Sunday, December 29, 2013

January Meeting Cancelled

Due to a snafu at the library, the January 8th meeting is also cancelled. The next meeting will be on February 11th, Shoreline Library Small Meeting Room, at 7:30 (not 7:00 as before).

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Meeting 10/9/2013: Mostly Piano Music over Silence

This meeting took an abrupt turn from previous meetings: no loud beat-driven electronica (only one mellow techno number and one loud electronic piece but without a beat); no in-your-face screech and honk free-improvisation; no cartoon soundtracks. Large chunks of the time were taken by three “modern” classical piano works, with shorter blues and world-music pieces (and one classic rock). I can’t actually say that much about the piano pieces – like a lot of “serious” music, they can really only be described metaphorically and must be experienced first-hand.

What was played:

Toru Takemitsu: For Away, played by Roger Woodward (in the classic 1970’s recording)
Delicate tendrils and rivulets of piano sound, always returning to the augmented fourth. Restful or disturbing, depending on one’s stylistic bent.

Claudio Monteverdi: Duo Seraphim, sung by René Jacobs with Concerto Vocale
One club member commented on the sensuality inherent in this “angelic” music. It would appear that Monteverdi got the point of the Song of Solomon. From a musical standpoint, the piece is interesting because of its suspension of time (angels have an eternity in which to sing): over an infinitely slow tempo, delicate melodic flurries condense into individual repeated pitches, sounding as different speeds of vibrato.

Steve Barsotti: Bypass
Musique Concrète becomes noise becomes a composition. This is the (loud, chaotic) climax to an otherwise fairly ambient CD of works made from field recordings. Lots of distortion, static, and thermonuclear bombast. The piece ends with a final roaring cadence and a collapse back into the silence from which it arose.

The discussion occurred how music of this type is put together compositionally, given its obvious (intentional) lack of melody, harmony, or rhythm. My own take on this is that density can be the prime mover for this kind of piece; another club member argued (based on a previously heard, unidentified piece) for the importance of timbre.

This led to another discussion about the difference between the jazz and classical traditions. One member of the club mentioned that listening to Stockhausen and Cecil Taylor is much the same experience; the two genres seem to converge when the music is taken into “experimental” territory (obviously, they often merge in the “popular” field too: is “Rhapsody in Blue” a classical or jazz composition?). So, what exactly is the difference? Is there a difference? My own take on it is that in classical, the melody controls the rhythm, whereas in jazz the rhythm controls the melody. That is to say, in a classical piece, the rhythm will speed up or slow down (or even pause) depending on what the melody does; in a jazz piece, even one with the same melody or chord progressions, the rhythm “locks in” like clockwork and everything else conforms to it or deliberately contrasts with it. Even in the Stockhausen and Taylor, this is apparent: Stockhausen’s music is essentially organized along melodic lines (even if the melody is fractured or based on atonal progressions so it isn’t recognizable as such); Taylor’s music retains its rhythmic base (even if the rhythm is fractured, subdivided, or multi-layered so that it isn’t recognizable as such).

Kansas: Sparks of the Tempest
Maybe slick overproduced late-1970’s mainstream rock wasn’t altogether such a wasteland. This surprisingly funky, bongo-based apocalyptic pre-metal romp is just a lot of fun despite its dark lyrics.

Sainkho Namtchylak: Tanola Nomads, Tchashpy-Hem, and Lullaby For Lambs
Three pieces by the famed Tuvan vocalist, mixed with three different international styles. The first is electronica with a fairly subtle beat; Yoko Kanno has similarly mixed Balkan song with electronica in some of her anime soundtracks. Pretty in an unexpected way. The second uses a traditional melody with an orchestral accompaniment – this could be a 21st-century version of earlier “classical folk” like “Appalatian Spring” or the “Songs from the Auvergne” (hints of this type of fusion go at least as far back as Monteverdi’s “Orfeo”). The 3rd piece uses throat singing (here, subtle whistling overtones) to create an experimental soundscape in which lumps of sound evolve over silence.

Aaron Copland: Piano Variations (1930), played by Charles Fierro
A brilliant composition in a craggy “modernist” style, with hints of Bartok and Messiaen. The variations do not seem autonomous; rather, they proceed in a patchwork manner, each crosscut with fragments stitched into the next. Quite different from Copland’s more familiar Americana.

Count Basie and Joe Turner (with other musicians): The Honeydripper
The essence of the blues, Kansas-city style (hmmm - is Kansas a theme for this meeting?). It’s hard to really say a lot about this kind of playing except for its obvious deftness and emotional honesty. Turner’s vocals shout and smooth-talk the power, tenderness, despair and joy of the genre (and of life). Basie’s piano is the catalyst for most of the other playing; in the brief solo at the end, he almost seems to be idling or playing in his sleep, yet this holding back creates the most effective part of the piece.

Christian Wolff: Variations on Morton Feldman's Piano Piece 1952, played by Sabine Liebner
Individual notes like stars in a night sky of silence.

Next meeting: 11/14/2013

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Meeting 9/11/2013: Collage and Experimental Folk Music

Again, no “theme” was planned for this meeting. And again, two “themes” soon appeared. 1. Sound collage. 2. “Avant-folk”, that is, traditional music with experimental touches (or vice-versa). There were also a lot of retro-60’s sounds floating around, though those might have snuck in from previous meetings.

What was played:

End: Mr. Gunns
The 60’s retro feel got underway immediately with this funky Peter Gunn semi-remix. It never directly quotes the Peter Gunn music, but seems to have everything to do with it (including “Gunn-shots”). As far as I can tell, it has absolutely nothing to do with “Gunns” ‘n’ Roses, though it was fun to begin the meeting with a song by “End”.

Goldfrapp: Pilots
This dates from before Goldfrapp went pop, though it has elements of mellow 60’s lounge music. Nice use of synthesized panpipes(!), and even nicer (and very expressive) vocals.

Hedningarna: Hoglorfen
Like a several other traditional musics I can name, this Scandinavian dance rhythm apparently rocked before coming into contact with actual rock and roll. (There’s a form of Thai folk music that has the same beat.) There’s quite a lot of power in the hurdy-gurdy, jaw harp, and hardanger fiddle; amplified, and with that heavy bass beat, it sounds like electronica…

Vladimir Estragon: Seine Register
Charles Amirkhanian: Chu Lu Lu
The Grateful Dead: That’s it for the other one anthem freakout
John Zorn: tre nel 5000

Four, mostly short, pieces showing the art of sound collage. Three derive from recorded music, though the Zorn piece (in classic Zorn style) is overlaid with “live” guitar, trombone, inside piano, and percussion. The Grateful Dead piece sounds like a collage of recorded sound, but it’s probably a group improvisation in the manner of the “space” performances released on their “Infrared Roses” album. One can hear it begin and end out of other songs.

Yoko Kanno: Theme from “Cowboy Bebop” (played by The Seatbelts)
A high-energy retro-funky jazz cartoon theme, featuring a lot of groove, smokin’ trumpet riffs, and one of the most dissonant chords that’s ever been heard on this planet.

Winter/McCandless: Eagle
Anthony Braxton: Behemoth Dream

Two different takes on freeform improvisation. The piece by the two Pauls (on a vinyl album credited to Paul Winter) uses the recorded sound of an eagle as a starting point, then spins off in its own freeform direction with an oboe (Paul McCandless) and a soprano sax (Paul Winter). The Braxton piece contrasts low and extremely high pitches on the contrabass clarinet, with occasional synth interjections by Richard Teitelbaum.

Smithsonian Folkways recordings comparing Delta Blues with Senegalese Song
Small snippets (or individual phrases) are juxtaposed in this ethnomusicological study. Since they have the same roots, these two traditional styles should sound similar. When compared back to back, though, they don’t sound all that close; though some of the melodic contours carry over to the American from the African music. The first note in each phrase is usually the highest, and it is followed by successive drops to lower and lower pitches. This may be connected to the “downstep” intonation employed in certain sentence types in some West African languages (linguistic phrasing influencing musical phrasing) but one wouldn’t necessarily expect the American singers to use the same melodic curve. Perhaps musical memory lasts longer than linguistic. Or perhaps this type of melody is merely one type found frequently throughout the world (such as the pentatonic scale); Tchaikovsky often uses phrases that would not be out of place here.

Xenakis: Mika (“Small”) – played by David Alberman
This sounds like another take on freeform improvisation, but being “classical” rather than “jazz”, it’s actually strictly notated. I once thought that my nephew, who was learning violin, might like to play this piece because he would get to make all of the violin sounds that his teachers would have told him not to.

Savina Yannatou and Primevera en Salonico: Za lioubih maimo tri momi
Savina Yannatou and Primevera en Salonico: O Yannis kai o drakos

Two “avant-folk” tunes from Greece and the Macedonia: the first (“I have loved three girls, each more beautiful than the last”) is a catchy 5/4 with a spasm of free improvisation in the middle. In the second (“Forty dragons have I killed, and only one remains”), string bass, accordion and (later) kalimba create a spacey ambience over which float some of the most mind-bending vocal pyrotechnics I’ve heard.

Champion Birdwatchers: Callisto
"To be on Perelandra, the milk-warm wind blowing over the golden sea...
It must be beautiful; the true color of peace softly bleeding through all its hues of shimmering warmth; thriving, like a tumult of waters sundering upon shells and crystal sands..."
Named after one of Jupiter’s Galilean moons, and part of a longer piece about the same, the words to this rough and unrefined indie-rock excursion (with added cello and flute) are actually about the mythical world of Perelandra – the planet Venus in the classic sci-fi trilogy by C. S. Lewis. I’ve referenced this particular universe in some of my own compositions, and I still find it relevant despite being written decades before we found out that the planets Venus and Mars aren't really like that at all. Lewis’ specter of Weston/Un-Man, the earth-born serpent in this Garden of Eden retelling, is as horrifying today as it was when it was written, partially because we here on the earth (“Thulcandra”) are still going down that same baleful road (led in no small part by our politics), and the threat is virulent enough that we could infect another inhabited planet if one were found...
"and yet, it seems so distant...
.and the vision is passing
.and the moment is lost."

Next meeting: 10/9/2013

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Meeting 8/13/2013: Drones, Dreams, and Cartoons

Again, there wasn’t supposed to be a “theme” for this meeting, but two emerged. One: the contrast between very slow-moving music (including drone minimalism) and very fast dance music and soundtrack music for cartoons. Two: the contrast between very simple, sparse textures (one acoustic guitar; one vocalist accompanied by a single small harp) and massive electronic and orchestral sounds (huge electric fuzz-guitar, big band, symphony orchestra, even the multitudinous barrage of flutes in the Niblock piece, though it could also be considered sparse!). And, there seemed to be a lot of musical humor floating around. Note: in this blog post, I changed the order of what was played to make it “work” more as if it were released on a single album.

What was played:

Lou Harrison: Serenado por Gitaro
On the surface, this is a pretty tune for classical guitar. One isn’t aware of the alternate microtonal tuning (the guitar has movable frets).

Phill Niblock: Winterbloom Too
Speaking of microtones, this is a classic composition by the first master of drone minimalism. As I stated at the meeting, this beautiful but too seldom heard genre suffers from a double curse: it sounds boring after any other music, and any other music sounds boring after it (there was enough discussion between pieces to prevent this from being the case today). At any rate, the (bass) flute interacts with itself in an unchanging steady state of flux, with microtones and harmonics creating rainbows of ever-shifting instrumental color in what otherwise could be seen as just a single sustained tone. “Just lovely,” said a listener, “I usually don’t like the flute, but I can identify with this.” Another listener said absolutely nothing.

Aster Aweke: Tizita (Memories)
This beautiful pentatonic melody is actually an Ethiopian folk song, here sung by a pop diva in a decidedly non-pop style. The voice is accompanied by a single small harp called a krar. Lonely, tranquil, expressive (some of the vocals soar), and quite pretty. The text, sung in Amharic, has at least one intriguing image in translation: “I imagine baking bread in an oven of moonlight”; but, as was stated at the meeting, some listeners prefer to listen to vocals in a foreign language because the singing becomes part of the music and one needn’t be annoyed by lyrics such as “Baby, Oh, Baby, Baby…” if one can’t understand them.

Delia Derbyshire: The Sea
1960’s British electronic music pioneer gives us this ambient, slightly disturbing dreamscape. Over a diffuse halo of synthesized bell-tones (maybe microtonal), anonymous voices recount dreams about the sea. Some of them involve drowning or death in some other way, but also there are a number of images involving almost cinematic adventure: swimming to the bottom of the sea to find the land there, or floating in a rainbow mist with a light behind. There is also an image of everyday life, skewed in the way that dreams are: the sea suddenly becomes filled with tables and chairs, all falling toward the deep, and the speaker tries to catch onto one of them. The listener is left with the question: is this a piece of ambient music (before than genre had been labeled), or is it something altogether more disconcerting?

Steve Tibbets: Vision
This is an Afro-jazz fusional epic. Drums and kalimba give a cue, rock guitars take over. It goes through several variations; always exploring new material, never losing sight of the jazz underpinning. Spectacular.

Spring Heel Jack: My Favorite Things
The most famous version of this tune, other than its original in the musical “The Sound of Music”, is Coltrane’s. There’s also a longer version with Coltrane and Eric Dolphy, where the tune is soon left behind in a torrent of saxophony. In both of these, the melody itself is altered into a modal version without the accidentals of the original. Spring Heel Jack’s version is something of an inverse of the Coltrane/Dolphy: the tune has not been changed to its modal version, and the “stuff without the tune” is at the beginning. Electronic keyboards start off, and a (slow) techno beat is soon established; but it seems to be a different tune. “My Favorite Things” begins to meander around, subtly at first, then up front. Pause, with some turntable scratches. Next comes a strange demented waltz (the tune is completely obvious by now) with even stranger electronic noise over the top. End. Somehow the whole thing is hilarious (intentionally so) without actually being a joke, and it’s an earful of fun.

Carl Stalling: Orchestral Gag
A 40-second joke by the composer of some of the Looney Tunes music: “I was cheating!” (by playing all of the instruments in the orchestra at the same time). This was the first bit of cartoon music of the evening – a lot more would follow.

Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde (3rd movement) – Kent Nagano / Christian Gehraher
This was brought in mostly because one of the members of the club liked to quote Tom Lehrer: “Das Lied von der Erde and other light classics”. The meaning is, of course, that “Das Lied” is not a light classic. It is, however, a major piece in the repertoire, and it does have a couple of lighter interludes (of which this is one). The tenor soloist begins with a catchy little tune that seems to be accompanied by an orchestra consisting entirely of wind instruments (and one triangle); strings emerge in a slower, sadder tune in the middle. Mahler used to be one of my favorite “classical” composers when I was a teenager, precisely because of this type of orchestration: huge (one could say “epic”) symphony orchestras are more often than not pared down so that only two or three instruments are playing at a time, resulting in a multitude of different sounds and textures, and a transparency reminiscent of chamber music. (Of course the whole ensemble would come in for sweeping climactic passages.) This was, to me at the time, the exact opposite of Brahms, whose music I perceived as one plodding, ponderous tutti passage after another. I still hear some of Brahms that way, though I like to think that I’ve gone a little beyond hearing just the instruments for both composers.

Hoyt Curtain: Hanna-Barbara Soundtracks
“If you don’t recognize any of this music, then you had a very sad childhood.” Heard now, and out of context, the music is a kaleidoscope of serious musical silliness; one is reminded of the line in the Pogo comic strip, c. 1965: "(the play I wrote) is alive with comedy, wit, tragedy, and balderdash!” But the point is that it’s not just funny. The listener who brought this music reminded us that “it’s easy to dismiss it as just music for cartoons – but the musicians were at the top of their game.” Indeed they were. The Yogi Bear underscore has riotous percussion, including a bit of chase music with a virtuoso xylophone solo that goes faster than any acoustic instrument I’ve ever heard (and without a single slur). The Flintstones jazz music swings as ecstatically as Benny Goodman’s “Sing, Sing, Sing” – one is tempted to say it rocks, even though that’s out of style. The Jetsons’ ending theme is an interesting composition in its own right, using the infamous flat fifth as a catalyst for several wild key-changes. There are only a handful of other times where this difficult interval is used so effectively: the only examples I can think of offhand are West Side Story and Stravinsky’s “Petrouchka” , along with a melodic passage in the Balinese ketjak monkey chant (though obviously it's in a different scale system). Lastly, the “Johnny Quest” theme is simply a lot of fun. If you happen to be watching some of these cartoons some time, try turning off the video and just listening to the music – it might be a whole new experience. A side note: I have done the same (turned off the video) with some more recent cartoons, namely Japanese anime: those with scores by Yoko Kanno are often particularly engaging this way. I plan to bring some of her music to a future listening club meeting.

Koop: Waltz for Koop
The early 1960’s are revisited in this pretty, lightly swinging pop tune. There seems to be a slight tension between the vocal and instrumental styles, giving a slight “edge” to the music, though I can’t define it exactly. I would listen to this at the end of the meeting, since it has a sort-of sunset feeling.

Addendum 9/20/2013: It turns out that “Waltz for Koop” uses a sample from Coltrane's version of "Greensleaves" for its bass line. I haven't heard that particular Coltrane recording. Another member of the Listening Club alerted me of it – he also commented on the synchronicity since I'd mentioned Coltrane earlier. Okay, I'm a member of the Listening Club, but I haven't heard everything...!

Next meeting: 9/11/2013 - hopefully with a better stereo system.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

First Meeting 7/10/2013

There wasn’t supposed to be a “theme” for the pieces played at this meeting, but one (actually two) soon appeared. The basic one was how music has evolved and changed, but there was a definite nostalgia for 1960’s and 70’s recordings (particularly the Beatles) – the Harry Partch was even older, from the early 50’s. The question also seemed to be floating around, “When is kitsch not kitsch?”

What was played:

Bill Dobbins: Evolutionary Etude
A perfect way to start off the eclectic mix that is the “Seattle Listening Club”, this goes through fifteen styles of music in ten minutes. It ranges from Bach to Stockhausen to Basie, with a brief interjection from Ozzy; and all for solo piano (oddly, it seems to skip both Bartok and Monk). The sections freely flow into one another without any cross-references or development, so it doesn’t really work as a “composition” – but it is a fascinating excursion into the history of classical music from Bach to George Crumb and then jazz (backwards) from Cecil Taylor to Count Basie with a little ragtime and boogie-woogie in the middle.

Virus: Sun
I no longer curse the sun
for the day it rose my frozen valley
for the day it warmed my frozen heart
the endless chill has ceased
I’m safe in his bright light
the eternal winter is over
I’m a creature, I’m a creature of the light
…so in life is light a friend.
Pretty-sounding “Celtoid” (not exactly Celtic) ambient electronica, with lyrics that turn the usual “pop” metaphors (creature of the night, “demonic” metal, etc.) on their head. Also, have you ever heard “rise” as a transitive verb?

Caku Daeng Baji: Ati-ati Raja (excerpt)
Throat-singing is apparently not limited to countries that begin with “T” (Tuva, Tibet). This is an Indonesian example. The nails-on-a-rough-chalkboard aesthetic is completely the opposite of anything we’re familiar with. It's definitely not for the musically unadventurous, though, as I commented at the meeting, it's maybe not all that alien: it might relate in some way to the American tradition of non-singers who are nonetheless great artists (Bob Dylan and Captain Beefheart of course, but I might also include Harry Partch in there too).

Judy Collins: In My Life
Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young: Blackbird
John Denver: Mother Nature’s Son
Herb Alpert: All My Lovin’
A set of “Lennon-McCartney compositions” played by non-Beatles but contemporaneous with the Beatles. Fun, nostalgic, and once again proving that the Beatles belong in the category of great melodists. As was stated at the meeting, the melancholy tranquility of Judy Collins’ rendition may be closer to the spirit of the song than the Beatles' original version.

Tispy: Groβenhosen
60’s kitsch sampled and then reincarnated as millennial pseudo-kitsch. The surface is quite different from the deep structure. Electric organs and percussive bwowng!s don’t disguise the fact that this is actually an interesting composition.

Sshe Retina Stimulants: Crowded Vending Automatism
This puts a new light on ambient music. It’s as if early Brian Eno had been remixed by Merzbow. It’s loud, with lots of noisy high end distortion and static, yet overlaid on a tranquil base of restful chords and a recurrent bell-tone. (Yes, a "base", not a "bass" – this continual background/foreground sound is a foundation on which the rest is built, but it is not always in the lower registers.) In your face in a very pretty, laid-back manner.

Kiln: Drala
Classic ambience, with impressionist/jazzy chords slowly fading in and out of the haze, and not a touch of “new age” schlock.

John Oswald: Btls
As with most of Oswald’s “Plunderphonics”, the theme of this is recombination of everything familiar into something that is not familiar at all. This is nostalgia with considerable alteration. A single chord by the Beatles is played three times, re-tuned to different keys (and also twice dissonantly with all three together), followed by a quickly-truncated jumble of crowd noise and a TV broadcast. A brief minimalist invention that is based on the Beatles but has absolutely nothing to do with them.

The Moody Blues: Procession
More musical evolution (not particularly linear this time), with strange vocal interjections and a touch of early 70’s kitsch.

Harry Partch: Ring around the Moon
Mumbo-jumbo, hocus-pocus, hoity-toity, hotsy-totsy, acey-ducey, hoochy-koocky, hinky-dinky, heeby-jeeby, harum-scarum, helter-skelter, honky-tonky, plasy-walsy, lovey-dovey, pitter-patter, teeter-totter, tootsie-wootsie, boogie-woogie, piggy-wiggy.
Razzle-dazzle, rosy-posy, georgy-porgy, roly-poly, walkie-talkie, namby-pamby, wishy-washy, twiddle-twaddle, tittle-tattle, fiddle-faddle, shilly-shally, dilly-dally, silly-willy, willy-nilly, fuddy-duddy, hunky-dory, teenie-weenie, itsy-bitsy.
Look out! He’s got a gun!
All microtonalism aside, that’s about all that needs to be said.

Pat Metheny: Tharsis
From an album of John Zorn tunes played by the guitar master; this was akin to the jazz standard “Caravan” with a fusional underpinning. There’s a little Al Di Meola in there too. The beginning returned at the end, faster, and then slowed down and came to a resolve to end the first Listening Club meeting.

Next Meeting: 8/13/2013