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.


  1. diggit, i DO plan on making the next, let us know where & when....

    viva the humor!


  2. Curiously, "Waltz for Koop" shamelessly borrowed the bass line from Coltrane's classic version of "Greensleeves" -- and since u mentioned coltrane earlier, some nice synchronicity...!