Best Music 2012: Outside-The-Lines

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. 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.



Home Computer

One of the emblematic objects of the last century is the AK-47. Mass produced, reliable and easy to use, it toppled governments in the cause of utopian and dystopian ideals. It was a true weapon of mass destruction.

Another emblematic object is the personal computer. It’s generally been used for more peaceful, constructive purposes than an assault rifle, but not everyone would agree, especially executives in the offices of EMI, Sony and UMG. For those companies, the computer has destroyed a lot of their artificially created and jealously guarded value, while becoming especially over the last ten years, a mass produced, reliable and easy to use means for creating music. There’s an entire generation of musicians using laptops and other electronic boxes (it’s easy and not misleading to refer to them generally as “laptop musicians”), to produce sound and bring it to their audiences’ ears and laptops.

The third night of the Wordless Music at Miller Theater Festival was a triple-bill of laptop musicians, Juliana Barwick, Grouper (Liz Harris) and Tim Hecker. They produced an evening of mesmerizing, satisfying music. Although the concert lasted two and a half hours, the performances were so involving that they seemed to stop the sensation of the passing of time.

All three musicians work with pure sound along the generously lengthy spectrum of what could be called ambient music, and all get to the sound they seek through electronic means. Barwick starts with her pure-toned soprano voice, singing and recording short improvised phrases which she then loops into choirs that have an ethereal quality to their sonic sheen. The sound is also harmonically rich and full, and Barwick uses the choral sound as accompaniment to her more melodic improvisations or for the singing of epigrammatic songs. She does this with great skill, singing while seamlessly looping her wordless phrases. The results are lovely and entrancing and as simple as can be – she’s only working with one instrument and using technology to perform one of its most basic tasks, copying information. She found her way to her art by working in her bedroom, and her appealingly modest, gawky stage manner bespeaks a private, individual musician for whom music making is some sort of ritual, and indeed her method of building through repetition is a ritual, and her use of multiples of her own voice and the sheer beauty made her performance a kind of ecstatic, secular liturgy.

Grouper also sings and accompanies herself on guitar and with a solid wash of white noise and reverb. A lot of records have been made using reverb as a kind of pancake makeup, but Grouper uses it to place her voice in a very stimulating ambient environment. It makes the juxtaposition of the immediacy of the voice and the almost over-stimulating bed of noise work. Her use of reverb and other processing creates a sound with space that extends through all three dimensions, and the sensation of width and depth focus the attention on her calm, gentle voice which seems placed at the eye of a hurricane of chaotic sound. It’s a striking effect, and adds a sense of powerful meaning to the simplest phrase. Hearing her live is very different than listening to her recordings, like last year’s breakthrough “Dragging a Dead Dear Up a Hill.” Recordings flatten out the music and bring the songs and the singing into focus, while the live performance opens up the sound and makes everything abstract, purely musical; she is still singing, but the diction and articulation are lost in the mix. This is not a complaint, as her sound is spellbinding and mysterious. Her set of old and new material seemed to take place out of time, in the space between breaths and the audience was in no rush to take the next one.

To close the program, Tim Hecker came down from Montreal with a laptop – the only one of the evening – a mixer and a keyboard. He also brought his familiar stunning, massive slabs of sound. Hecker is one of the most unique electronic musicians in a scene where commercial music and the avant-garde collide. He played a mix of music from his tremendous “Harmony in Ultraviolet” record as well as this year’s “An Imaginary Country.” The songs’ titles don’t matter, as there is no important differentiation between his pieces. His body of work is really about pure sound, and the sounds he makes are almost geologic in nature; huge, shifting expanses of crunching, crackling, rich noise, noise made up of pitches but so full of so many pitches that the output is a kind of comforting, enveloping, warm chaos, full of fascinating interference patterns and sonic phantoms. His new music displays elements of an expanded pallet, including some chiming tones and an actual minor key chord cadence. An accordion seems to appear, perhaps a broadcast caught between notches on the radio dial and heard from another room, then it disappears. But he eschews a beat, rhythm, harmony and melody, adjusts the mix on the fly – that’s his performance – and dazzles with a physical sensation of sound that is simultaneously atavistic and profoundly, abstractly advanced. You can’t sing to it, you can’t dance to it, but you do surrender to its power.

There is something oddly consistent about how these three laptop musicians perform, and it seems to be a generational marker. Technology allows so many people to make complex music both on the cheap and literally in the privacy of their own homes. This is a mixed blessing, but on the good side a lot of good, unexpected music is being made. The process of working so privately and mastering a tool that is essentially a means to take sound directly out of the imagination and put it through speakers, with no mediation of notation, interpretation of even idiomatic convention, means that at its best what we are hearing is the unadulterated inner life of these musicians. There is artifice in finding the means to make that electronic sound, but once made there is no artificial process by which the concrete idea is transformed into a subtle gesture. This is a profound possibility. These three performers all appear as deeply private people standing on stage. While Barwick offered thanks at the end of her set and took a bow, the others simply turned off the juice and walked off into the darkness, while each on began their set by simply walking on-stage and starting, without any fuss or affect. The stage manner is that of someone deeply shy who is embarrassed to be there when they are not making sounds, yet willing to offer their most personal sounds to us. This is digital technology put towards an achingly human purpose and makes concerts like this one quietly yet intensely human.

Wordless Music at Miller Theater concludes Saturday night, with the JACK Quartet and others, and tickets are still available.

How Composers Learn, Part 3

They learn by developing taste, and critical judgement. By taste I mean being honest with themselves over what appeals to them and what doesn’t, be it gold or trash (hey, I like “Californication“), and by critical judgement I mean the ability to discern the purpose of a particular work and evaluate its success in fulfilling that purpose. This way, a composer can appreciate the quality of a work that does not appeal to him – in my case, that’s pretty much the entire body of work of Strauss – or personally enjoy something that he recognizes doesn’t have the greatest quality.

These are really essential skills, because they develop the ability of all the senses, especially the ear and the mind. When making a work or listening to a work, a composer has to determine who it sounds. And like the Duke said, if it sounds good, it is good – well made in some way, and well made music is successful music. This all came to my mind when we were at Le Poisson Rouge the other night, catching an excellent program in the Wordless Music series, featuring Arvo Part played by the Wordless Music Orchestra and Tim Hecker presenting his own work, along with short works by Andrew Norman – his energetic Gran Turismo – and Jeff Myers – a schematic and cinematic Metamorphosis, which was inconsistently successful.

Part and Hecker are two musicians who I always enjoy listening to, in the literal sense that their music sounds so good to me. This is a tribute to their own ears, their own taste and critical judgement. Taste and critical judgement are the very lifeblood of their work. They are both musicians who I think are most accurately described as Minimalists. Part is often grouped with Glass and Reich, but if we are to understand the real meaning of that style, we can’t truly call Glass and Reich Minimalists. Their methods are to use repetition as the means of development, and their works are frequently grand in scope, especially those of Glass, who has an inherent grandeur and expansiveness in even his shortest works. Glass and Reich construct substantial edifices out of discrete units, but there is nothing Minimal about their work.

Part and Hecker are Minimal because they use the least possible material, and keep it that way. Part’s great masterpieces, Fratres, Passio and Tabula Rasa, the work that was given a powerful and moving performance by the orchestra (Yuki Numata and Nadia Sirota were the excellent soloists, all led with a real understanding of the work by Ryan McAdams), present the minimum amount of music, then presents it again, without change, and again, and again. I do not know Part’s composing methods, but his work gives the impression of being structured in a completely intuitive way, the artist listening to his own work and trusting his ear to say when a thing has been said. One feature of what Part says is that it is austerely beautiful to the ear, satisfying and enticing without tiring, but anything that goes on too long fails, and Part manages, in his best work, to give the sensation that it lasts exactly as long as it ideally should. This is truly impressive in Passio, which is essentially an hour-plus of the same musical material repeated, without even a key change, and completely involving for every second. Tabula Rasa is featured on the great recording that introduced the composer to a worldwide audience, and is a masterpiece of the expression of mystery. The music seems to proceed slowly past the listener, like a disconsolate parade, until it is finally passed slowly to the lower strings, where it simply disappears, as if over the horizon.

The pairing of Hecker with Part was exceptional. Hecker’s electronic medium is entirely different, but like Part he pares his work down to the essentials. The great advantage that the electronic medium has is that all the traditional structural means of music – form, meter, pitch, key, rhythm – can be abandoned in terms of pure sound and timbre. His work is made up of great slabs of sound drifting with, towards, against, through and away from each other, and what makes it so successful – and it is frequently absolutely great – is the quality of his sound. He fills up the spectrum with complex timbres that balance pitch, timbre, texture and noise that are ominous and comforting at the same time. R. Murray Schafer has pointed out that music is touch at a distance, and while Hecker was working the playback mix, I found myself putting my hand up against the ear, to better feel it pushing and vibrating against me. Touching me. It is his ear that allows him to create such wonderful sound, and his ear which, without any seeming structure to his work, allows him to judge when to modify or change a particular sound. From his ear to yours, it’s a sensational experience.