Rail Tracks, the podcast of the Brooklyn Rail music section, is up for September: we talk about the coming season with Melissa Smey of Miller Theatre, Thomas Crawford, the conductor of the American Classical Orchestra, Limor Tomer at the Metropolitan Museum, and Elliott Sharp stops in to describe his opera on Walter Benjamin’s last moments alive on earth. Stream or download:
- Elliott Sharp Aggregat Quintet: as good as last year’s great Aggregat trio album, but more so.
The Soviet Experience, Volume 4, Pacifica String Quartet: this finished up their Shostakovich cycle, which has been great, and this set in particular is powerful, one of the best classical releases of the year.
- Bartók and Kodály: The Complete String Quartets, The Alexander String Quartet: generously complete, and also beautifully played. This set of Bartók Quartets has vaulted to the top of my favorites list, another top classical release for 2013.
That’s right, you too can have Elliott Sharp in your very own home! For the low, low price of $1,000 coin for a private concert! Too much? Then scrape together $10, or anything else you’ve got, so he can record “Proof of Erdös” and complete his (hopefully) upcoming CD From Corlear’s Hook on Starkland records. There’s pretty much no more creative and accomplished genre-crossing artist than Sharp, and any new release from him is an important event. One of the most fund-worthy things you’ll ever find on Kickstater, so help a brother out.http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1246097441/to-record-proof-of-erdos
There are times when you put a CD into your computer to rip it into iTunes, and it shows up in your library as the genre Unclassifiable. The databases behind iTunes are pop oriented so they’re easily confused by something that might need an artist and a composer in the tables. But there are times when the music has a slippery style, with familiar elements but a quality that can’t be succinctly pinned down. That’s when music is often at its best.
Genre categories are both meaningless and useful: they tell us little about the music but give us a way to frame the idiom. This is a list of music from this year that I think is great but that doesn’t either fall into the large categories of jazz and classical. There are familiar pop styles, and it’s something like the “beyond’ category that downbeat magazine has us critics vote on. In my case, this is music that I tend to listen to with broadly similar ears, with the expectation that there’s going to be the type of direct, physical impact that is an essential part of good rock music.
http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?lt1=_blank&bc1=000000&IS2=1&bg1=FFFFFF&fc1=000000&lc1=0000FF&t=thbicibl-20&o=1&p=8&l=as4&m=amazon&f=ifr&ref=ss_til&asins=B008DWFZOI 1. Tin Hat, the rain is handsome animal. The artists formally known as the Tin Hat Trio, augmented with great Bay Area clarinetist Ben Goldberg, have put out a record of songs (with instrumental interludes) that set poetry of e.e. cummings. The poet’s work has been popular with twentieth century composers, including John Cage, Ned Rorem, Leanord Bernstein, Aaron Copland and Luciano Berio; a formidable group of and an equally formidable body of work. It may initially seem unfair to add this record to that company, but I’m sure the legacy of those composers will survive, because these are the finest settings of cummings I have ever heard. This is a record of vernacular art songs, a rare combination of coherent poetic abstraction, musical lyricism and a physically pleasing and exciting sound. Any reader not familiar with Tin Hat should not imagine the music as stiff and structurally complex. These are songs in the pop sense but with the highest musical and intellectual sophistication: counterpoint, swinging tango rhythms, hot solos and plangent emotionalism. Smart, strong and often deeply beautiful, especially “Buffalo Bill,” which has the power of a rock anthem, with Carla Khilstedt singing from new heights of richness and confidence. Not only the top recording on this list, but the best recording I heard of any kind in 2012, bar none. Fantastic in every way.
2. The Crooked Jades, Bright Land. A very close second. One of the finest bands in the country, their new record is on the same high level as 2010’s exquisite Shining Darkness. Bluegrass of a very free style, with more than a little post-punk rockabilliy, the band makes music that carves out paths to the future, which is sorely needed in a landscape of indie-groups enthralled by a mythical past of ‘authentic’ white roots music. Bluegrass itself is a synthetic style that was created in the middle of the last century, and that is the true roots of American musical culture, creating something out of nothing other than the confidence that anything is permitted. By writing their own material and seeking to discover the things that might be possible, Compared to the wan ‘lite’ beer of their idiomatic peers, Wilco, this band is fine, high-proof rye whisky with a dash of tabasco. One of the great American bands and an excellent record.
3. Elliot Sharp’s Terraplane, Sky Road Songs. Simply no drop-off in achievement with this modern blues record, which I admit is in this arbitrary spot to satisfy a vague notion of fairness, as Sharp has a record in my top ten jazz list and will have one in my top ten classical list as well. Modern in the same way that Bright Land is modern: music that has a foundation of a familiar, even clichéd style. but is made by terrific musicians who also know how to play, and love, rock and jazz and funk and punk and even experimental music. The music has Sharp’s rare balance of muscular power, wit, love and irreverence and absolute clarity. There’s a great, satisfying swagger to the playing, a lot of it coming from Tracie Morris’ hard-edged vocals. Excellent as well.
4. Iron Dog, Interactive Album Rock. This trios’ previous record, field recordings 1, showed up unbidden in my mailbox a year or so ago. That this is the first I’ve written about it is because of how unusual and strong it is, and the excellent of the new disc has confirmed and clarified my initial response. This is an improvising group, with Sarah Bernstein playing violin and singing, Stuart Popejoy on bass guitar and Andrew Drury at the drums. They play with a specific kind of freedom, unchained by pop and even jazz notions of melody, harmony and phrasing, but their is a structural and sonic focus, a point, to every sound they make, and that point usually goes straight for the gut. It’s clear they listen closely to each other and think both quickly and imaginatively, and it’s also clear that they absolutely know what they are doing and what they indeed, there’s no existential angst. But this is all fancy talk, you have to hear this for yourself, because the music they make is a platonic ideal of experimentalism and punk-rock attitude. They start where Sonic Youth leaves off, and actually they start far beyond where Sonic Youth leaves off. Some of the most exciting and accessible abstract music you’ll find.
5. Neneh Cherry and The Thing, Cherrything. A close companion in a way to Interactive Album Rock, further proof that avant-garde jazz musicians (see: Don Cherry, Lester Bowie, Conjure) make the best pop music. A set of mostly covers that put the originals to shame: there is literally no comparison between the electronically overproduced pop and the gutty, sweaty, swaggering, sexual swagger of Neneh and the raunchy, raucous funk of The Thing. A dangerous record for dangerous times that are normally inundated with the safest kind of faux-transgressive pop.
6. Public Image Limited, This is PiL. My feelings about this great new PiL record are much like the ones above, just replace the sex with a deep and necessary irreverence for the faddish musical consumer product that is the commercial arm of the ruling Establishment class. Music for those disaffected but still with hope and determination, tinged with adult loss and regret, built on that classic heavy beat.
7. Luce Trio, Pieces, Volume 1. John Potter’s Downland Project CDs have always beguiled and frustrated me. I love the tradition of idiomatic improvisation, and the possibility of approaching Dowland’s songs as if they are ‘tunes,’ with a fine singer and musicians who can do creative things within the possibilities of Elizabethan forms, yet with a modern sensibility, hints at a new universe of music-making. The results are constantly disappointing, though, as Potter, Barry Guy and the rest end up indulging in little more than atmospherics — they sound like a band that’s faking it. The Luce Trio is not faking it. This seemingly modest record is a real accomplishment, and the difference is that this group understands the music they are playing, whether it’s Bach or John De Lucia’s originals, and they maintain a clear musical focus. The players are secure in their idiomatic styles and say things that are surprising and make sense. Instead of wallowing in an infantile enthrallment to Bach, they make Bach new.
8. Maya Duneitz, John Edwards, Steven Noble, Cousin It. An appropriate bookend to the Iron Dog Interactive, this is another disc of refreshing, surprising improvisation. Acoustic where the other is heavily electric, and with a quiet and impish sense of subversion as opposed to aggressive iconoclasm. It sneaks up on you quickly and grabs your attention with it’s spaciousness, focus and wit. Admirable in every way.
9. William Brittelle, Loving the Chambered Nautilus. You can call this contemporary classical music, and you would be right, but I like this disc a lot, and I like it on this list even more because Brittelle is so interested in, and successful at, setting up the context of a formal and stylistic convention for his work and then demolishing that context before he gets to the final bars. Full of life, intelligence and questions, it’s out-of-the-ordinary music. And there’s a good song too.
10. Tim Hecker/Daniel Lopatin, Instrumental Tourist. A given for fans of both these musicians — and I’m a fan — this is a wonderful record of electronic music. The structures and abstract and without beats, but full of pulsations and physically palpable sounds. Each is an accomplished solo artist already, and they each bring a particular quality to this collaboration beyond their distinctive sonic signatures: Lopatin adds the plangent melancholy, and Hecker the sensation that the sounds begin in your brain-stem and explode, slowly, outward.
If not early enough for some editors … One of the polls I take part in an annual one for the Spanish site El Intruso, and since it covers a cross-genre range of creative music it’s one of my favorites (and also since it is made up of a pretty tiny pool of critics, my oddball choices have greater weight). The poll will be published early next month, but here’s the ballot I sent in, with brief annotations. Everything on here is highly recommended for your listening and collecting pleasure:
Group of the year – Tin Hat; their disc of e.e. cummings songs was the finest release of any kind in 2012.
Newcomer group – Maya Dunietz/John Edwards/Steve Noble trio; their Cousin It is outstanding improvisational music.
Album of the year – Tin Hat; the rain is a handsome animal
Composer – Elliott Sharp
Bass – John Hebert, the finest and most consistent ensemble partner I heard all year
Guitar – Shane Perlowin, of Ahleuchatistas
Keyboards/synthesizer/organ – Sean Wayland; just listen to this
Saxophone – Hafezh Modirzadeh, breaking new ground with Post-Chromodal Out
Trumpet/Cornet – Nate Wooley; seemingly on every creative recording of 2012
Clarinet – Ben Goldberg, great playing with Tin Hat, looking forward to his upcoming releases
Trombone – Jacob Garchik
Violin/Viola – Carla Khilstedt
Cello – Mariel Roberts
Vibraphone – Jason Adasiewicz; the Nate Wooley of the vibes
Female vocals – Christine Correa
Male Vocals – Kurt Elling, this holds true pretty much every year he puts out a record, and 1619 Broadway is one of his best.
Best live band – Henry Threadgill’s Zooid
Record Label – Clean Feed, unsurpassed quality, unbelievable quantity
Once again Rhapsody is going to be hosting the annual poll of jazz critics that Francis Davis has been organizing for the previous six years, and I have voted in it for the third year running (results will be published January).
Here’s the ballot I gave him, plus more. The nature of the list is that it is a snapshot in time, as of late last week, and if I put it together again today it would likely be different. The relative rankings change on a daily basis, and some discs that I list below as ‘Honorable Mentions’ might find their way into the top ten, and vice-versa. What this means is that these are all fine recordings, spanning a broad range of thinking and styles. Discs in the ‘Honorable Mention’ can be as strong as the top ten, but depending on the day I’m listening they might have seem to have a little less of that certain je ne sais quoi, that bit of idiosyncratic music-making that pushes past forms and structures. One thing is pretty rock-solid though, and that’s the top two records which can go back and forth for me minute to minute but are the two finest jazz releases of 2012.
2012 best new releases:
p>This record has a gleeful, genial madness about it. It’s not the spawn of insanity, it’s the sensation of watching an autodidact demolish conventional wisdom and show the beauty and genius of what can be done by following one’s own path.
Sharp’s brilliance as a musician has an obvious force but is unique and therefore difficult to describe. He uses relatively common elements, even clichés, but puts them together in unconventional ways. This record, a great one and one of the finest of the year, is something like the recordings of Sonny Rollins in a trio setting at the Village Vanguard. Sharp’s saxophone playing — and he has become a formidable saxophonist — has a touch of Rollins in the sound and style, especially in the wry sense with which he both takes apart and takes off from his tunes (there’s also an affinity in both sound and style to Joe McPhee). He pushes the notes around with both intent and a sense of experimentation, and he’s such a quick thinker that even the most unexpected twists and turns come out with coherent logic. He also flits in and out of the beat, at times hitting it, at other times ignoring it, trampolining off the rhythm section with complete confidence that he will land exactly where he expects them to be.
When he picks up his main axe, the guitar, the record pushes over from the edge of free-ish jazz into a sonic maelstrom. There are torrents of notes, again always clearly articulated, placed in time and absolutely meant, and what is disorienting is how he just doesn’t run up and down scales but works forward and backward through an inner range that he is defining at the same time that he’s seeing if he can take it apart. It’s improvised thrash, but with a level of musical skill and intellectual focus (and a sense of humor) that are thrilling and pleasantly bewildering — you have no idea how he does it, yet you love what he does.
Packed with fantastic playing in every moment, and with an almost conventional post-punk, “Satan Sandwich,” at the end. Sharp is one of the finest musicians of the last couple of generations, and this is the finest music-making, in a long career of music, that I’ve yet heard from him. Highest possible recommendation.
The tinkering under the hood continues (it seems like it will never end, but it will, I promise, I think I’ve solved all my technical issues), and the music continues, so have some Friday links and miscellany:
- ‘“After tax, that’s like, what, $75,000?” an investment banker at a rival firm said as he contemplated Morgan Stanley’s decision. He ran the numbers, modeling the implications. “I’m not married and I take the subway and I watch what I spend very carefully. But my girlfriend likes to eat good food. It all adds up really quick. A taxi here, another taxi there. I just bought an apartment, so now I have a big old mortgage bill.”’ Median household income in the US for 2006-2010 was $52,000. Asshole. (story is here if you can stomach it, corrective is here, and read Chris Lehman’s book).
- I caught a set of Fred Hersch’s residency at the Village Vanguard this week, all the music is being recorded for a new release coming this September, and if the playing I heard was any indication, he’s going to have a difficult time deciding what to put on the disc, and it’s going to be terrific.
- The Avant Music Festival is happening over the next several days, and there’s a Cage Marathon Saturday. See you there.
- I’ve got a new Cage essay, and have some Etudes Australes
- The music of Elliott Sharp made up two of my best events from 2011, and now you can share the experience with his self-released CD Occam’s Razor, preserving concert performances including JACK Quartet’s crushingly great one in Ostrava. This is a hand-numbered edition of 200, and Bruce at DMG told me last Sunday that there were still 185 left. Get it from them, it’s special.
- In good conscience, I can only recommend two ways to ‘celebrate’ Valentine’s Day; Medieval polyphony from New York Polyphony, or Steven Blier and NYFOS presenting “A Modern Person’s Guide to Hooking Up and Breaking Up.”
- The American Composers Orchestra has entered the world of digital releasing, which is exciting, and the latest collection from young composers is out Tuesday. Check for it at iTunes and Amazon.
- The innovative Music/Words series is back, tonight, and Safe Space returns Monday with Jeremy Denk (who also writes) and James Wood.
- And for the best price of all, gratis, you can experience the Talea Ensemble and singer Donatienne Michel-Donsac playing new music from Mittel Europa, including the charming and amazing Bernhard Lang.
1. Opera: Despite the continued, agonizing wrangling over the direction and fate of New York City Opera, 2011 was a great year for opera lovers here, and one of the most exciting and satisfying year of opera I’ve experienced. Looking back on the year, the variety and artistic quality of the work I saw on stage seems almost impossible. It was roughly bookended by appearances from William Christie and Les Arts Florissant, and that group encapsulated the strength of the year and of the form itself. Their lightly staged, concert performances of Rameau at Lincoln Center were are reminder that opera is a musical form first, a vessel for sets, costumes and diva-ishness a lagging second. In between, I saw Yoav Gal’s fascinating and effective Mosheh, the exceptionally powerful and moving production of Nixon in China at the Met, the exciting Three Monodramas at City Opera, The New York Philharmonic’s completely wonderful The Cunning Little Vixen, Ivan Fischer’s intensely dynamic and gripping Don Giovanni, the first dramatically successful Don I’ve seen in performance, Vertical Player’s Rep deeply pleasurable and charming out-of-doors production of La Calisto, and, at the end, Atys at BAM, the realization of the most abstract ideals of the operatic form, beautiful almost beyond the capacity of the human senses, and one of the single greatest experiences of my life. You can have almost the same experience via this excellent DVD of the same production, which I urgently recommend.
2. PowerFUL/LESS: One of the most imaginative programs of classical music I’ve ever seen put together. The Holy Grail of concert programming is typically a combination of masterpieces that cover the 18th – 20th centuries, give the audience the pleasure of the familiar and a dose of the modern/contemporary in a way that won’t scare them off. It’s presented as a questions — what do these pieces have to do with each other and you — that the performance answers. Eighth Blackbird’s program at the Park Avenue Armory’s Tune-In festival was something entirely different. They had questions — can music express specific ideas, especially political ones, and is music that attempts that better than music that doesn’t — to which they offered brilliant pieces as evidence with which to decide. And that there was no final answer was testament to the intelligence and taste of the program. Even more, that so much of the music had an effect that was opposite of the political arguments was proof of how fine the pieces were: rather than express the futility of order, Georg Friedrich Haas’ In Vain was an example of how conflict can create coherence, even in difficult circumstances; Andriessen’s “Worker’s Union” was a testament to how most great music-making is an autocratic, not democratic process; Matt Mark’s “A Portrait of Glenn Beck” and Fred Rzewski’s masterpiece, “Coming Together,” showed how the best political music let’s us think for ourselves and make up our own minds; and Stephen Schick’s fabulous performance of “UrSonate” turned a mirror on how much nonsensical ‘thinking’ we, as citizens, must endure. And then there was the great performance of Music for 18 Musicians, which, with its sense of community, is one of the more salient political compositions for these times.
3. JACK Quartet at Ostrava Days: a remarkable experience, a concert of music, but music about shapes, colors, timbres and, ultimately, the fabric of the universe and how our souls mesh with it. The combination of technique, imagination, expression, intelligence and stamina this group has is unsurpassed.
4. The return of the Brooklyn Philharmonic: like a combination of both the Phoenix and Superman, the Brooklyn Phil has come back from nothingness, which is good enough news. But that the administrative side had the imagination and fearlessness to both hire Alan Pierson and to realize that since the standard way of doing business didn’t work, they might as well just do what they want to do will be, I hope, an encouraging example to classical music organizations everywhere. Oh yeah, the programs and playing are great, the collaboration next June with Mos Def will completely change the standard by which the current commingling of classical and pop music is judged.
5. Inuksuit: I don’t think John Luther Adams imagined this, but it was an only in New York year for him. The same Tune-In festival introduced this massive, beautiful work to the public, in doors, and then Make Music New York revealed how naturally the piece lives and breathes out-of-doors, in a performance that became a natural part of the sonic fabric of Morningside Park, New York City, and the life experience of all who witnessed it.
6. Miller Theatre: I don’t want to set up a conflict where there is none, but the relative success of what’s been called alt/indie-classical, the post-Minimalist, constructively eclectic style that has pretty much become the new New York Sound, pulls a lot of attention away from music that is not primarily tonal, that is not primarily repetitive and is very strong and expressive. The way much of that music is designed to resolve implies that it is an answer, and that can be satisfying, but sometimes the most stimulating art only asks questions. Miller Theatre is a place for questions, and the ‘old-school’ style of post World War II Modernism is still full of vitality and variety. And even things that are not entirely successful, like James Dillon’s Nine Rivers, are fascinating for their means and ambition, and the fundamental feature of all the Composers feted in Portraits is their craft, from the exquisite exactitude of Mario Davidovsky to the smart, musical song craft of Tobias Picker. And where most concerts, no matter how pleasing, fail to surprise, it was at Miller this year that I discovered the excellent work of Chaya Czernowin.
7. New Amsterdam records: That being said, there is a lot of good music being made in the current style, and New Amsterdam is the exemplar of this — there were heavily represented in the Believer’s music issue. As a label and an organizing institution, they’ve been remarkably successful, and that’s good for music. Their inaugural Ecstatic Music Festival was a grand way to mark their arrival, and demonstrated the range and quality of the label’s taste, which I’m sympathetic to. While not everything they produce is a success — Shara Worden’s chamber music is not up to snuff, and Build seems to misunderstand what makes good pop music — but with a year of releases that stretched from Jefferson Friedman’s excitingly agitated String Quartets to Gregory Spears’ astringent Requiem to the ambient improvisations of itsnotyouitsme, New Amsterdam is learning by doing, and show us all how to make this ‘indie’-whatever thing work. It looks like 2012 will be equally as ambitious and impressive.
8. Sibelius and His World: The final two orchestral concerts of this summer’s performing symposium were as fine as possible, cogent programs that put together masterpieces from Sibelius with musically and conceptually related works from Nielsen, Vaughan Williams and Barber, and playing that reached the highest order. Botstein’s direction of Symphony No. 7 was ear-opening, and the performance of Barber’s Symphony No. 1 was mind-boggling.
9. Elliott Sharp at 60: I only caught one of the evening of this celebration of the great musician and composer, and of host Issue Project Room, but it was absolutely dazzling. Going his own way with a balance of modesty, dedication and a clear delight in what he doesn’t know but would like to discover, Sharp has become, across the board, one of the most accomplished figures on the contemporary music scene. There’s no one like him as a player and a thinker, crafting and executing the almost impossible etudes of Octal, creating finely structured improvisations with Orchestra Carbon, his excellent “Oligosono” for piano, and offering the further surprise of what I can only call the Dub-Noir free stylings of Bootstrappers.
10. 9/11: It could have been the worst of times, but became perhaps the best of times. The legacy of 9/11 has been shameful in the extreme, showing that those who lead this country, their mouthpieces and courtiers are mostly frightened, infantile, cosseted bullies who have the basest values. We have waged war so that weaklings like George W. Bush, Thomas Friedman and Dick Cheney can feel tough, tortured people because sadistic acts of cruelty transfer our own fears to others, spied on every American at will because the atavistic state of our leaders demands utter personal loyalty, and in the pluperfect culmination, it is now the law of the land that the U.S. Military can arrest American citizens within our borders and hold them in prison, indefinitely, without charges. And out of this, there are still vicious cretins who think we don’t sufficiently proclaim our American Exceptionalism. Because while we may do things every other despotic regime has done, we do them better! Because FREE MARKETS!
So, as this commemorative date rolled around and musical events were scheduled around New York, I was ambivalent. But things turned out better than I had imagined. Of course, there was this, but there was also the almost miraculous concert at the Temple of Dendur, with William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops, and the excellent Kronos Quartet “Awakening” show at BAM. For something incomprehensible, that happens without warning (despite there being people who should have known), the appropriate moral and intellectual response is to find the right thing, rather than strive for forge it. That is Basinski’s piece, and that is Kronos’ program, where they collect music from across the world and across genres, then stitch it together in a way that conveys an abstract narrative from mystery to a willingness and ability to comprehend who we live in the world. Their performance was tighter, tougher, clearer and more effective than even at the original premiere in San Francisco in 2006.
In a more conventional way, the New York Philharmonic gave Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony to the city. While an assurance about the afterlife may be one of the underlying problems in human nature, this is no less a work about recovery and revival, and the anguish and mystery are very real, as is the sublime beauty. This was a good and proper gift, not only free but shown in live broadcasts. What the performance lacked in the nth degree of polish it more than made up for in commitment, passion and generosity. The experience is available on an excellent DVD transfer, well-directed and with good sound, and with the moving touch of footage of New Yorkers outside in Lincoln Center, watching the broadcast, immersed together in their own private experiences.
New York City is not what it used to be. That in itself is the enduring feature of the place, which is constantly being made then remade then remade. The city doesn’t have the ancient past of a place like Rome, so, although there is a preservation movement, there is far less challenge in trying to juxtapose the present with the long forgotten past, because the past was not that long ago, and never completely forgotten.
New York is also the most American of all places. Along with the Enlightenment desire for personal liberty and freedom of conscience, the country stands on a foundation of commercial enterprise, and we live in the center of that universe, here in the big city. This is all to explain why the transformation of Times Square from its late 1970s – early 1980s squalor (gritty is too kind a word) to its current state as the true crossroads of the world, in terms of the origins of the people who flock there, doesn’t give me a twinge of sentimental loss. The Times Square of head shops, porno theaters, hookers and live sex shows was a commercial enterprise just as much as the current one is. Calling it a playground for adults only damns the adults who found constructive playfulness there. Personally, I can put it best by admitting that I saw “The Terminator” and “C.H.U.D.” in theaters there, and also “Caligula,” with Spanish subtitles and some things with Vanessa Del Rio in them. No, I don’t miss the place.
Other parts of New York have been transformed since then, with more mixed results. It’s a good thing that the Bowery is safer than it used to be, but when a fancy hotel prices the Downtown Music Gallery out of the neighborhood, something very strange is going on. And then there’s the East Village. And Tompkins Square Park. The Pyramid Club is still there, but does anything happen there anymore that matters? The park itself is lovely and livable, as a park should be – they are public resources meant for all citizens, and no group, no matter how worthy or sympathetic, should have a monopoly on the place. Parks are for kids, and lovers, and napping and strolling. The trouble is that the park may now have a gentle monopoly that has shoved some of those citizens out of its gates.
It was the Riot that did it, the Tompkins Part Riot in the summer of 1988. The context for the riot was a stew of social antagonisms; the East Village was already beginning to gentrify, putting young professionals on the same streets with young punks and squatters, junkies and street criminals. There were protests against gentrification, and complaints over loud music played in the park. At a protest on August 6, the police charged and attacked citizens and ended up beating on everyone in sight, just because they could. The immediate result united all sides in outrage for the moment, but for the people who lived in the East Village on little or no money, the people who came to the East Village for a sense of freedom, even anarchy, not available at home or even in Greenwich Village, those people had already lost the war before this battle was joined. The freaks, weirdos, outcasts, good and bad, the irreverent heart of this city and America, had to scatter to . . . Brooklyn, New Jersey, Astoria . . . where ever.
A certain focus in art was lost, especially in music. This was the high point of post-punk “downtown” music, an exciting, extroverted movement that had less of a goal than a method, which was to try shit and see how it worked. It was a general drift of sympathy that brought together the likes of John Zorn, Sonic Youth, Lydia Lunch, Arto Lindsay, Peter Blegvad, Tom Johnson, members of the Sun Ra Arkestra, and many, many others in a mix of jazz, punk, funk, Stockhausen, cartoon music, free improvisation and generally good natured, boundary evaporating anarchy. There was enough sense of disorganization, real or imagined, so that the music that was in the clubs, on tapes, available at the New Music Distribution Service or the old Lunch For Your Ears, had a surprise to it, the feeling that the cats just happened to turn the corner of Avenue C and hey, what’s going on, we got this gig, you want to play too? It was casual, but serious, because the musicians were serious about what they were doing, and either seriously skilled or, like Christian Marclay, seriously brilliant conceptualists and artists.
For the most part, it’s all gone. Yes, the music being made right now, music I hear and see and write about often, does destroy the boundaries between genres. It does so in different ways, though, with different qualities. The old downtown scene was not only rough-edged but didn’t so much synthesize different music as put them side by side to see what would come out of the conflict and abrasion. Today’s downtown scene is, literally, uptown, and the music has had time to steep in universities and conservatories, where musicians and composers have found ways to put the different parts together into well-made pieces. One is in no way better than the other, but it would be preferable to have them both.
One of the remnants of this scene is Elliott Sharp. He’s not a fossil nor a throwback, he’s simply been making music, prolifically, since the late 1970s, and he is celebrating his 60th birthday (which was March 1), this weekend at Issue Project Room. Sharp is a fabulous, serious musician, practiced, knowledgeable and committed. The musicians and ensembles he’ll be playing with attest to his astonishing range and, even more, a generous and sympathetic musical nature that comes through clearly in his playing. You can hear it on four new recordings that have come out in just the last year alone – there are more, I just haven’t got them yet!
Sharps ability to play the guitar is surpassed only by his imagination, intelligence and skill as an improviser. Improvising is more than just making something up, it is making something out of what you made up, and it’s a skill that demands excellent chops and a constant supply of interesting things to say – you have to be an interesting person. I’ve never spoken with Sharp, but I have heard countless interesting things from him. Take the fluid density of Octal, Book Two , the follow up to a 2008 CD. The liner notes discuss Lisa Randall’s book “Warped Passages,” the use of alternate tunings and the way his guitar is miked, and it’s all interesting and doesn’t really matter, because the playing is just astonishing. Sharp plucks the strings with his fingers, and that allows him to produce polyphonic music that is dense with activity and, because of his skill, always clear. While he doesn’t play at all like Cecil Taylor, he is very much like Taylor in the sheer mass and velocity of his ideas, flowing forth in a rapid, controlled stream, each one as defined as a diamond. The two Octal recordings are on the jazz Clean Feed label, but they’re not really jazz and he’s never been a jazz musician. There is a whole universe of improvisation beyond jazz, music that is as much a great art and dedicated calling, and Sharp is one of the very finest ever put on record. These CDs are essential recordings for anyone interested in him or improvised music, and he’ll be playing excerpts from the music at the Saturday concert. The term face-melting will truly apply.
He’s not a jazz player, but he’s a hell of a blues guitarist, and his band Terraplane makes great, heavy, modern blues, seriously real and fun. The music is so strong and real. While other musicians with roots in the downtown scene have gone on to build conglomerations based in glibness, increasingly self-referential, gestural and jejune, on Abstraction Distraction , Sharp has done, almost casually, what many others try and do with great effort and never quite succeed at; he’s made a record of truly abstract funk, all by himself, using electronics to support his impressive tenor and soprano sax playing. The opening “Quadrantids” starts off with a pleasantly analog rumble, the kind of thing you get by twisting a nob on a filter, and then heads into amazing territory, free-form but also controlled, based on patterns but full of surprises, truly danceable. He has a nice, strong, mellow sound on both horns, bits of qualities from great jazz players who have come before, but the electronics seem to recontextualize any bits of jazz history out of the picture, and the result is a music that is both truly strange and truly new. Some of Bill Laswell’s units have tried to reach a similar place, music that has the funk and intellectual freedom, but he always loses his way into ironic pop clichés. Sharp is one of the most cliché-free musicians there is, on par with Derek Bailey and Lee Konitz, and this gives the record an almost naïve freshness, like Sharp can only do things that have not been done before. I’ve never heard anything like Abstraction Distraction, which, now that I’ve heard how possible this music is, seems a deep shame. This disc is not for everyone, it will perturb any expectations of standard song forms, but it is not only a treat but a testament to Sharp’s enduring artistic vision. Currently in heavy rotation at the 8BC Lounge in Forgotten New York . . .
One of the landmarks of this forgotten New York was the Binibon, a 24 hour joint at 2nd and 5th, a scene hangout back in the late 70s-early 80s. It’s also the title and subject of Sharp’s opera, with a libretto by Jack Womack. The Binibon is where Jack Henry Abbott, back in the City due in no small part to Norman Mailer’s slumming, encountered waiter Richard Adan, and soon after stabbed him to death. Sharp and Womack’s Binibon is based around this tragedy, follows a narrative of personal memories and regrets through a handful of characters, including Abbott, culminating in the event that the piece represents as a symbol of the end of an era. The murder, and the closing of the Binibon, happened in 1981, well before the riot, but like I said, the struggle had been lost by 1988, perhaps the opera explains the beginning of the end.
This is an excellent piece. It features long, spoken narration, but straight forward, not in the manner of Robert Ashley. There is singing too, but it’s a real opera regardless of the balance between speaking and singing. Sharp’s music supports the text beautifully and tells the story in its own way. Womack’s libretto is tough-guy-romantic in style, a bit clichéd but saved by its sincerity. The band; guitar, saxophone, clarinet, bass, drums, percussion and electronics, is great, because it’s all Elliott Sharp – he makes and plays all the music, a rich melange of punk, jazz, rock, beautifully heavy early hip-hop beats. It’s forceful, expertly colored and judged, always interesting. This is a truly impressive work on CD, involving, fascinating, emotionally powerful, one of the most accomplished new, non-standard operas I’ve heard in a long time.
Why stop with that? There’s a film score out too, for “Spectropia,” a science fiction movie involving time travel. This gives Sharp the reason/excuse, to write music for different ensembles in different styles. The range on this CD is like that on one of Zorn’s collections of his own film music, but in this case the range is focussed on one subject. There are sludgy guitar chords, bouncing digital bleeps, shuffling jazz, string quartet music, and the strongest singing I’ve heard from Debbie Harry. Along with Sharp, the musicians include the Sirius String Quartet and the ‘31 Band, featuring Rudresh Mahanthappa, Steve Swell and Anthony Coleman. This is not as deep or powerful an artistic statement as the other recordings discussed here, the variety of sound without the film comes off as fragmented at times, but it’s full of invention and is an admirable bookend to the music that Sharp has given us so far.
Go see this great musician, it will be memorable. Friday, the event is at the 110 Livingston Street future home of IPR, and is a benefit for the venue, with tickets that include an after-party and special VIP events for tax-deductible, VIP prices. Saturday is in the cozy confines at 3rd and 3rd, a place where even strangers are joined in the friendship of music. That day starts with an open rehearsal at five, and goes late into the evening. It will be great.
UPDATE: fixed video links
UPDATE 2: put in the classic photo to help fill out new theme
- Pioneers of the Downtown Scene: a walk on the wall side (guardian.co.uk)
- Improvvisatore Involontario in New York (avantmusicnews.com)