Unhappiness

Thursday night’s Wordless Music festival event at Miller Theater started innocently enough, but developed gradually, and inevitably, into dreadful desolation. The concert was a presentation of the work of the band Do Make Say Think and “The Happiness Project,” from one of the band’s founding members, Charles Spearin. If only the work had lived up to the title.

The project opened the program. What Spearin had been doing is recording interviews with friends, neighbors and family in Toronto, asking them to describe happiness. He then takes excerpts and divines music from them in the pitch and rhythm of the voices, and transcribes and expands this for instruments – in this case two saxes, trumpet, violin, guitar, bass, drums, harp and piano. Rather than starting with the music, however, Spearin began the evening with a rambling Buddhist parable about misplacing ones yak, then described the music-making methodology in the same manner as the program, before finally offering a demonstration in the form of a recording excerpt, played once then again accompanied faithfully by tenor sax. It unfortunately took a while for the performance to move from the feeling of a lecture and demonstration into an actual performance, and when it did, the results were underwhelming.

The idea is interesting enough, and over the decades musicians as diverse as Harry Partch, Alvin Lucier, Steve Reich and Jason Moran have explicitly been making music based in human speech, its sounds and patterns. Those musicians take speech as the source, then make music that adds to and goes beyond that speech, their approach is compositional and transformative. Spearin, at least in the music he presented, is taking a very literal approach. He doubles the recording, accompanies that doubling, then repeats repeats repeats. Nothing really happens. And, crucially, although the records speak of happiness, and it is called “The Happiness Project,” the music itself has nothing at all to say one way or another about the topic or even the speech on which it is based. It’s sketchy, sounding very much like a work in progress and perhaps not yet ready for performance. It’s also quiet solemn, showing humor and liveliness only during a stretch when a marching band broke out of the drone-like gloom. It seems as if Spearing does not quiet understand the challenge he’s set for himself and is satisfied with just accomplishing the technical challenge of transcribing a musical line. This is music that tells us it is a work of composition, and the composer himself takes pains to demonstrate his methods, but there’s too much pride in the feat itself and too little attention paid to making a coherent musical statement.

After intermission, a performance of the full band Do Make Say Think began with guitarist Justin Small proclaiming that the audience was about to hear “Grade A fuckin’ Canadian space-rock.” If that’s what they played, then space-rock is not a notable indigenous Canadian culture export. This is a band which places itself in the interesting post-rock landscape, an idea and style that is perfect for Wordless Music, which is a series that tries to answer the question of, after rock and Minimalism, what comes next? Ironically, not this. Superficially, the band is on the avant-edge of rock, mainly because they play extended songs and there are no vocals. But that’s just superficial. For a band with two drummers, they do sparingly little rhythmically interesting music, instead thudding along in double or triple meter pulses, sometimes faster and sometimes slower. All but a few musical moments were made up of the following elements; a stolid eighth note line in the bass, twinned strumming guitars playing relentlessly diatonic harmonies, the two drummers playing virtually the same drum pattern, with, finally, a four-square whole-note phrase of a melody on top, repeated a few times. Then Spearin would come upstage and stomp on his overdrive box, and everything would get louder. These forays became kind of a dreadful game to predict, the only tension in the music being when the mix would get pushed past the point of actually being able to hear music-making, a technical not musical climax. Every music event came exactly where, when and how one would expect it after hearing the very first song, and despite their description of their style, the almost constant, humorless bombast of the music sounded like every other bit of commercial rock of the past two generations that bands like Tortoise and Anoice have abandoned with musical aplomb. At Miller Theater, Do Make Say Think was very much a pre-rock band, without even any sex or drugs to make the time pass more quickly.

The Wordless Music at Miller Theater Festival continues Friday, with an appearance by the superb electronic musician Tim Hecker. Tickets are $15 and still available.

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  1. Pingback: Songs With Words « The Big City

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