Saturday, December 31, 2011
5. Abigail Washburn - City of Refuge
The title track on Abigail Washburn's "City of Refuge" begins quite humbly. It's just an Appalachian Old-Time clawhammer banjo tune, dry and unadorned. The lyrics begin simply enough too. "I got a mother, I got a father," Washburn intones in her clear, cracker-barrel voice, seeming as an extension of the banjo sound itself. As the song continues, more sounds are added little by little. A droning accordion, crescendo, a second voice, fiddle, and before you know it, the world of Appalachian Old-Time music has been transformed. It has the sense of U2's castles-in-the-air aesthetic, but more tied to the land, organic.
The rest of the album explores this concept further, marrying American folk traditions with the grand gestures of arena rock, the quirky orchestrations of indie, and even some flavors from the Far East (Washburn has spent quite a bit of time in China. Ask her about the time she got thrown out of cab in Bejing for not doing a traditional Chinese song right). The fact that all these disparate sounds are wholly integrated is a result of healthy collaboration. Washburn's main songwriting partner Kai Welch brings along his piano and guitar chops and his rock-hewn instincts. The band is then filled out with great hired guns like Chris Funk of the Decemberists and guitarist Bill Frisell. And it's all guided by the steady hand of crack producer Tucker Martine.
The production values are a throwback just like the music itself - to a time when big studios were playgrounds for experimentation in addition to hit factories. With the marriage of tradition and experimentation, Washburn and co. have created an album with strong roots that allow it to grow into a lush, flowering tree. It's not a "something for everyone" kind of album, but a singular work that anyone can embrace.
4. Hazmat Modine - Cicada
The tunes on "Cicada" are an encyclopedic collection of old-school brass-band styles, from down-home blues and New Orleans second-line to calypso, ska, and even a bit of tango. The band of New York studio and theater virtuosos swings through each style with equal aplomb, creating arrangements with tight unison figures and unfettered, improvisatory joy. The seemingly-lost Stax records hit "I've Been Lonely For So Long" is positively booty shaking, especially on that killer outro (let go longer please!).
But the real stunner on this album is Schuman's voice. It's infinitely versatile, with a bluesman's gravel, a falsetto in the stratosphere, and anything in between. You spend the album's full runtime in slack-jawed amazement, good feeling piled upon good feeling. If we do actually suffer an apocalypse in 2012, thank goodness there will still be good music to make us happy that doesn't need to be plugged in.
3. The Roots - undun
"undun" tells the story of one Redford Stephens in reverse, starting with his death and recounting the choices and events that brought him there. The album is both political and philosophical, dealing with issues of fate and free will, especially how these concepts relate to issues of urban poverty. A rotating cast of singers and rappers (Bilal, Big K.R.I.T, Phonte, and more) alongside Roots MC Black Thought illuminate the many different sides of Stephens' mind in a highly personal way. Stephens is everyman and no man, not a fully-drawn character, but a loose archetype brought to life by the personal experience of each vocalist.
The music that backs up these dark and potent ruminations shows just how much music is inside the head of de facto music director/drummer ?uestlove. The album runs the gauntlet of music styles from lush neo-soul to evocative film score to free-jazz freakout. Questo leads the band through all these varied styles with aplomb, breathing life into quantized grooves and synthesized soundscapes. In fact, the album's musical seed is the short piano prelude "Redford" from inscrutable indie darling Sufjan Stevens' "Michigan" album. Just the variety of music explored and appropriated on "undun" shows that The Roots don't see any walls between their personalities, it's all part of their huge and playful aesthetic.
"undun" is as much a true Hip-Hop album as "Sergeant Peppers'" was a true rock album. By embracing such disparate styles and even abstraction, these two albums push their respective genres into art music territory. It's clear that both are transcendent classics of their time and place. But as the last plaintive string chords ring out at the end of "undun," the question remains: what's next?
2. Donnacha Dennehy/Crash Ensemble - Grá Agus Bás
And I got one of those ohmygod-massive-chills-I-don't-know-what-to-do moments.
I'm someone who believes that if you come up with a heavenly sound, there's no reason to move away from that. In that first part of the song cycle - "He Wishes His Beloved Were Dead" - Dennehy magically concocts one of those heavenly soundworlds and sits there blissfully for four minutes (that I wish would go on for just a bit more!). The combination of string harmonics, high piano notes, electric guitar, bowed vibraphone, and smatterings of woodwinds congeals into one perfectly homogenous but ever-shifting mass. You feel as if you're suspended in a light-blue crystal, with little flashes of northern lights skipping across your gaze. This accompaniment doesn't feel like fancy dressing for the vocal line, but instead reverses the relationship. Upshaw must navigate her way through the texture carefully, not to disturb the delicate crystalline arrangement. She passes this treacherous test with flying colors, her warm voice becoming a true part within the gorgeous texture.
Dennehy is a true master of texture and orchestration and throughout this album, he creates many fascinating soundworlds to accompany the diverse moods of the text and diverse styles of singing. In contrast to Upshaw's clear operatic soprano on "That The Night Come," Iarla Ó Lionáird shows off his laser-beam, Sean-nos style voice on the album's title piece. To bring the music closer to its traditional origins, Dennehy experiments with more natural "just intonation" rather than the 12-note equal tempered tuning we're accustomed to. The piece is a 25-minute journey to the past and back, a luminous vision of a world we know only from memory.
1. tUnE-yArDs - w h o k i l l
Because tUnE-yArDs has it all. Merrill Garbus' sophomore album delivers on all the promise of her lo-lo-fi debut and then some. Her voice, from vulnerable whisper to terrifying scream, seems to come from some West African country who's name you forget, or may not actually exist. Armed with an array of loop pedals, she multiplies this powerful, acidic voice into a choir, or really a sonic army. Then there are the gut-busting drum beats, the enveloping bass lines of partner-in-jazz-crimes Nate Brenner, and some meaty dual-sax hooks that stir this mystic brew to a fever pitch. It's got the energy and let's-play-together vibe of a drum circle, but without the haphazard sonic construction. "w h o k i l l" is a party, whether it comes blasting out of a DJ sound system or your earbuds.
Garbus certainly has her way with words as well. The opening "My Country" is the official anthem of a partly-cloudy patriot, while "Gangsta" takes on the issues of cultural-musical appropriation present in Garbus' music itself. The infectious hooks and near-manic energy of all these songs make you want to listen again right after they've finished, and they reward you for it. Each time, you'll hear the composite riffs and beats a bit differently, realizing their gloriously human imperfections. It isn't music that's trying to be simply likable. It's so very human and puts itself out there without apology. And when music is this real and natural, you have to love it.
Thursday, December 29, 2011
10. Tim Berne/Jim Black/Nels Cline - The Veil
Some real hot music, that's what.
Ok, ok, haha, I'll stop with the puns. But this music is truly burning.
Black drives the bus with a manic energy. Cline splatters the canvas with torrid sheets of guitar-paint. Berne somehow wiggles a sense of narrative through this dense sonic thicket. It's a real head-trip and a massive adrenaline rush; a thinking-person's rock, and a rockin' person's jazz.
It's lightning in a bottle.
That should be enough to get you to check it out, but if you want a bit more play-by-play, I have some here.
9. Joel Harrison String Choir - The Music of Paul Motian
You've heard me go on about the uniqueness and vitality Paul Motian's drumming. But one can't have a three-decade career as a bandleader in jazz without having some compositional voice. Motian's compositional acumen tends to be overshadowed by his inimitable drumming, or his drumming is at least understood as a necessary ingredient for the success of his compositions.
Guitarist Joel Harrison disagrees with that critical appraisal and makes a compelling case for the strength and beauty of Motian's output through his rearrangements for an ensemble of 2 violins, 2 violas, cello, and 2 guitars.
That's right. No drummers here.
Motian certainly had a soft spot for the sounds of string instruments. He worked with soundscaping guitarist Bill Frisell for thirty years, then put together bands with 2 or 3 guitarists, and later embraced the wily microtonal sounds of Mat Maneri's viola (which also appears on Mr. Harrison's album). While Motian composed at the piano (having learned from Keith Jarrett in the 1970s), he probably never had the chops to compose multiple lines at once. Instead, he'd keep the sustain pedal down, letting rich chords ring out while lacing folk-like melodies above.
Harrison has serious classical-composing chops of his own, and dresses up Motian's tunes with ornate counterpoint. Yet these arrangements play to the strengths of these improv-ready musicians, never weighed down in filigree, always putting the tunes first. Just the sound of the string choir emphasizes the rustic feeling of Motian's tunes, strengthening his style's identity as surreal Americana, like a mystical landscape of Andrew Wyeth. "It Should Have Happened A Long Time Ago" is utterly transporting, unfolding like a rough-hewn cartoon flight over grain-colored hills.
Although the album came out 11 months before Motian's death at the age of 80, it proves both a fitting tribute and a convincing bit of advocacy. Here's to hoping that Harrison's tribute inspires others to explore and perform Motian's miraculous music.
8. Tyshawn Sorey - Oblique - I
And he plays trombone?
Yes, Tyshawn Sorey is a drumming superhero. He's been a vital sidekick for math-jazz innovators Steve Coleman, Steve Lehman, and Vijay Iyer for nearly a decade, but more recently has staked out his own unique compositional space. 2009's "Koan" was a gorgeously sparse affair, and a real surprise to those (myself included) that only knew his hyperprecise prog drumming. "Oblique I" splits the difference, featuring a set of compositions that are somehow both cerebral and inviting.
Sorey's never afraid of odd group combinations (trombone and acoustic guitar anyone?), but on "Oblique I" opts for a seemingly traditional jazz instrumentation - alto sax (the firecracker Loren Stillman), guitar (the bracing Todd Neufield), piano (the triple-armed John Escreet), bass (the rock-solid Chris Tordini), & drums. Yet this doesn't mean the results are any less novel and adventurous.
In terms of both titles (just numbers) and syntax, Sorey's compositions echo those of his teacher Anthony Braxton. There are just the vaguest hints of tonality and tunefulness, but a huge dynamic range that nary another record can match. The pieces' through-lines are built from these dynamic and textural contrasts, yielding moments of catharsis and heartbreaking vulnerability. Sorey himself guides the proceedings with his peerless drumming. He tunes his drums low for jazz, enveloping the band in a warm halo. And even though he has chops out the wazoo, he never flaunts them in a Buddy Rich-type way, instead electing to develop his own melodies around the toms and cymbals.
"Oblique" describes the music quite perceptively. It's rich and mysterious, never coming straight at the listener. One who decides to follow these circuitous routes will be very much rewarded.
7. The Chiara String Quartet & Matmos - Jefferson Friedman: Quartets
I'd love to imagine Franz Josef Haydn, the proverbial godfather of the string quartet, taking a trip to the present day to hear what music is like. He comes to New York, hearing that there are some really great string quartets doing cool things there. He stops in at the place these cool string quartets like to play most, Le Poussin Rouge on Bleecker Street. One of the said cool quartets - the Chiara String Quartet - walks out on stage to play their friend Jefferson Friedman's String Quartet no. 2. They start and Haydn's head asplodes.
Cuz the sounds that just came out of the ensemble he thought he knew so well are so far beyond his wildest imagination.
Friedman's 2nd String Quartet was written for his friends of the Chiara Quartet in 1999, and it's almost criminal that it has taken so long to make its way to disk. The head-sploding intro is a string quartet gone death metal, all full-bowed sixteenth notes and gnarly dissonance. If anyone tells you classical music is boring, just play them that intro. But the piece isn't just shredding. There are these time-stopping long tones, which sound as if you're staring across an cold, undisturbed lake at sunset. There are burbling pizzicato grooves that slink and tremble underneath wry, undulating melodies.
Friedman is a master at exploring all of the new possibilities these old instruments can offer. In order to make a violin growl like an electric guitar, Friedman has violinist Rebecca Fisher (actually, everyone does this at some point) dig into the strings very close to the bridge, an eerie effect called sul ponticello. But it's not just specific techniques. Friedman seems to know what each member does well and the players know what Friedman likes to write. With composer and ensemble working together so closely, the piece takes on a life beyond the notes. There's a reason why the opening daga-daga-daga seems to jump out of the speakers and grab your throat.
To further the spirit of collaboration, Friedman asked his friends in the electronics duo Matmos to put together some remixes of his string quartets. It's a testament to the strength and imagination of the pieces that they sound just fine overlaid with quantized electro grooves and glitchy effects.
6. Craig Taborn - Avenging Angel
Six months later, "Avenging Angel" is still as astounding and inscrutable as ever; astounding and inscrutable as why the world's best (for my money) improvising pianist has the proclivity to only put out an album of his own every several years.
In many ways, "Avenging Angel" is a very self-conscious ECM solo piano record in the tradition of Keith Jarrett and Paul Bley. The opening "The Broad Day King" is Jarrett-like in its lightly-bobbing groove and effortless lyricism, while "Diamond Turning Dream" shares Bley's penchant for pointillism. And of course its recorded in high ECM style, with that crystal piano sweeping through a reverberant hall. Yet all these influences - and tons more from classical impressionism to metal-ish dissonances - are distilled by Taborn's well-pondered aesthetic.
From a technical standpoint, Taborn is primarily concerned with two main ideas - developing musical ideas simultaneously with both hands (gleaned from the multi-keyboard work of Weather Report's Joe Zawinul) and exploring every possible color and articulation that a piano can express. "Neverland" is a tour de force in both departments. Each hand plays its own melody, rarely more than one note at a time each. While the two lines relate to each other harmonically, they don't line up in a way that makes one subservient to the other. Taborn achieves this remarkable independence through attacking notes in different ways, ping-ponging the listener's attention from one line to the other. The time isn't as relaxed as a simpler improvisation like "Broad Day King," but it shows just how hard it is to do what Taborn is attempting. Many players with this kind of technique tend to coast too much (see Corea, Chick), always doing what they do best. It's great to see someone like Taborn overload his CPU and see what unexpected things come out.
Saturday, December 24, 2011
But what makes this album special is the "band" part. Stevens' assertive, passionate vocals are backed by an array of her exotic guitars (like the South American charango on the cover), Liam Robinson's accordion, and a rocking rhythm team of Chris Tordini on bass and Jordan Perlson on drums. The arrangements are rich and intricate, like the 3-part vocal canon on the title track. It's totally hip and worldly, an organically-grown fusion of folk, jazz, and pop. The energy and bounce of the Becca Stevens Band makes this a uniquely irresistible confession. You'll want to start it again the moment it ends.
That no man hate another man,
Because he is black;
Because he is yellow;
Because he is white;
Thursday, December 1, 2011
|Paul Motian at his favorite spot - the Village Vanguard|
So what does that leave me to say you ask?
Well just that delving into Paul Motian's music my freshman year fundamentally altered how I think about and play the drums.
You see, up until about December 2008, I was a Drummer. Yes, capital D Drummer. My first drumming inspiration was Buddy Rich. My first instructional video was Dave Weckl's "Back to Basics" (or, look at that hair!). I was obsessed with technique, spending many hours trying to master the mysterious "secret weapons" of drumming, like the Moeller whip and the push-pull. Speed was the name of the game. My technique intoxication was sort of the drumming equivalent of "chicks dig the longball." And when I entered college, let's just say I thought I had some real pop in my sticks.
I got some real wake-up calls during my first semester of big band rehearsals. I was able to play blazing single stroke rolls around the kit, and so filled up every little space I could with them. Listening back to recordings of myself from that autumn, my drumming sounds leaden and artless (let's not even talk about my time-feel issues). But I couldn't hear that at the time, so when my director told me to dial down the density, I got both angry (why is he getting in my way) and terribly nervous (what is it that I'm doing wrong). My instincts for fixing my problems brought me back to those technique videos and method books, thinking that I just needed more control. Didn't Dave Weckl and Buddy Rich play super dense all the time? Why couldn't I?
In the end, it wasn't more chops that I needed. It was bigger ears and a new aesthetic. No more Drummer with a capital D. No more secret weapons. Just doing a helluva lot more with a lot less.
Luckily I had gotten friendly with a junior trumpet player in the band named Harrison. Harrison convinced me to check out my first-ever Free Jazz show, and then started giving me CD recommendations. First: ditch all that Brad Mehldau and Aaron Parks moody piano stuff. Second: DAVE DOUGLAS! Third: did you know that Paul Motian has a ton of sick solo albums?
I certainly knew who Motian was at that time. I had all the classic Bill Evans recordings from the late '50s and early '60s and had eaten them up when I was learning jazz piano in high school. There was a nice big picture of him in my favorite method book, John Riley's Beyond Bop Drumming. I even had his Bill Evans tribute album, with Bill Frisell, Marc Johnson, and Joe Lovano. Can't say I had listened to it much though. It didn't have all those purdy piano lines that I liked in the Evans originals.
Anyway, I took Harrison's advice and on the afternoon of December 2, 2008, I checked out three Motian CDs from the music library on campus - the Electric Bebop Band playing Monk and Powell, On Broadway vol. 1, and Story of Maryam. I surreptitiously uploaded them onto my computer that night.
Story of Maryam was first on my listening list, due to its 4 1/2-star rating, plus editor's pick, on All Music Guide (this was before I had musical opinions, ok?). I finally got around to it that Saturday afternoon, December 6. It was one of the cold, dry December days, the ones of chapped lips and hoodies worn indoors. I put on the album to accompany my Religion class reading.
I then stopped my Religion class reading.
The opening track "9x9" shot out of my headphones in a blaze of dual saxophones, shrouded by clouds of distorted guitar, and churned about by the stuttering rumble of shadowy drums and the sky-streaking clash of laser-bright cymbals. The music was deeply mysterious, but not incomprehensible. There was a folkish simplicity to the melody, though abstracted by the free-floating tempo. The rest of the album continued in this mode, bringing me into a reverie of early winters in New England. Which is saying something because I've never experienced them before.
What shocked me so much about Story of Maryam was how the first regular, insistent groove only arrived 5 minutes from the end of the record. I had just began to experiment with free-tempo playing with Harrison and thought it was just about playing whatever you wanted at any time. Naturally, I found listening to our stuff a bit boring and saw this free-time thing as a brief contrast to more groove-oriented sections. Motian's playing totally changed my preconceptions. Even without regular tempos, the album was full of momentum and expressive contrast. While Motian's playing on "9x9" was aggressively defined, his playing on the ensuing ballad "5 Miles to Wrentham" was spacious and intently patient, drawing attention to the subtlest shadings on his cymbals. Whatever the mood of the piece, Motian's drumming was totally efficient, which is surprising considering how loose it was. The strokes were seemingly random, but by the end, I could tell that they were meticulously placed.
Meticulous chaos: that's what I learned from Motian that winter, and it's just what I needed to hear at that time.
As I continued to eat up Motian's discography, I began to incorporate his approach into my playing. I cut down on snare drum chatter, started using fatter sticks, tried to strip down each performance to its bare essentials. After 3 years of this (and the addition of 14 more hours of his music on my hard drive), my drumming is fundamentally changed, yet still far removed from Motian's mysterious meticulousness and sound-so-distinctive-you-can-recognize-him-with-one-stroke.
Motian's influence on me probably comes through most clearly on a piece and I wrote and recorded this past spring called "Illyria Suite." The opening and concluding sections feature pointillistic, free-time drumming over a folkish tune. Ok, my drum & cymbal sounds are totally different than his, and the piece heads to some very un-Motian places in the middle, but I would not have even been able to conceptually imagine a piece like this before hearing Motian's music.
[Go listen to "Illyria Suite" here!]
Even after his passing, Motian will never cease to inspire my playing. There are always more layers to peal away from each performance. I'm now going to check back on Song of Maryam and see what else I can dig out tonight.
See you over the rainbow, Paul.
Saturday, October 29, 2011
Monday, October 24, 2011
They programmed a marimba concerto for the first time in its history.
They had performed a concerto for cello and pizza delivery guy, a concerto for Norwegian Hardanger Fiddle, a concerto for electric guitar, and, for chrissakes, three viola concertos. But never the lowly, schlocky, beautiful marimba.
I had the pleasure of changing that this past weekend when I performed Ney Rosauro's Concerto for Marimba and String Orchestra on Friday and Saturday. For those of you who sadly missed out, you can find compressed, incriminating evidence here.
|Before going on, I make the obligatory sign of the|
Society of Free Marimbists. Photo by Kaki Elgin.
Thursday, October 6, 2011
Tuesday, October 4, 2011
Monday, October 3, 2011
My Reich nerdiness has been well-established on this blog. So it should come as no surprise that there will be much celebration here this week too. Last year, I wrote a paper on Music for 18 Musicians at the Royal College of Music. I talked about the evolution of the piece from its original conception to eventual score to later recordings and how using the score affects performance.
I'll be posting bits of the essay here each day, so come back to here the story behind this monumental piece of music.
Sunday, August 21, 2011
I find myself in this middle category as well, with the qualification that being a good musician doesn't mean that one will be a good critic. A good critic of any art form is someone who can make the experience of that art come alive in a tactile way. In the case of a music critic, it's about vividly describing what the music sounds like, chronicling the emotional ups and downs, pulling some semantic meaning out of the experience. A good musician may concentrate so much on the technical aspects of the music that the piece of criticism doesn't really translate any of the actual experience.
I feel this idea of translation is the real crux of a criticism, especially music criticism. Certainly every piece of criticism is going to have a judgment call. But a judgment call alone isn't going to make someone want to go out and hear music or see a play. Instead, it's the promise of a memorable experience. If the only thing the jazz critic could think of was how the sax player did these 4ths-based licks over a tri-tone substitution on the bridge, then it probably wasn't an emotionally powerful experience, which would have shut down the analytical side to his or her brain. An overly-technical piece of criticism is what I would call "Lost in Translation," where the critic certainly an aesthetic experience of a sort, but does not have the command of language to translate that experience to a non-expert.
[Short Digression: You can see this problem at work a lot in interviews with musicians, regardless of genre. Some great players and singers have a limited vocabulary of expressing their musical views semantically and give stock answers that don't really illuminate anything. Van Morrison is an especially good example.]
There are problems with too little musical knowledge as well though. The most noticeable aspects of a piece of music are its overall texture and rhythm. A critic who may write well but doesn't know the ins and outs of the music tends to concentrate exclusively on those aspects. With ears like these, Pat Metheny and Kenny G drift into the same category with Yanni and Vangelis. Even if the writing is clever and articulate, this kind of critic isn't much more than a glorified Pandora app.
In the end, a good critic needs to know both sides of the divide - the musician and the listener - and be able to translate so that the listener can really understand what the musicians are getting at, with all its nuance (not to short shrift the musicians' specificity of intent). One certainly does not need to be as good a musician as those playing to comment authoritatively, but one must know what to listen for and playing experience certainly helps in that department. I feel its more about how music the critic has listened to (and of course you listen a lot when you play). Listening to lots of different music teaches one to appreciate tightness of form, novelty of sound, technical mastery, and deftness of touch. The critic needs to know what makes a piece of music great or memorable, which most of the time does not have to do with the technical aspects. It's about recognizing some of the abstract blissfulness of a particular moment and describing it in a way to elicit that same sense of bliss in the reader.
You do see a lot of good critics with at least some musical experience. Nate Chinen played drums through college (apparently with my future high school band director at least once). Alex Ross was a dutiful piano student and took music theory with Peter Lieberson at Harvard (Lieberson called Ross's final sonatina project "most interesting and slightly peculiar."). Stanley Crouch is also a drummer, Randy Sandke is as much a trumpeter as a critic, and pianist Jeremy Denk even takes some time out from his busy touring schedule to give the internet some fine and funny insights into the music he plays. I don't think that this musical experience has made these critics insightful and successful (correlation doesn't always mean causation, my dear), but it's this experience that has made these people want to become writers/critics. If you're going to spend a great deal of energy writing about something, you really must love that something (which is likely why you seen so many memoirs on bookshelves). In my experience, I have found that my love for music has come from both listening and performing experiences, a love built of visual, audial, and tactile memory. Reading Alex Ross and listening to Felix Contreras may have made me want to write about art and music in a serious way, but I wouldn't have even gotten to that point if I hadn't fallen in love with music in the first place. In order to love something at that magnitude, you have to spend a lot of time with it and its easy to log a lot of hours in the school band or on the living room piano.
But while playing takes a back seat for most critics (just think of the time crunch), I still play more than I write. My perspective as a performer has affected my critical occupations in that I am wont to get at the psychology of the performer. I am sensitive to how my state of mind can affect my playing. Pulling up certain images can pull into the musical moment and make me swing harder behind the drum set. When I'm freely improvising, I try to hold one basic musical idea in my head and come back to it at different points, while my subconscious handles the movements from one drum to another. I try to get at this same insight when writing about other musicians. I can usually get a decent idea just by how the musician plays, what decisions he or she makes. For an improvisor, it's the vocabulary and use of space (the motor-mouthed Pat Metheny vs. the restrained and intuitive Bill Frisell). For a classical musician, it's the touch and character of the performance (how much of the performance is practice-room autopilot vs. in the moment risk-taking).
A good piece of criticism doesn't need to hit on this level, especially from the listener's perspective. But I feel this kind of insight is much appreciated from the musician's standpoint. It doesn't trust translate the music for a lay listener, but brings the listener inside the musician's very world. If the listener can understand the musician, they're much more likely to feel like they understand the music.
It has been duly noted that this is post is heavy on the masculinity. See Lara Pellegrinelli for many smart words on gender in jazz.
Saturday, July 30, 2011
Speaking of Pete, I was out for dinner my first day in DC with my uncle Pete and Aunt Julie when I saw an ad for a jazz show at Subterranean A - the JD Allen trio. JD's a perennial favorite of Patrick J up on the fifth floor, suggesting that this Subterranean A place was really plugged into the NPR tastes. I imagined it being some stone-walled room in a warehouse basement, something like Cafe Oto in London, or the Bell House in Brooklyn. A sort of clean, NPR-style DIY venue with lots of folding chairs. But in the end, Subterranean A was much more plugged into NPR than I realized.
Sami Yenigun was temping with WATC during my first 3 weeks on the show. That first Saturday, he told the staff that he was having a concert at his house that night. Sounded cool, but I already had those JD Allen tickets. Then Sami said the concert was of a jazz saxophonist named JD Allen.
So Subterranean A was really just another name for Sami's basement apartment. It suddenly gained a new romanticism. It was close to the chest like a punk rock house party, but with an ethic that put music first, rather than a particular social vibe. How else would you explain JD Allen in June followed by dubstep in July?
Because Sub A was such a cool place, unique in DC, I decided to sit down with Sami and talk about how he got the idea to host shows at his place and how he actually goes about doing it. You can read the full interview at NPR's intern blog In Addition.
Thursday, July 21, 2011
But that didn't stop the torrent of comments, especially from the New York downtown intelligentsia. Composer Phil Kline (whose political music I talked about here) lambasted it as "the first truly despicable album cover I've ever seen." Composer Timo Andres didn't pile on the vitriol, but put together a slap-dash alternative cover. Seth Colter Walls of the Village Voice, Huffington Post, et al has a detailed criticism of the cover on Slate.
It's just all about the cover.
Call it provocative, exploitative, too soon, disrespectful, what have you. It certainly is all those things to different people. That's the nature of an image that has for better or worse been etched into the American psyche.
But just to keep things straight, we are talking about an album cover. Not the music. Granted, Walls heard the New York premiere and his criticisms regard the relationship between a powerful, multifaceted, and nuanced piece and a blunt cover that seems to exploit the terrorist attacks of September 11th for monetary gain, or at least for buzz.
Reich and Nonesuch had to know that this would be the kind of response. Almost 10 years out, 9/11 still seems too soon for reflection or an artistic response beyond mourning. The US is still fighting two wars because of it. And Steve Reich's listeners aren't the Rage Against the Machine types that are used to such visual provocation. I actually feel that Nonesuch execs would likely have preferred something more abstract, or at least something that wasn't as unsubtle as Will Ferrell's dubya impersonations.
In interviews and press releases about the piece, Reich talks a lot about the personal experience of the day - talking to his daughter and son in law for 6 hours, hoping the phone line in their lower Manhattan apartment wouldn't die. He says 9/11 was not a media day for him and his family. They couldn't get back to their lower Manhattan apartment for several weeks. Certainly the image brings those memories flooding back big time. And that's true for just about every American - we all remember where we were when we heard of the attack.
And that's the reason why this image is so problematic, and yet I feel it to be vital to the album's importance. Because of the emotional trauma of that day, we all feel we own a bit of that image. That's why we judge its use in this case, as if we took the photo. I'll admit I was a little taken aback when I first saw the image, doing the whole politically correct "Can they do that?" thing. But then I listened to the piece.
There are a lot of superficial similarities to Reich's class "Different Trains." The same string quartet, the use of prerecorded voices, the exploration of tragedy through the words of eyewitnesses. The piece begins with the pulse of a phone off the hook, joined by a violin, then a second a half step down. The dissonance is grating and makes your hair stand on end. The pulses are joined by the voices of NORAD operators, then police and firefighters on the scene - actual sounds time warped to the present. Like in "Different Trains," these voices become the piece's melodic material, doubled and imitated by the strings. The second movement moves into a more reflective zone, featuring the memories of Reich's friends and neighbors, recounted in 2010. In the third movement, the pulses dissolve into drones, recounting the women who recited psalms over the victims' bodies in tents on the lower east side.
By that point in the piece, I was a wreck, almost sobbing at my computer. Certainly it had a good deal to do with the images that flashed across the back of my closed eyes - the media images, yes, but also the church service I went to that night, the congregation of candles. I was responding to my memories, yes, but when the music is off, I can pull up those images and keep my composure.
For me, the most powerful musical experiences are ones that touch on more than basic emotions. But I also believe that sound itself can only communicate so much and it's the listener that brings the powerful meaning to a musical experience. My Dad says that he wells up when he listens to the last movement of Mozart's Jupiter Symphony, knowing that this bright and perfect fugue was the end of his symphonic output. I love the piece too, but I don't have the same thought or the same emotional reaction. The inherent abstraction of the symphony allows for a wondrous array of interpretations, but also some emotional experiences that are more potent than others.
Reich's use of recorded voices, particularly of the first responders, is a blunt expressive gesture. And while the piece ends up exploring other sides of the event, it still boils down to the attack itself and how that instant changed everything. Because the piece's impact is fueled by the specificity of memory, the album cover should reflect that. John Adams' "On The Transmigration of Souls," for instance, was a requiem, and its solemn skyline reflected that. Reich's "WTC 9/11" is the day and its aftermath boiled down to its emotional essence, almost reporter-like in its presentation. The cover reports the pivotal action of the day.
The emotional directness of the piece and the cover steps close to the line of exploitation in how powerfully it plays with our memory and emotional. But to elicit these emotions is not exploitative in and of itself. It's exploitative when it's used to sell a war or a political campaign. Yeah, a cover is there to sell an album, but Reich has never been one to worry about selling albums (he ran a moving company with Phillip Glass to make ends meet). Instead, appropriating this indelible image for an album cover challenges our emotional and intellectual relationship with the image and with the events of 9/11. Our political correctness monitor responds and we feel that the move is tasteless. But if we recognize that reaction, and give it just a second of reflection, we begin to think about why we feel this way. We think about whether art about a specific event can communicate unaltered truth, or if it's just biased media sensationalism. Our thoughts and memories become more complicated, they keep coming back at different points for days afterward. We're moved to talk about it. Write about it. Argue.
And that brings us here. Just a simple album cover depicting a single event has made us consider what the meaning of art is in the most abstract sense. In the below video, Reich says that the piece will live on or fade away based on its musical merits alone. He's right.
In the end, the piece doesn't just bring back memories of September 11, 2001 and store them away once it leaves. The music demands that we examine our emotional reaction to it. We can't just get away with cheap catharsis. "WTC 9/11" is a pandora's box that releases our deepest thoughts about how to deal with history and what art means. A cover that has the power to do the same is the right match.