yesterday was the umpteenth Bang on Can Marathon, the New York downtown music scene's special day to bombard unsuspecting shoppers at the World Financial Center with decidedly un-elevatory music. I was there. So was Will Robin, who keeps a nice blog over at seated ovation. He has a thoughtful rundown of the day's music. You should check it out because there will be no rundown and very little thought going on here.

Instead, here are some isolated feelings about what was fun about listening to avant garde music in an upscale mall and what could've been more fun.

English Ph.d's love parsing the well-worn books owned by famous authors, hoping to find some insight into how these great writers read. Unfortunately, it's much harder to find out how good musicians listen. Which brings me to fun item 1: the musicians actually stuck around to listen to the other groups. Seeing performers become audience members really helped the communal vibe. You felt in the know because this was where all the hip cats were hangin. But I also had fun watching the musicians watch the performances. Drummer/comoposer John Hollenbeck, whose big band kick started the proceedings at noon, was seated about 10 feet in front of me during the JACK quartet's freakishly precise performance of Iannis Xenakis's Tetras. I caught myself watching him as much as the performers, seeing how he reacted to a particularly blood-curdling glissando or some tricked-out noises coming from the cellist's bridge. He rubbed his chin a few times but for the most part sat rather still, definitely playing closer attention to the music than I was. After the quartet's electrifying ending, I slid my eyes backed toward Hollenbeck and caught slack-jawed, mouthing "wow." So what are my musicological conclusions about Hollenbeck experiences Xenakis? I have no idea. It's nice to know that he liked it though. Wonder if he'll throw in some of those glissandi into his next big band piece

Fun item 2 is related to fun item 1 because it involves musician watching: musicians are people too. After shredding quite a few hairs on his bow getting the biggest ovation all afternoon, the violist from the JACK quartet went shopping in Banana Republic. Gotta say those four dudes dress pretty slick.

Digression! Best dressed award goes to Kambar Kalendarov & Kutman Sultanbekov from Kyrgyzstan and Gamelan Galak Tikva. Fluorescent baggy pants and cool hats should be required for all BOAC performers.

Fun item 3: seeing a 10 foot-tall double-contra-awesome recorder, courtesy of the lovely ladies of Quartet New Generation.

Fun item 4: Moritz Eggert played the piano with his face. For realz.

But unfortunately the marathon wasn't all fun and games (though you could play music by BOAC founders Julie Wolf, David Lang, and Michael Gordon on a Rock Band setup on the balcony). There were some programing mistakes and missed opportunities for more cool stuff. So if the aforementioned founders somehow get lost on the internets and find their way here, I have a few recommendations for future marathons.

1. Please don't stop the music. The twelve hour marathon concept is a bit misleading. There's not 12 hours of music, more like 7 hours and quite a lot of downtime for set changes. The placement of the JACK quartet on top of the stairs across the atrium from the stage was money, there just should have been more stuff going on up there as the big groups take their time to get set up. Maybe there should be small groups set along the sides to distract folks during set changes. Like some peeps doing "Music for Pieces of Wood" or a Xenakis's "Psappha." Or a communal rendition of "Clapping Music"! Come on, it's a big enough space, so use all of it!

2. Loved the inclusion of John Hollenbeck and Steve Coleman. Get more of that. The downtown jazz and classical worlds are becoming increasingly intertwined. Improvisation crops up more in "classical" works (just check out electro-violinist Todd Reynolds and So Percussion). There isn't a lot of head-solo-head in avant-jazz music, and guys like saxophonist Ken Thomson write some pretty crazy through-composed parts. Let's see this intermingling in action by adding more jazz *gasp* groups to this classical festival. There already are a lot of "jazz" musicians in the BOAC community, like the aforementioned Ken Thomson and trombonist Alan Ferber whose bands would fit perfectly with the marathon. Or Darcy James Argue and Sam Sadigursky whose records are out on the classical-oriented New Amsterdam label. Or the hyperkinetic spectral music of Steve Lehman, the chaotically composed superfunk of Kneebody, the eclectic crossover of Bobby Previte, Josh Sinton's Ideal Bread... [Kevin's conscience: stop name dropping! Do you think anyone reading this actually knows who all these people are? Do they even care?] Ok, point taken. Maybe I just want a free outdoor avant-jazz festival to match BOAC. Get cracking Adam Schatz.

3. Just program better. The World Financial Center is a great space. Lot's of light and space, beautiful view of the immaculate Jersey City. But it sure is big and live. While it's admirable for BOAC to show an immense variety of music at their signature event, some of it just doesn't work in the space. Like the percussion group Slagwerk Den Haag's performance of Ludica by Marco Momi. I probably would have really liked it in Zankel Hall, but it lost me here when it stopped at a dull drone for a good thirty seconds. The best music for the marathon vibe is stuff that's loud for the most part, and has constant activity so the listener doesn't get distracted by the bajilion other things going on around them. Xenakis works well. Reich works well. Burkina Electric is just about perfect. Recorder quartets are not (and there were five of them in the first 4 hours). There's a lot of good music here, but save it for the right spaces.

Well it seems like that I just want the Bang on a Can Marathon to be more of a new music party than a new music concert. Maybe take out the seats, throw in another stage, always have something going on. The show may be a marathon but it shouldn't have to feel like one.

Friday, June 11, 2010

View from the Highway

You press play on the trusty CD player and the lights seem to fade. The sound of quivering strings and splashing piano enters your ears. Your eyes close. Images form on the back of your eyelids. Is this a dream? Have I been hear before? The images become clearer, running together to make a scene. Dusty mountains under a pink morning sky through a window. You realize you're in the backseat of a car, cruising down a lonely stretch of I-15. The driver is a rather demure man, brown-haired, about 40, with dark sunglasses that stop his eyes from ruining a perfect scowl. He doesn't talk, except to say that his name is Brad. He doesn't say where you are going, doesn't stop to look at the bison, doesn't impulsively pull off and take a scenic route. You just drive, the mountains gradually melting into the horizon of your mind.

Such is the Herzogian road trip that is pianist Brad Mehldau's newest album, "Highway Rider." Entering the recording studio as a leader for the first time since 2005's "Day is Done," Mehldau doesn't just bring along his trio of bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard, but producer Jon Brion, saxophonist Joshua Redman, and a chamber orchestra. The resulting music thick and dark, but with anxious grooves simmering below the surface. It's a soundtrack so enveloping, you don't need the visuals to tell you that you're in a road movie.

Certainly "Highway Rider" is cut from the same cloth as a pair of earlier Mehldau albums--1997's "Elegiac Cycle" and 2000's "Places." All three are each a sort of song cycle, each one possessing a unified musical language and a highfalutin' philosophical theme, whether the meaning of art in a transient life, the meaning of place in a transient life, or the meaning of well... transience, in a transient life. Yet despite the intellectual seriousness of "Elegiac Cycle" and "Places," they're profoundly engaging for their technical brilliance (maybe the most impressive extemporaneous tonal counterpoint on record) and clarity of storytelling. But while "Highway Rider" is an attractive album, it doesn't stick in the mind like the earlier ones do.

A big reason for that is the addition of the orchestra. Though Mehldau's tunes on "Elegiac Cycle" and "Places" had the same classically-oriented harmonic language as their counterparts on "Highway Rider," they were basically straight heads, allowing Mehldau add on extemporaneous variations at will. There was a logic to the solos, but there was also an element of surprise, as Mehldau could take the piece wherever he pleased whether by himself or accompanied by his uncannily sympathetic trio. The orchestra parts act as a straitjacket on Mehldau's playing--the thick blotches of ink on paper drag Mehldau's whimsical explorations back to earth. There are certainly beguiling moments during the 90 minutes of music, especially Mehldau and Co's admirably un-touched-up singing on "The Falcon will Fly Again." But the moments of joyful looseness highlight just how stifling the rest of the album can be.

Producer Jon Brion also makes a few surprising choices in the mix. Sometimes the volume of Mehldau's piano seems a bit too artificially inflated and Josh Redman's passionate saxophone solos aren't given enough of a boost to carry over the thick orchestral writing. And Brion doesn't bring the same kind of sonic playfulness that he inserted into Mehldau's 2002 effort "Largo,"(no silly putty in the piano this time). Overall, the production is clean and tightly controlled, more like what you'd hear on a concise pop record than the freewheeling jazz records Mehldau puts out. Though the texturally rich music of "Highway Rider" evokes strong images of vast western expanse, the listener is stuck looking at them through a car window. There is no off-roading or scenic detour, no adventure with an uncertain path. All you get is a view from the highway.