Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Meeting 3/12/2014: Local Artists – This (…but… not…)

Several of us brought music by local (Seattle) artists. This was the intended theme of only one member, but others followed it without meaning to. However, as always, we realized that there was another, harder-to-define topic running through many of the selections as well: one style of music on the surface, but not exactly

What was played:

John Mayall: Catch the Train
Musique Concrète, but, not. The train going down the track is real. But then, its whistle sounds, and begins to play blues riffs after a few introductory notes. It’s a harmonica, of course.

John Zorn (with Bill Frisell): Theme from “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”
Spaghetti Western soundtrack music, but, not. The iconic Moricone tune is given a fuzz-guitar twist and more mayhem.

Rahsaan Roland Kirk: Sentimental Journey and Going Home
These two jazz standards (one originally composed by Dvořák) work well together on the soprano and alto sax, even when played from the same mouth at the same time.

Robert Erickson: General Speech (played by Stuart Dempster)
Patriotic words as spoken by General Douglas MacArthur, and repeated here – but through a trombone. The whole act of public speaking is subverted. Eloquence becomes unintelligible; grand themes are reduced to a hollow, pseudomusical garble. Since this dates from 1969, the sense of nihilism and futility of the Vietnam War era are inevitably invoked – in the same way as in several “pop” tunes from around the same time: “…ordered and sentenced to kill, and to fight for a cause, long ago forgotten.” – Simon and Garfunkel.

Birdsongs of the Mesosoic: Rocky and Bullwinkle Theme
One of the delightful surprises of the Listening Club is the appearance of cartoon themes, either the originals or in arrangements. This one is obviously an arrangement (along the lines of Zorn “Good, Bad, and Ugly” theme) – beginning like the original but adding a lot of color and madcap disorder in the middle, and definitely in the spirit of the cartoon.

Bernie Krause: I’m in Trouble, Turkey Corwin
1980’s lounge proto-electronica with sampled catcalls from a parrot (uh… birdcalls?). Fun.

Tracie Morris: Project Princess
We listened to a piece of human speech processed into meaningless sound (Robert Erickson / Stuart Dempster) and one of more or less meaningless sound imitating human speech (Bernie Krause). This is another piece based on speech – thought this time keeping (or going beyond) both the sound and the sense. In this performance, words become a groove becomes music; this is a poem (describing the character of a young woman living in an unidentified city), recited with added repetition, rhythmic effects, and, at the end, actual singing. English voice intonation – usually not the most varied because it isn’t a “tonal” language – becomes an endlessly varied melody over strict but seemingly freeform meter. Hip-hop freestyle or sound art? Is there a difference?

Jim Metzner: Sounds from Space – Music of the Spheres
The orbits of the planets translated into sound – in this case, oscillating sine-waves whose ascent and descent matches the ratios of the speed of the orbits. They enter one at a time, and sometimes result in some interesting microtonal effects. The outer planets move so slowly that their orbits are represented with low individual “clicks” like vibrations, rather than sine waves.

Double Yoko: (Improvisation) V
Continuing the meme from last meeting of bringing songs by bands whose names are puns (last month there was a tune by Mars iLL), this the fifth of a set of free improvisations for broadcast on Sonarchy Radio, by local Seattle artists Beth Fleenor (clarinet and vocals) and Paris Hurley (violin and cassette manipulation). Strange vocals against the ringing of a tinkling bell begins (actually a continuation from Improvisation IV on the same album); stretched cassette noises follow, sounding somewhere between musical and natural sounds; violin and clarinet finish up with minimalist repetitions and just a hint of “free jazz” screech and honk. Though sparse and restrained, this music still seems to smile at the listener.

Shigiharu Mukai: Ojisan korekara
The title could mean (loosely) “This one’s from my uncle” or more enigmatically, “My uncle is from this”; this is classic jazz styling by a quartet from Japan (trombone, piano, bass, drums). Angular and dissonant; a bit of an earworm; this tune is vaguely reminiscent of Thelonious Monk (though the piano solo goes in quite a different direction, smoother but with spasms of chaos).

Christina Abdulnour, Bonnie Jones, and Andrea Neumann: Hauts-Reliefs Et Bas Fonds
Another improvisation that begins with bells, this one cosmic in sound. Deep ringing begins (inside piano, highly amplified), followed by splattering and bass “chubbling” (chuckling and bubbling) from the sax and increasingly strident electronic drones. This is constructed solid and fixed against its surface of silence; as architectural as its name implies.

Bill Frisell: The Lone Ranger
A waltz, but, not. The title doesn’t really relate to the music (there’s no “William Tell” here), unless the guitar is a lone instrument against the world of the rest of the band. The music itself goes through a number of episodes, but overall seems to lock into a ¾ meter and then try (and fail) to escape from it – the drums, for example, break off into other meters (or no meter) at nearly any provocation.

Kate Bush: And Dream of Sheep
Kate Bush: Under Ice

Mainstream “pop” songs, but, not. As always, Ms. Bush’s voice is a force of nature that must be heard. The first song could almost be from a Broadway musical, with her expressive delivery and perfect enunciation. The second enters more minimalist/experimental territory, with singing deliberately “below” Ms. Bush’ regular vocal range (sometimes electronically altered in timbre) and a three-note repeated motif that is more like a minimalist “cell” than a conventional melody. Both songs have a shadowed, nocturnal sound. The lyrics are metaphorical, enigmatic – a poetic dreamscape to match the dreaminess of the music.

There was a brief discussion about why female vocalists seem more likely to do this kind of “pop but not pop” music than their male counterparts (with further examples of Laurie Anderson and Björk), but we didn’t reach any conclusions. Maybe the question is a false premise anyway – at the time none of us thought of the male counterexamples of Radiohead and Sigur Rós.

Cuong Vu: Vina’s Lullaby
A lullaby, but, not. Jazz fusion with a slow, echoed, triadic melody – a lullaby at first, then growing stepwise into progressively frenetic and more beat-driven ecstasy, and finally, beautifully organized chaos. Stairway to Heaven meets Ravel’s Bolero in an avant-jazz format. The melody returns at the end with dramatic inevitability.

A side note: at the meeting, I compared the build-up and recapitulation in this piece to that of the first movement of the Mahler 4th – though I didn’t really make my point clear because of course a build-up and (later) return to the beginning is of course standard practice in a symphonic piece (as well as in a lot of jazz, and, really, most music). I was referring to the sense of inexorableness in both pieces – in the Mahler the main theme is so much a part of the teleology of the piece that when it occurs a half-minute too soon (when the development section is actually still going on, seemingly in a different key!) it still sounds exactly like everything was leading to that one specific point all along.

Another side note: the previous conversation led in a roundabout way to one of the Listening Club members (rightly) chiding U.S. jazz stations for not playing European jazz, particularly the ambient/jazz/rock style espoused by Markus Stockhausen and others. I would like to hear more of this myself.

Red Queen Theory: The Dream and the Tomb
Hard rock, not quite metal (the vocals are not distorted enough for that), with surprising jumps in meter. The music is loud, though always controlled. A stereotypical “Middle Eastern” mode with a flat second (or is it Spanish flamenco?); lyrics about kings, swords, and some kind of holy war; this brings to mind epic ancient or Medieval battles.

Neotropic: La Centinela
“The Sentry” – as at last month’s meeting, the title to this tune doesn’t really relate to the music. Mild, pretty electronica with deliberately “low-budget” sounds: low-rez “MP3” distortion and retro Moog hums – though these are used for their sound, only at key moments, and with certain “instruments”. The contrast is striking.

Bobby FcFerrin: See Ya Later
See ya later, Alligator. After a while, Crocodile. Till then, Penguin. We’ll be back next month.

Next meeting: The second week of April, hopefully in our new venue.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Meeting 2/11/2014: Rocktronica

The (as always, unplanned) theme of this month’s meeting: groovin'. Almost every selection rocked in one way or another. ...and, I've decided that the titles of electronica songs don't really mean anything.

What was played:

Charming Hostess: Street of Tabing
1980’s-tinged hard rock with a hint of Siouxsie and the Banshees, and a fair amount of dissonance.

Idiot Flesh: Blue Heads
Late 1970’s-tinged hard rock with a hint of Queen and processed vocals that give a massive, almost choral, sound.

Thinking Plague: The Gyre
The name of this band is particularly disturbing if you ponder it. Is it a plague that causes people to think? (After all, thinking isn’t really acceptable in contemporary American society.) Or is it a plague that’s able to think and plan its attack? Musically it’s a twisting braid of atonal jazz-rock fusion – what might have happened had Return to Forever played Milton Babbit compositions.

Stick Against Stone: The Private Sector
This sounds immediately familiar but I can’t place it exactly. Beat-driven rock with sarcastic political lyrics: “For people in need of food and housing, for people in need of medical care, if unemployment is high where you are – the private sector will care for you…” It’s obvious where that’s coming from; and maybe it’s time that rock music reclaim its political agenda.

Ekova: Todosim
Clannad meets Stephan Micus. It seems to be a mysterious and beautifully modal traditional Gaelic tune with a little Mediterranean music in the accompaniment; but it’s actually a made-up “language” without any real words. Fascinating. And, like Micus’ work, the listener wonders whether the “words” are composed beforehand or whether they are a form of scat singing. (I’ve been known to “scat” in a similar manner when walking from one place to another, though of course without the beautiful voice.)

Dntel: Loneliness is Having No One to Miss
Despite the title, this is one of the happiest bits of electronica that’s been put out there recently. All major chords and primary colors and with a subtle beat, it seems to float on a cloud of its own cheeriness.

Steve Peters: The Very Rich Hours (part one)
With this, we dropped the “beat” for a little while. Nature recordings from New Mexico intermingle with spoken voices telling of a personal connection to the land, and singing voices chanting (in various styles) the scientific names of assorted species from the same area. Gorgeous and introspective.

Mars iLL: Who Will Answer?
Another “spoken word” song, though obviously very different from the Steve Peters piece. Chinese cheng (“jung”, a metal-stringed cousin of the Japanese koto), inside piano, snippets from an unidentified 1940’s soundtrack, and one repeated note of Xenakis’ "Occident-Orient" – all combine with a heavy bass beat to create a dark soundscape under the percussive spoken voices of these (Christian) rappers.

Heinz Holliger: Intermezzo I from “Lider ohne Worte II” (“Songs without Words”), played by Thomas Zehetmair and Thomas Larcher
A scratchy, skitterish prestissimo for violin and piano, like a beetle scuttling in a box. The melody, harmony, and rhythm are fractured so that the music seems to have a groove and simultaneously not have one.

Squarepusher: Square Rave
Danceable but surprisingly dark electronica, with hints of The Future Sound of London.

Amon Tobin: Proper Hoodidge
Somewhat slower danceable but dark electronica. The beat is fairly subtle, and some of the sounds floating over the top are orchestral samples: violin tremolo, oboe and flute solos (the former in an intentionally stereotyped “Indian” mode).

Tyondai Braxton: The Violent Light Seen through Falling Shards
The son of experimental jazz legend Anthony Braxton brings us this beautiful madness. A dense electronic soundscape begins, with drums and bass (both electronic) creating a complex additive meter. Guitar solos emerge from the fray. These are looped and recur up to a minute later, though unpredictably, and gradually build up layers of complexity – only to disappear and be replaced by others. Near the end, microtonal siren-like wails dominate, created by guitar again. This is vast, loud, epic music that somehow also sounds contained and concentrated.

Along the lines of Plunderphonic, this band creates sound collages that challenge the idea of intellectual property and copyright. In this untitled piece, samples of the (actual) Beatles screaming gives way to more obviously melodic and harmonic material by the same band. (“Hey – I recognize that voice!”) But everything happens with split-second timing; it almost becomes a party game “Name that Tune!”.

Amina: My Man
True eclecticism. This sultry, tango-flavored jazz standard is given an Arabic makeover, complete with sliding strings, winding vocal melisma, and an oud solo at the end. Not for purists, and I believe that’s the point. Let’s have some fun here.

Ray Pizzi: My Funny Valentine
The meeting wrapped up with another jazz standard played in a way it “shouldn’t” be. A bassoon solo, sometimes deliberately off-key, plays almost all of the song (including the chords) one note at a time, in a laboriously slow tempo. A fragmented rendering results, which is both hilarious and strangely calm.

Next meeting: 3/12/2014