A Month of Listening: January 2016

This is a record, embedded below (or downloadable here), of my January month of listening. It’s not everything I heard, but it is all the new and recently released recordings that I listened to. Everything on this list passed by my ears at least once, and there are several things I listened to many times; Blackstar got five separate spins, and I listened to some of the symphonies in Daniel Barenboim’s new Bruckner cycle more than once—these are examples.

Bests of the Month of Listening

Everything on here is at least decent—the only way to get through close to 60 new recordings in a month is to quickly abandon recordings that are bad, they don’t end up on here. The Recording of the Week series is an implicit selection of the bests from the month, but there’s only so many weeks, so here is a further list of my favorite new recordings, and these are the ones that I deeply, personally, loved:

  • Ludovic Morlot, Seattle Symphony, Ives: Symphonies 3 & 4. Stunning. Symphony No. 3 is excellent and the performance of Symphony No. 4 is extraordinary, full of careful detail and an understanding of the overall design, direction, and aesthetic effect. Morlot’s pace is not just ideal, but a means to build, moment by moment, a kind of exalted tension that culminates into a glimpse of the Great Oversoul.
  • Jeremy Flower, The Real Me. The tastemakers are likely going to give this the dreaded “indie-classical” label. Maybe they’re right, but that means nothing. What this is is a terrific rock album, with great song-craft and playing. Do the songs revolve around some central meaning? Maybe. Is it a song-cycle? Sure, why not, whatever. It’s just great.
  • Look to the North, 5,000 Blackbirds Fall Out of the Sky. Since I received CD #37 out of a total issue of 40, there’s not way you’re going to be able to find this one (one track is available through Bandcamp). But maybe a friend has it. The record is a combination of field recordings and ambient/drone electronics. It’s sonically deep, and tells fragments of stories that hint at profound personal and social loss. This has a real wallop.
  • Jaimeo Brown, Transcendence: Work Songs. A beautiful conception with exceptionally smart and musical execution. Brown has taken recordings of works songs, including famous ones from Parchman Farm and others from South-East Asia, and used them as ostinatos underneath his own material. The musical style is a tangy stew of blues, jazz, soul, and funk, and the balance between immediate physical pleasure and entertainment, and wrenching and angry questions about work, power, and exploitation, makes this great popular art, without pandering in any way. J.D. Allen is the feature horn player here, and his playing is in line with the veiled power of the record (release date February 12).
  • Robert Ashley, Crash. I’ve written a lot about this work already. What you need to know is that this is a recording made from the run of the opera at Roulette in April of last year. Ashley’s late works are his greatest, and this one is a real culmination of his life’s work.

The Big City is supported by readers like you. Please consider a donation or a subscription.

Best New Music Albums 2014

Best Downtown Music 2014

Best New Music Albums 2014
This is the second half of the classical list, music that has common origins in the Western tradition, in the expansive sense of music that began with a social purpose and then developed an abstract movement that we generally call classical music. Since the turn of the 20th century, and especially since after WWII, that tradition exploded into myriad pathways that moved along several lines—experimental, avant-garde, gestalt world music, non-jazz/non-classical improvisation, instrumental rock-based music, electronic music—that have created a large-scale genre that, as a short-hand, I’ve started to call the “downtown international” style. It’s place where musicians coming out of multiple traditions meet through a common set of values. They are not there to make hybrid, synthesized music, but to add their own ideas to a general pool, out of which truly new music is constantly growing. This is also the music that first my personal taste and compositional and aesthetic values most closely, and is the hardest yet most exciting list to compile.
You can buy these albums here, except where otherwise noted
Post-WWII composing

  • Tyshawn Sorey Trio, Alloy. My personal favorite and overall best record of the year. One reason for that is the musical ideas inside it are so deep and powerful that they’re a little bit frightening, it’s a large universe in which to lose oneself. Alloy is on a lot of jazz lists, but I can’t put it on mine: Sorey is most closely and accurately defined as a jazz musician, but this is an album, like his others, of his compositions, and there is so little jazz concept and aesthetic in them that they are pretty much sui generis. One of the fascinating features of his music is that, while he can be heard at the drum kit, the sense of rhythm as time is almost nonexistent (except in “Template”). The music is full of space, a sense that notes and events are placed intuitively (which I deeply admire, it’s extremely difficult to develop the ear and confidence to write such sparse yet finely structured music), the feeling of an internal journey without beginning or end. Feldman is the heuristic commonly applied to Sorey’s composing, but that’s misleading. Feldman, especially his mature music, wrote scores that are dense with activity. Sorey shares a taste for low dynamics, but the sparseness of his music sounds closer to Cage, only with an entirely different idea of expression. Imagine a Miles Davis trumpet solo removed from a tune, with the space inside expanded by magnitudes, and you get some idea of both the manner of this album, and how great the music is.
  • Bora Yoon, Sunken Cathedral. Tremendously beautiful and involving. This is the audio portion of Yoon’s ambitious multimedia project that will appear at the Prototype Festival next month. The sound combines the purity of her voice. chant, electronic textures, folk instruments, spoke word, and more. Another concept that is fiendishly difficult to hold together, and the firmness of her form makes this exceptional.
  • Tristan Perich, Surface Image. Perich’s work combines imagination and process: as his pieces go along, or as you see them in an installation, the path connecting conception, process and execution is always clear. That alone is both important and satisfying, but the results, like this mesmerizing, new post-minimal piece for piano and electronics, are great music in their own right.
  • a.pe.ri.od.ic, Jürg Frey: More or Less. It’s a good year when I have to choose between this and Andy Lee’s album of Frey piano music, the difference being that I found myself listening to this set of amazing chamber pieces, in excellent performances, a little more often.
  • Harry Partch, Harry Partch: Plectra and Percussion Dances. Self-recommending. This is the first complete recording of the title work, and the CD includes a spoken introduction by Partch that he delivered in 1953.
  • Peter Söderberg, On the Carpet of Leaves Illuminated by the Moon. Söderberg plays the lute, and on this record he performs music by Alvin Lucier, James Tenney, John Cage and Steve Reich. That’s really all you need to know.
  • Flux Quartet, Morton Feldman: String Quartet No. 1. Utter masters of this music. Flux followed up what is now an almost routinely great concert of Feldman’s String Quartet No. 2 with this release. The finest recoding of the String Quartet No. 1, and the finest traversal of the complete string quartet music by Feldman.
  • Ursula Oppens, Bruce Brubaker, Meredith Monk: Piano Songs. Not songs, but piano music, with occasional shouts and yelps. Echt-Monk, the physical vitality of her music, the way the pianos sound like they are hopping and dancing, is a tribute to her compositional ideals. A little disorienting at first to hear her style applied to the keyboard, but it gets better with every listen.
  • Dai Fujikara, Dai Fujikara: ICE. This is simply one of the finest collections of music at the cutting edge of the classical tradition that I’ve heard in years. Fujikara renders the densest and most complex ideas with complete clarity and control of his materials, and ICE plays the music like they’ve been working on it for years. Which they pretty much have.
  • Sarah Cahill, Mamoru Fujieda: Patterns of Plants. Fujieda’s work is one of the most striking compositions in contemporary music. The music is literally organic, composed out of Fujieda’s recordings of electrical activity in plants. What comes out is music that has an uncanny feeling of belonging to every place and epoch, yet having no identifiable national or temporal features. It is truly strange and beautiful. Cahill plays it with the attention to detail and musicality that one usually hears pianists bring to Schubert. Not a complete set of this magnum opus, but the most extensive to date.
Pos-WWII playing

  • Nils Bultmann, Troubadour Blue. A set of musical rich and beautiful viola improvisations that delve deep into the history of western music.
  • Bernd Klug, Cold Commodities. A gripping, surprising, unique and accomplished album that combines found sounds, electronics and improvisation with tremendous rigor and expression.
  • Asphalt Orchestra plays the Pixies: Surfer Rosa. An amazing record. These arrangements are imaginative sonic adaptations of the classic Pixie’s album, transforming the originals into something more complex and more consistently satisfying.
  • Robin Williamson, Trusting in the Rising Light. A strange, entrancing disc from one of the founders of The Incredible String band. This is a collection of songs that, though originals, have deep roots in ancient memories and traditions. WIlliamson’s voice is ravaged with age, making the expression that much more effective. Fantastic accompaniment from Mat Maneri and Ches Smith.
  • Lumen Drones. Post-rock meets Hardanger fiddle. Difficult to describe, the music drone based, full of rhythm and improvisation, tough and delicate at once. Must be heard, it’s completely wonderful.
  • Carolina Eyck, Christopher Tarnow, Improvisations for Theremin and Piano. Much more than a curiosity, this is fascinating set. Eyck is a tremendous theremin player, with complete command of tone and texture. Mostly quiet and tonal, the playing is superb, don’t be thrown by the twee track titles.
  • Battle Trance, Palace of Wind. I have the privilege of experiencing a performance of this piece by this quartet of tenor saxophonists, and it was jaw-dropping and powerful. Imagine Colin Stetson times four, playing non-stop for about forty five minutes with a romantic conception of transcendence, and you have some idea of the depths of this album.
  • Travis Just + Object Collection, No Song. Downtown to the max, turned up to 11! The good natured aggression of this record adds a sense of fun, but the playing is purposeful, intense, and heavier than the doomiest sludge. (http://shop.khalija.com/album/no-song)
  • Plymouth. The members of this band are Jamie Saft, Joe Morris, Chris Lightcap, Gerald Cleaver and Mary Halvorson. They play dense, lively, passionate, intelligent noise improvisations. Excellent in every way, and the best release so far from Rarenoise records.
  • Thurston Moore/John Moloney, Caught on Tape. Loud, but delicate. The muscularity hides what, underneath, is a severe, even ascetic aesthetic, a search for beauty in the midst of conflict, like the edge of razor blade, shining through a pile of trash. Pretty much Moore’s finest moments as a guitar player.
Electronic Music

  • Dave Seidel, ~60Hz. As pure as music gets. Seidel’s pieces are made by combing sine waves and letting them play. Engrossing and gorgeous.
  • John Supko, Bill Seaman, s_traits. This record is astonishing. I’ll refer you to Marshall Yarbrough’s article for the details, but this upends every idea of structure and form and makes it work. Hard stop listening to.
  • No Lands, Negative Space. A prime example of the possibilities of electronic music: this band’s debut (mainly it’s Michael Hammond), is as abstract as Ussachevsky and as appealing as Tangerine Dream. Excellent.
  • Guenter Schlienz, Loop Studies. A haunting exploration of looped acoustic instruments and electronics. The music seems to be coming from the type of future that the past imagined would arrive. (https://sinkcds.bandcamp.com/album/loop-studies)
  • Philip White, Documents. Plastic, complex sound produced from the raw musical data extracted from a series of well-known, popular recordings. (https://philipwhite.bandcamp.com)
  • Michael Pisaro, Continuum Unbound. Field recordings and instrumental music, listening across the three discs is a transporting experience. (http://michaelpisaro.blogspot.com/2014/05/continuum-unbound-fall-2014.html)
  • Rand Steiger, A Menacing Plume. Electro-acoustic works with a classical feel of modernism. Steiger is fine composer and the pieces, including the superb title work and Résonateur, are played expertly by Talea Ensemble.
  • Jacob Cooper, Silver Threads. There are many projects that combine voice and electronics, but they are rarely as accomplished as this set of electronic art songs, with the terrific Mellissa Hughes singing.
  • Juan Bianco, Nuestro Tiempo. Electronic music from Cuba that might have been a mere object of curiosity, but Bianco, who was unknown to me when this arrived, is a serious and excellent composer, with a sense of vitality.
  • Faures, Continental Drift. Like atmospheric haze composed of tiny, shiny crystals; pristine, warm, enveloping. (https://homenormal.bandcamp.com/album/continental-drift)
This is not the type of music in which there are frequent reissues, but notable this year is a Cello Anthology, a box set of four CDs with a beautiful, thick book. This collects performances and biographical information of the new music cellist Charlotte Moorman, without whom the musical landscape would be very different and far more impoverished. 

2014 Year In Lists

Lists. I know, I know, many music fans find this lazy, unfair, and no substitute for criticism. That point of view is generally true, although lists can be useful and informative. And speaking inside the world of criticism, where it is essentially impossible to listen to every recording that comes my way (the digital music I received this year alone makes for fifteen days of continuous music, and the CDs easily double that). I also must plead humble blogger-dom: all my writing (including writing for and editing at the Brooklyn Rail), is as an individual, I have no office except for a corner of my daughter’s room, and share the stereo with her, my wife, Sesame Street, the Muppet Show, My Little Pony …

So lists are a way for me to highlight and implicitly advocate for and recommend what to my taste and intellect are the most notable recordings of the year—not the best, which is like quicksilver, but the ones that had the strongest effect on me and the most substantial lasting power.

I want my list-making to be as expansive as possible, so that means I’m going to have many lists posting over the next 10 – 14 days. Expect these:

  • Jazz (this will be my list submitted to the Jazz Critics Poll and the Jazz Journalists Association—the El Intruso and Downbeat polls to follow in the new year will be different due to context and changing information)
  • Classical, new recordings of the standard repertoire
  • Classical, music in the classical tradition that made its way to CD/digital in 2014
  • Classical reissues
  • Popular styles, broad list of music in all styles that are meant to be popular in some way, singing not required
  • Popular styles reissued
  • Downtown International, a personal category that looks at experimental and avant-garde music as a single category that gathers together musicians across all genres under a unique set of values
  • … and anything else that gives me a reasonable excuse to include worthwhile recordings that don’t fit in the other lists

This will be entirely subjective, of course, but hopefully thoughtful. And subject to change! No recommendations today, though, other than to refrain from shopping.

Ashley in the House

Thinking and writing about Robert Ashley has been an involved, major project for me the past many weeks, and I am close to tying it off. There’s no feeling of relief, because his work is extraordinary, and his loss—which was inevitable—is immense. There is such a dearth of new thinking in opera, exacerbated by the feeling that everyone seems to be working on a new one in the same old romantic tradition, it seems like the future is gone in some way.

Collected links to our Ashley pieces at the Brooklyn Rail are here:

It was gratifying to read the copy from my writers, Jeff Tompkins and Alessandro Cassin, who approached the pieces with open ears and minds and responded sincerely and powerfully. I was fortunate to see the world premiere of Crash, you can read my review at the New York Classical Review.

Yesterday, we were back in the Red Bull Studios to record our podcast for May. I’ll be editing it over the next week, and when done you’ll be able to hear the fascinating and moving conversation we had with Alex Waterman, who directed the Whitney productions, and Amirtha Kidambi, who performed in Crash. Ashley lives on through them.

Some of you may have recordings of the operas, but there’s more to his work. See this page at Amazon that collects not only the music but his published libretto for Perfect Lives, which reads like one of the great American novels, and for an upcoming book that Waterman and Will Holder put together with Ashley’s assistance: Yes, But is it Edible? The book collects two Ashley scores and also is a biography of the man, meant to be performed out loud by two or more readers. What could be more beautiful and humane? Don’t forget Kyle Gann’s essential musical biography, augmented with this page at his site.


The cliché of the visionary artist is of someone like William Blake, so involved in the worlds in his head that his wife said of him, “I have very little of Mr. Blake’s company, he is always in Paradise.” This is the idea of vision as hallucination, a mystical third eye seeing into dimensions and universes beyond human experience. If you visit the composer Robert Ashley, as I had the honor to do recently, you have a very different experience. The open-air elevator that runs through a central shaft in his building requires some skill and experience to operate, so he gladly comes down to greet you at the door and, eagerly pulling you inside, brings you up to his calm apartment to talk. His straightforward courtesy belies that fundamental vision of his work.

Ashley was in the midst of preparing The Old Man Lives in Concrete for a four night performance at Roulette, in Brooklyn, NY. It’s the latest in what is now a substantial body of dramatic music, pieces that are absolutely operas and are also absolutely unlike not only any other operas, but unlike what anyone imagine the form to be. He is an avant-gardist in the true sense, not in making an obnoxious racket in order to épater les bourgeoisie, but in discovering a fundamentally simple idea and spending his career exploring every permutation of it. It is a vision that Ashley has, and the vision is the flickering of the television screen.

He makes opera for television, although only one of his numerous works, Perfect Lives, has been fully produced for that screen. And why not? Ashley’s generation is the first one that came of age in the TV era, and just as my daughter sees the touch-screen of an iPad as a natural part of her environment, so Ashley saw TV as another common component of life in an economically advanced country. He also saw it, as any sensitive viewer at the dawn of the broadcast era would, as a stage. Before ABC, CBS and NBC knew what they could sell to advertisers, they tried all sorts of things, and so along with a vast wasteland, there is also the legacy of Omnibus, Ernie Kovacs, Groucho Marx hosting one game show and John Cage appearing on another.

It’s a difficult niche, with pressure coming from, culturally, above and below. From below is the commercial goal of appealing to the lowest common denominator, from above the knee-jerk snooty attitude that TV is inherently declassé. It’s a medium, and what is made for it, like for the printed page or the compact disc, is mostly inane, disposable and dull. Don’t blame the screen, just turn it off.

Ashley and television are a sympathetic fit, because his dramatic and technical interests suit a platform that, by putting a stage into the home, emphasizes intimate ideas and expression. Dramatically, he’s interested in people at the fringes of society’s attention, like the homeless subjects of Dust, or the elderly, especially those living in care facilities. He’s fascinated with their internal sense of time, and how it leads to a tendency to speak, to tell a tale, then fall silent, oblivious of the accumulation of seconds. Technically, his work is based around speech — an early personal and academic interest — and his characters primarily speak to the audience, their voices frequently processed through electronics and mixed in with more electronic music. While it’s common now to have a media system set up so that music coming through the television can be played on a proper set of speakers, the built-in audio of the screen (and many computers) is poor for the type of singing that is standard in opera. But the speaking voice, the storytelling voice, is perfect.

Ashley told me that “American composers want to tell their stories, structural ideas have never been of primary importance.” Through his characters, he is one of the great storytellers, and television is the great storytelling medium. The breakthrough concept of The Sopranos, and the superb craft, demonstrated the power of long-form, episodic storytelling, the kind of thing that Dickens used to do. Ashley’s work takes hours, not years, but there’ll be something of that feeling at Roulette, where The Old Man will be parsed out over two sets of two nights, substantial and episodic but far more intimate than a Ring Cycle and most likely inspiring rather than exhausting.

The performances are part of a process that will create the final work. The Old Man showed at La Mama in 2009, and Ashley has added a substantial amount of new material. After the Roulette performances, he’ll take the recorded audio and splice it together in the studio into the final form that he wants. It’s “another step in my desire to write for television,” although the only way to experience the live action will be in person. That’s been frustrating for him, producing televised work or video recordings was usually too expensive in the past. But with digital tools and web-based distribution, the costs have dropped dramatically, and the expense of distributing television opera is essentially nothing (you can watch Perfect Lives on YouTube). And the laptop, iPhone and iPad have made television portable and discrete. “I’m confident that the young generation will be on television” with their work, Ashley told me.

He’s eighty-two, so the limit of how much more produces is perhaps visible. The legacy of avant-garde composers in the post-WWII era is that of finding a voice, finding a dedicated group of musicians to realize that voice, then finding that other musicians want to reproduce it as well. Ashley has been working with mostly the same performers — Joan La Barbara, Thomas Buckner, himself — for decades, and it has been an open question of whom might pick up his work and further it, but in the past year especially a cadre of young musicians and composers have begun to reproduce his work in their own performances. Most prominent are Paul Pinto and Gelsey Bell, who performed Perfect Lives last year with their group Varispeed, and the ensemble Thing NY, musicians who clearly have Ashley excited about his legacy: “I was desperately worried, now I’m not at all, I’m ecstatic. There has to be that continuity from one generation to the next that allows music to change.” And it will allow Ashley’s work to endure, whether or not on television.

The Radical Simplicity Of The Avant-Garde

Landmarks tell us where we are, they help us get to where we’re going. They appear differently to us depending on our distance and angle, and it is that relation which orients us. No matter how concrete and specifically defined they are as objects, their meaning and function are mainly subjective and relative.

In Brooklyn, the main landmark is the Williamsburg Bank tower, which tells us how close or far we are from two central hubs, the meeting place of the Long Island Railroad and the New York City Subway system, and the complex of the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Both of those can tells us our distance and direction to an enormous expanse of places and ideas, but the latter is also a mirage. Like a false oasis in the desert, it fools people into thinking they can see how near the avant-garde is, but there is no avant-garde there. Because unlike a point in space or on a spectrum of style, the avant-garde is far less an idea (or in fashionably ‘concrete’ terms a construct), but a practice; the practice of radical simplicity.

If you’re in Brooklyn, though, and heading in a particular direction, the bank tower can help you easily find your way to a place where that practice of radical simplicity happens almost every night, the Issue Project Room, slightly west and due south from BAM. It seems like an appropriate relationship, in relative terms, and it’s even more appropriate that the future home of Issue Project is almost due west (or left) of the complex. It’s at Issue Project Room where you can see and hear, not things like the simplistic pop philosophy of a Laurie Anderson (who appears avant-garde only in relation to a range limited to the span from Talking Heads to Beck), but music in its most basic, unselfconscious state, sounds as the result of practice, sounds made possible through questions, not results circumscribed by easy answers.

In June the Darmstadt Institute 2010 was in residence at IPR, and the programs I saw were extraordinary, leaving powerful, lasting impressions that mock the concept of taste; of good and bad, of like and dislike. The series title is a multifold homage, both honoring and teasing the annual Darmstadt symposiums on Serious Music. Those have long been both a resource and a bane, a place to offer creative possibilities in music and also to ossify them into aesthetic dogma. Well, as Robert Greenburg liked to say in my graduate school seminars, dogma eats dogma. In contrast, the Darmstadt Institute at IPR could not be less dogmatic. Under the gentle and social auspices of Nick Hallett and Zach Layton, it presented programs with the idea of offering interesting music, and worthwhile areas of exploration, while agnostically declining to tell anyone how great or important it might be.

It’s a subtle and important distinction, and allows IPR to present important context to the programs without coming off as lecturing or dictating ‘proper’ responses. The result is a way into listening to music that may be so unfamiliar as to baffle, and the genuine pleasure of learning and incorporating a new idea or aesthetic view. A real triumph of this approach was the June 18th evening dedicated to Luc Ferrari that, with his widow Brunhild in attendance, was also a gracious and unofficial public tribute to one of the quietly monumental artist of the previous century. The structure of the program turned out to be, itself, musical, with the second half offering a musical response to the musical presentation of the first half, in a creative spiral built around Ferrari’s electro-acoustic work “Tautologos III.” To start, IPR screened a documentary, “Luc Ferrari: Facing His Tautology,” made shortly before his death, in which he supervises a recording session for the work. In the second half, Ensemble Pamplemousse and David Grubbs played the piece, and another work, in a living and ongoing dialogue with the composer, who, having just appeared in front of us, was as alive as everyone else in the space.

“Tautologos III” uses structured improvisation against an electronic audio track, the musicians creating their own material then following rules about repetition and entrances. The performances, as heard in the film and live, were completely different in sound (with very different instrumentation) and style, the common identifying thread being the audio. That track, as chaotic and random as it may sound, is the regimented part, the sonic events taking place in the same order and at the same times. In the film, the musicians created their material with an ear towards almost pop music riffs (Ferrari remarks to one of them, smiling, how horrible a phrase is), while Pamplemousse was more abstract and understated, more radically simple, carefully placing sounds in time and listening to each other. That is, after all, the fundamental practice of making music, with notation, tunings, harmonies and forms comprising the wonderful artifice of a developed, abstract art. The quiet, focussed, transparent and contemplative performance was a dialogue with the composer that came to a superb stopping point but which can never, thankfully, actually end. Pamplemousse and Grubbs finished the evening off with “Et tournent les sons dans la garrigue,” an instructions-based piece for an improvising ensemble. It was some of the finest group improvising I’ve heard. A punishing drum stroke began a ritual of listening and playing, call and response; beautiful, sustained sonorities in the strings, augmented with flute and then following by a quiet, repeated guitar note and the lovely tone of a bowed piano string. It was the sound of how civilizations began, ten thousand years ago, via the simplest dialogue and consensus. An improvising ensemble tosses ideas amongst its members, who ideally find a musical consensus and from it build a group expression. Pamplemousse’s consensus was in creating a group sonority, maintaining a constant, luminous sound while slowly adjusting the pitch material to move the music from one point in time to the next. As the audience listened and watched, they sculpted the air between, the musicians developing a varied palette of attacks, the piece expressing the paradox of taking on more coherent information while the sound itself began to disintegrate, a violation of the Second Law of Thermodynamics that only music can accomplish. The activity receded into a beautiful, sonorous end built around the return to the consensus of sustained pitches, colored by arpeggiations. Then, in a way that only the radical simplicity of improvisation allows, pianist David Broome broke with the consensus as the other instruments dropped out, and played a coda, a pocket ballad touching on standard ideas of melody and harmony, something simple, touching, attractive, transporting the piece from one place into another, completely different, brand new and absolutely fitting. The expressive beauty of the moment left the audience in awe.

Ferrari’s work is in part about how music makes civilization, and two nights later Darmstadt followed it up with how music works on the body, with an evening of discussion and performance titled “Biomusic.” It was mysterious, unnerving and stimulating, like a a vivid, provocative dream. In three parts, it was lecture, music and film (actually more of an exercise in extreme audio and visual stimulation). Branden Joseph, Frank Gallipoli Professor of Modern and Contemporary Art, spoke about contrasting ideas of the simplest music of all, pure sound, as embodied in the most generously civilized idea of Max Neuhaus‘ public sound out (his famous Times Square installation is a prime example), and the materialistic dystopia of Manfred Eaton, who’s concept of “Bio-Music” shows what thoughts are possible when everything is a commodity, and every idea about governing is based on who controls whom. Eaton, an inventor more professionally known for his work on brakes for train engines and cars, developed a speculative but detailed system for creating sound and music via a direct connection between brain waves and sound producing apparatus, and sought to implement the idea as a means to control the consciousness of others. The combination of the creative possibilities and the malevolent intent was fascinating and disorienting to hear in discussion, like watching Donnie Darko and trying to figure out if there actually is a copy of The Philosophy of Time Travel in print. Joseph was an expert guide into these ideas; clear, logical, giving just enough detail and context for the oddness at their cores but trusting the audience to capably follow him along.

He was followed by composer David Dunn, playing two pieces each based on a biological premise. The first used ultrasonic sound, lowered down to the level of general human perception, to explore the idea of what bats might perceive sonically if they flew through his New Mexico backyard (or, really, what we might ‘see’ if we were bats). The second was described by Dunn as offering an answer to the question, what if viruses have ears? After thinking of the questions, Dunn removed himself as much as possible from the process of producing the sounds that made up the pieces, at least in terms of what it means to be a composer. For the first piece, he used a binaural ultrasonic mic and recorded the sonic landscape of his backyard, a landscape we would never hear under normal circumstances, but one that we can hear in the concert setting. The second piece was realized through two oscillators Dunn built, designed to work with and against each other via feedback, a bit of creative destruction applied to Eaton’s fundamental concept. Where Eaton was concerned with the idea of control taken to the extremes of social organization, Dunn is interested in autopoiesis, the function of the means of making a piece working to produce, and destroy, the piece’s form, and vice versa. A simple, extraordinarily elegant idea that can propagate itself as much as a compose produces it, and creates complex sounds. Some have a tactile quality, especially in the depiction of what a bat might see, which can seem startling at first but is essential to sound – touch at a distance. While composers use their art to organize sound to touch us in certain, frequently manipulative ways – they want us to feel something – Dunn has us observe sound being created in front of us, seemingly without any emphasis, as if it were a creature seen in the wild. His bats fly according to their own thoughts and needs, his oscillators work with and react to each other. The feeling that observable order was on the verge of coalescing in the second piece was riveting; after burning seemingly randomly through extremely fast pulse rates and frequencies, they would meet on a single pitch for brie moments, charged with the tension that their equilibrium was too unstable to hold. It was another effective demonstration of how simple ideas can create complex results, and how an increase in coherent information and ideas in a piece of music can seem like chaos when it is anything but.

Not a dirty projector

Biomusic came to an end with the singular work of Bruce McClure. He works with film, but he doesn’t make movies, and he works with sound, but he’s not a composer. His piece, Ventriloquent Agitators, accessorized with amiably eccentric hand-written program notes and a set of ear plugs with a noise reduction rating of 33dBA, was performed by means of four film projectors, threaded with simple patterns of light and dark frames, alternating as four sections of a square on the projection surface. As the film moves through projectors, the images are also produced as optical sound signals and processed through a series of guitar effects and then sent out through the PA system. The result is rapidly shifting/switching patterns of light and dark, on and off, binary images along with deeply thrumming, complex monotone sound, the image and sound closely coordinated. McClure is playing with, and exploring, the simplest biological reactions to input in our senses. The inexactness of the analog projection slowly, hypnotically transforms the heavy, hard sound into an irresistible rhythm, relaxing in spite of the sonic force, while the stimulation of the lights creates a powerful and vaguely pleasing sense of disorientation in the brain. The experience was unique, the power almost overwhelming but McClure’s complete guilelessness and his open-minded questioning of possibilities and curiosity about what might happen are communal, and so the feeling of having someone run their fingers through your mind was an appropriately dreamlike experience for an evening that beyond with a trip into the rabbit hole, and left us with the dazed refreshment of waking from a profoundly deep and much needed sleep.

Dunn stuck around for a couple days for an evening dedicated to the late composer Kenneth Gaburo, a difficult figure in very real ways. Gaburo is obscure, even in the world of contemporary music, for the singular quality of his work, which seems untethered from centuries of tradition, and his clearly irascible personality. He created an impressive and influential body of work, while exploring some of the most radically simple, and avant-garde, ideas and processes in music. He used standard instrumentation and forms for a period, even had a piece performed by the New York Philharmonic under the baton of Dimitri Mitropoulos. He also made some fine, important tape and electronic compositions, like “Lemon Drops” from 1964-65. Why he was being remembered, and the evening was as much remembrance as performance, with Dunn, Larry Polansky and Chris Mann present, discussing Gaburo as the man and composer they knew, with Warren Burt joining via projection from Australia, was for his creation of an unclassifiable art that combine linguistic raw materials, musical structure and theatrical performance, an idea he called Compositional Linguistics.

We need artists like Gaburo to think these thoughts and do this work for us. Language is at the core of the human species, and music is not only a language but arguably the very first human language. Language makes society, and thus civilization. The language of speech and writing and music has developed over thousand of years, especially that of music, which in the West has become an entirely abstract concept, a language without inherent meaning. In the context of our aesthetic culture, breaking down musical instruments to their common core – the human body that plays them – and breaking down music to it’s most fundamental component – the sound created by the human mouth – led Gaburo to a way of structuring spoken language as music. This is a necessarily simplistic description of things that not even a graduate seminar could treat with proper justice, but it gives some sense of what makes his most famous piece, “Maledetto,” what it is. A ‘Composition for seven virtuoso speakers,’ “Maledetto” is a forty-five minute opus that begins with a speaker describing and attempting to explain the origin of the screw. As he continues, other voice join in, working from a different but ubiquitous definition from screw, that is the verb, and exploring an impressively comprehensive set of slang riffs on the carnal act. The speaker is the straight-man, and by the time he mentions Archimedes’ endless screw, the effect is amazing and hilarious. His coda, where the screw becomes an object contracted by his brother-in-law for the government, and through which the government . . . well, you know what The Man does to us. The piece has a clearly made musical structure; a shape, sections, internal counterpoint, but although there are occasional sung tones the material is spoken. It’s music, it’s theater, it’s a lecture, it’s fascinating, indescribable, unsettling, prodding the listener to abandon every notion they previously held about the possibilities of music. It’s clearly loved and hated at the same time, and Mann described how it encouraged him to get on a plane and come argue with Gaburo, and argument that continues sympathetically after his death. Sitting on a stool, Mann offered his latest argument, which he called “The Art Of The Diff,” something newly completed but with elements of previous work like “a history of grammar” and the example below. While it’s not clear to me what he and Gaburo argue over, his use of language seems both sympathetic to and different from the composer. The wonderful combination of mutterings and gestures, the sense that we are watching someone in the process of thinking and trying to put those thoughts into language, seem in line with Gaburo’s work, and Mann uses much more specific material, that is words that we recognize and that have a real meaning. But he shifts the concept and context around him as he speaks, himself at the still center while we whip around trying to find or bearings. I do not know what to call it, but it has a magical effect, and is full of charm and human values.

“Maledetto” was not performed (you can listen to it here and read Gaburo’s notes), but there was a performance of his “Ave Maria,” Warren Burt played, via projection, a realization of a text piece he had recorded, and Issue Project screened an amazing and mesmerizing film, unfortunately not currently available, that Gaburo made of one of his text pieces in performance. The piece instructed the three performers to each take a children’s rhyme, “London Bridge” was one of them, and substitute a regular pattern of phonemes, vocal sounds and even body sounds like snapping and slapping, and perform them with the regular cadences of the originals. The work, and the film, alternated between the three performers in sepia-toned close-ups, revealing their physical humanity but cloaking their identities. This is very difficult to perform, and the results were virtuosic. Watching and listening was incredibly disorienting at first, like being spoken to by a space alien, but the repetition, and Gaburo’s true genius, worked on the language centers in the brain, so that the listener could gradually discern a structure and a purpose, and then began to look forward to hearing the next repetition as small revelations piled one upon the other. What Gaburo managed was to rewire the brain from the most basic materials, to return the brain to a fundamental state, free of the clutter of civilization and culture, to make music as if for the first time in history. An extraordinary concept and achievement, and radically simple.

UPDATED: Added photo of McClure’s projector set-up

UPDATED II: Ferrari piece now strictly identified as “Tautologos III,” as per David Grubbs via Nick Hallett


Revolutionary Chic

David Byrne and Brian Eno have a new record, available today.

Perhaps it will be good. “My Life In The Bush of Ghosts” is decent enough – more on that later – but the free download song off the new record is decidedly ordinary. That probably would surprise a lot of people, but it shouldn’t, because the two are relatively ordinary musicians. But this post is not about them so much as about the relativity of the avant-garde.

This article about the two, and their collaboration, takes as implicit that their connections to the avant-gare, which completely mystifies me. This is not a complaint about Eno or Byrne. They do what they do well. Although Talking Heads never spoke to me much until “Speaking in Tongues,” where they became good musicians and made good music, I have many Eno recordings I enjoy, and his last record is really pretty damn good; he has great ears and great taste. But I first heard his name back in high school, when people were talking about this totally avant-garde record, this idea of ambient music meant to be part of the environment. It was totally avant-garde!

Of course, it wasn’t. Well, if all you knew of music was pop and rock, it certainly was. And for the majority of listeners and critics, music began only in the 20th century and the only music that exists is rock and pop. When I first heard of “Music for Airports,” I had already known about Satie, so this idea was nothing new. And when I first heard The Talking Heads, I had already been playing free jazz, so again, nothing new.

The avant-garde as a movement in music really came into being in the 20th century, prior to World War I, and by that I do not mean that the directed development of music reached an ultra-extreme point, but that there was a conscious effort, begun by the Futurists, to destroy the previous history of music and start it again from a non-musical basis. Since that time, there have been a variety of attempts to put the possible future of music at some point far outside the contemporary limit of tradition; George Antheil based a career on it, the beginnings of tape and electronic music, the methods of Xenakis and Scelsi, all of these were truly avant-garde rather than logical next-steps in the progressive accretion of musical knowledge. What makes the avant-garde so vital is that, as T.S. Eliot pointed out, the tradition of an art form eventually reaches that outlying point and incorporates it, and so no artists is ever totally outside the tradition. The avant-garde is literally out front, waiting for the rest to catch up.

The same is not quite true for pop and rock music; these are forms with limited possibilities for expansion, and their history tends to be circular, recycling older styles in new packages. This is because, like non-Western “classical” music, the purpose of rock and pop is mainly social, so there are constraints on what is accepted, since the point is popular acceptance. Classical music is absolute music, it exists for itself, and so can attempt and incorporate anything that works. So the idea that Brian Eno would, in a pop music context, make a record that had no words, was quiet and was not meant to draw attention to itself, seemed more than a little odd, but in the history of music, the all-encompassing history, there was nothing odd or even new about it. In fact, this has been a long-time social purpose of music, and so fit perfectly well into the pop world. Eno, and Eno and Byrne together, have shown the pop world different ways to think about pop music, which makes for more interesting listening for us all. But avant-garde? No – neither starved for this.