October 22 2014, 0 Comments
There is a lot that can be said about tempo. Despite being a fairly simple concept, that concept being the rate at which music unfolds across time, it is integral to how we perceive any given piece of music or sound. Music can lack pitch, rhythm, maybe even volume, but, as far as I know, all music occurs over an interval of time, and how it does so can drastically alter how we hear and interpret it.
For example, here is a theme from Jurassic Park…
and here is the same theme slowed down:
This hyper-slow rendition really emphasizes each beautifully constructed chord, and the small gaps between them, which are lost in the real time recording. And yet it maintains some of the majesty held by the original and its iconic melody. It could very well be the, albeit lengthy, movement to a symphony. Although this may be a little extreme, the one thousand times slower version does sound like a completely different piece of music— that is how I felt the first time I listened to Philip Corner's Satie Slowly (Unseen Worlds).
I have always had trouble describing the music of Erik Satie. In many ways, he was ahead of his time, and in many ways he was very much of his time. He is often categorized as a dadaist, surrealist, impressionist, proto-minimalist, and other ineffective -isms. He preferred the term “phonometrician,” one who “measures sounds”, over musician. His music is often simple, repetitive, and yet it defies classification. An in-depth look at his music shows how he uses typical chords, but utilizes them in such a way that goes against traditional harmony. And, on top of all that, I have always felt that his music is often played too fast.
Satie Slowly features two discs of the composer's better known piano works, including Gnossienne, No. 1, and the Gymnopédies. The music is performed by American composer and pianist, Philip Corner, who has been a lifelong advocate for Satie’s compositions (a satienist, colloquially speaking). In 1963 he was involved in the first performance of Satie’s Vexations, a piece for piano that instructs the pianist to repeat the written lines of music eight hundred and forty times.
Performing Satie’s music slowly allows it to truly speak for itself. The very clear lack of expression that is intentionally absent from his scores becomes fully apparent, and more so with each blatant repetition. The modal melodies mosey by, harkening back to something medieval, all while you hear each added note in some of his more unusual chords. The music becomes meditative and stable, despite its sometimes rickety harmony.
Here is a track most will recognize:
Upon listening to this Gymnopédie No. 1 for the first time, I noticed that it is a full minute longer than most. It opens with a series of alternating major seventh chords (Gmaj7 and Dmaj7), which, to quote Corner, “lose any aspect of hierarchy. All things being equal…” The melody appears naturally over the timeless pulsations, continuing to avoid key center and expression. It just seems to exist. On the album itself, this track is followed by the other two Gymnopédie, which are, “separate and distinct things which are just not that different.”
Philip Corner, Photograph by Bruno Vagnini
Corner also wrote the material in the accompanying booklet, which is just as interesting as the music itself. The text reads like poetry more than I thought a theoretical analysis could. Corner’s use of syntax, punctuation, and even capitalization is unusual, yet clear. It provides insights into Satie’s music in a way that matches its musical aesthetic. A few quotes:
“If his piano pieces are so easy why are they so badly played?
What they have which must not be violated is an objectivity allthemore solid for being so fragile.
(Their delicate appearance is a trap).”
“They resist all ‘added expressivity’; They make those who indulge sound ridiculous.
Yet nothing is lacking in them.”
“The thing that ‘gets’ me about Satie’s music is how ‘right’ it sounds.
Well why should it not? Because, while being right it is not correct.
And this would be nothing for surprise if it were dazzlingly revolutionary-
but, rather, it pretends to be traditional.”
Satie Slowly is, aside from my own amateur dabblings on the piano, probably the first time I have heard this music played for what it is. Each recording reveals its own plain, subtle weirdness, from the “incorrect” Chorales, to the humorous clusters on Empire’s Diva. It transports the listener to a sort of cubist monastery, where everything seem right and incorrect simultaneously. Corner put it best:“who said ----- it’s boring ----- it’s notmusic ----- you’re devotong [sic] yourself toSatie? ----- there’s nothing there -----you need so much patience .Yes . but once you have it youdon’t need anything else .”
If you were to turn on the radio right now, what would you hear? Amplified electric guitars, auto-tuned voices, excessively loud bass drops, uncomfortably dissonant synthesized tones (ok, maybe not the last one). Electronic music, and all the instruments it involves, are commonplace in today’s popular music landscape. But, in their earlier, more formative years, experiments in electronic sound production lay at the furthest fringes of musical possibility.
Born one hundred years ago this past May, Hugh Le Caine was an early champion for such electronic instruments. At a young age growing up in Port Arthur in northwestern Ontario, he tinkered with his own musical instruments and electronic devices, envisioning the musical possibilities in their synthesis. Of course, with electronic music being a small field of study in the first half of the twentieth century, Le Caine built his career as a physicist, and his work on WWII-era radar systems and atomic physics became well-known in their respective fields. But, while engaging in scientific pursuits, he continued to play with electronic sounds at home.
After WWII, Le Caine would focus more and more on his musical experiments. In 1945, he established a personal studio for the experimentation and construction of electronic instruments, the most noted of which is a fun little toy known as the Electronic Sackbut. Giggling aside, this device is recognized today as the earliest voltage-controlled synthesizer.
The electronic sackbut bears no relation to the Renaissance-era ancestor of the trombone after which it is named (although, I think I speak for everyone when I say that would be pretty cool), but rather was constructed inside of a small desk. The instrument uses standard piano keys to control pitch and volume, and utilizes controls which modulated the timbre of the performed sound, features which evolved into the modulation wheels of modern synthesizers. While it could only play a single pitch at a time, for 1948, this was a major breakthrough.
Starting in the mid-1950s, with his knowledge and understanding of pitch modulation, Le Caine also endeavored to create a few electronic compositions, and the most well-known of them is a little ditty titled Dripsody.
The entirety of Dripsody is based on the sound of a single drop of water, transformed with regards to pitch and duration to create a psychedelic flurry of drips and drops; a small study in musique concréte, which reminds me a little of 8-bit video game soundtracks.
Last month, in honor of the centenary year of Hugh Le Caine’s birth, Canadian music label Centrediscs has released three remixes of this classic electronic composition, as part of the launch of its new sub-label, Centretracks. A sort of millennial version of its parent organization, Centretracks aims to feature the rising stars of Canadian composition and performance, with projects ranging from the classical to the electroacoustic. Each release on this exciting new label will be in the form of individual tracks and small EPs released monthly, and will only be available online. This new addition to Centrediscs, a label that recently put out a recording of an opera about a mummified infant hidden in a floor for over eighty years, will provide opportunities not only for young talents to become known, but for audiences to explore and expand their musical interests.
Dripsody: The Remixes features the work of three Canadian DJs: Boundary, Elaquent, and Sandro Perri. Each remix takes the simple, neutral sound of Le Caine’s water droplet, and like with the original, manipulates it, resulting in three modern renditions, each with their own distinct character. The project bridges the century-wide gap between early modernist electronic compositions, and the very popular work of today’s DJs and dubstep artists. The Boundary Remix creates a steady groove, combined with slow ethereal chords, using the drips like a metronomic figure. Elaquent’s mix uses the Dripsody motives to create a trickling stream-like sound that plays underneath very bendy synth chords, as if it were under water. With the same material, Sandro Perri created something closer to Le Caine’s original, with an old quasi-carousel waltz pattern playing continuously underneath a fascinating array of chaotic drips, drops, bleeps, and bloops. You can hear samples of each remix here.
Be sure to also check out the Centretracks homepage on a regular basis for new recordings from this exciting label. The best is surely yet to come.
The (oc)Cult of the Marginalized Composer: The Group, The Feed Back (1970), and the birth of SphaghettiRock, or, MOTORIK: Former Axis Powers Do It BetterOctober 01 2014, 0 Comments
I can probably count on one hand the number of artists whose influence have inspired a complete about face in my own musical—no—make that macro-scale creative vision (you know- the big picture… all the things), and CAN is without question among this meticulously self-curated vanguard. Up to that enraptured, sometimes befuddled, yet ultimately untrammeled [1:13:27] in which I first listened to the band's best known work, Tago Mago (1971), my concepts of the upper limits for abstraction in the context of the album format (while retaining true musical / emotional / intellectual / visceral relevance) had been forged by Radiohead’s Kid A (2000)—an album that without my knowing so had in large part been inspired by and built upon the groundwork laid by CAN and their "krautrock" contemp's. Yet with CAN it was immediately apparent that I’d arrived at a new ground-zero of patently questionable stability, if there was actually any ground on which to stand—a distinction upon which I'm still not totally committed.
After several years of aping CAN bassist, recording engineer and strategic-theorist Holger Czukay’s working methods for my own projects—recording long and meandering group improvisations with multitrack recording gear and subsequently editing and re-structuring the recordings toward some semblance of orderliness, and occasionally recruiting the random pseudo-shamanistic, inexperienced vocalist to wax-poietic atop the depravity and madness—I still regard CAN as a seminal musical entity with a surprisingly wide scope of contemporary influence (even Kanye has stolen from them). And when I come across a record that contradicts my fundamental understanding of the chronology of a specific musical style's development such as CAN's, which I had believed to have developed in something of a vacuum, I usually feel compelled to dignify the paradigm challenger with a thorough examination. In this case, framing The Group's (yes, that's the name of the band- more on that later) 1970 album The Feed Back against the comparable work that followed in Germany throughout the 1970s brings into relief the reality that the conditions in Germany responsible for precipitating the development and rise of Krautrock were less of an isolated incidence, but rather, were characteristic of a changes in the musical landscape that were occurring all over Europe with classically-trained composers (and free-jazz musicians alike) finding more viable options via commercial, recorded popular genres and sound-media.
Now some background on how I came to encounter this unjustly unknown album:
Midsummer, an elegantly packaged japanese-style disc showed up on my desk, embroidered with the nondescript title The Group: The Feed Back (sic). The cover was clearly indicative that the contents were of the experimental, psychedelic ilk of the late 1960s or early 1970s. It took roughly 32 bars for the CAN/GROUP stylistic similarity to come into relief, but when it did it was an unbridled slap to the proverbial music-face. Surely, I thought, the creators must have consciously been borrowing from the work CAN did on Tago Mago (1971)—the similarities were just too uncanny:
There’s the faux “I don’t know how to play band/orchestral instruments, but I am doing it on tape anyway” element of the plucking and noodling for textural variance:
Next, there’s the guitar tone/idiomatic similarity: d-funk (demented funk) played with stratocaster, single-coil like twang (when playing clean, that is):
Then there's both groups' proclivities toward the inclusion of such long tracks that the total playlist of a (very near) full-length LP could be comprised by less than 5 individual pieces, the final of which comprising a full album-side in and of itself:
The Feed Back (1970): 1) The Feed Back [7:03], 2) Quasars [5:58], 3) Kumalo [20:34] – Total Play Time: [33:36]
Future Days (1973): 1) Future Days [9:30], 2) Spray [8:29], 3) Moonshake [3:04], 4) Bel Air [19:53] – Total Play Time: [41:06]
And last but not least, there’s that damn groove. The relentlessly movement-inspiring four-in-the-floor forward motion propelled by Franco Egangelisti is so idiomatically close and to that of CAN’s Jaki Leibzeit that it’s kind of absurd.
Despite all of these similarities and conventional knowledge of CAN and their krautrock accomplices, The Feed Back (1970) precedes Tago Mago by at least one full year (depending upon the time from recording to actual release). What we have here in Group's work on The Feed Back is Spaghettirock to CAN's Krautrock- a peculiar phenomenon to say the least. And after researching The Group at greater length, it quite clear that both bands represent academically-gotten musical theories melding with free jazz by way of the global cultural phenomenon that was psychedelia. In the US, free jazz, rock and psychedelia had come to their own convergence (in a commercially visible way) on Miles Davis’ 1969 albums In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew (both figuring heavily into influencing Holger Czukay's approach to tape-editing-composition), but nothing else quite moves furiously through time like their European counterparts. And that’s why they invented a word for it: MOTORIK, and both of these groups gots it... lots of it.
The Group, the boot nation's stylistically misguided answer to The Band
So here’s another thing that CAN and the GROUP have in common: they’re both collaborations of "frustrated" classically trained composers. In this way both albums are telling of marginalized mid-twentieth century classical composers' attitudes toward the opportunities that were becoming available to them by way of these sorts of projects as traditional opportunities began to slip away from them mid-last century. In fact, THE GROUP, or Gruppo di Improvvisazione di Nuova Consonanza (New Consonance Improvisational Collective) was precisely that: a side project in which then-contemporary Italian composers (of varying degrees of "frustration") could blow off some serious avant-garde, genre-bending, mind-expanding steam. Possibly the least frustrated among THE GROUP’s members was Italy’s most famous export in the film score department, Ennio Morricone, who is credited for brass (principally trumpet) throughout The Feed Back. While Holger Czukay of CAN's capacities to produce works within the conventional art-music paradigm were self-admittedly weak ("I failed all of my entrance exams..." he laughingly told an interviewer when discussing his personal plea to his graduate school composition instructor, Karlheinz Stockhausen), one can’t help but wonder if the frustration that Morricone felt toward his own marginalization as a composer via his association with film-score music (a genre often derided as being a lesser form than "pure" concert music) played into the The Feed Back’s aggressive weirdness.
Morricone blows off some seriously avant-garde steam: note the Bassoon reed in lieu of mouthpiece
While CAN’s reputation in the US is now secure, The Group’s The Feedback continues to languish in relative, wholly unjust obscurity. Seeing as the album requires us to reconsider the primacy of one nation's in the development of a still-influential musical genre (might I again bring up the Kanye influence), and provides every bit as much pleasure as its better known counterparts (that is to the folks who find such epic weirdness appealing), it would be among my most cherished fever dreams to see a comprehensive re-issue of this title, and other The Group releases issued with expanded liner notes as Record Store Day releases in some not too distant future of some very strange year.
Toccata Classsics' Music for Alfred Hitchcock: A (Relatively) Brief History and Critical ContextualizationSeptember 16 2014, 0 Comments
So far as the casual modern Hitchcock fan goes, only ten years of the director’s six-decade long filmography are paid significant widespread attention: 1950-1960, and even more so, 1955-1960. Unsurprisingly, all but two of fourteen tracks from Toccata Classics’ recent Hitchcock themed program, Music for Hitchcock come from this period:one of which being a latter day tribute to Hitchcock by noted Herrmann/Waxman devotee Danny Elfman, and the other, Waxman’s 1941 score for Rebecca, presented as a pairing with his score for Rear Window (1954).
It was this microcosm of Hitchcock’s long and varied career in which the director found himself surrounded with the most potently talented ensemble of key-creative partnerships that he would ever be afforded: costume designer Edith Head, cinematographer Robert Burks, editor George Tomasini, and above all, film score composers Dimitri Tiomkin, Franz Waxman, and Bernard Herrmann. And it’s worth taking note that this is the only period in which Hitchcock worked consistently with a composer. Outstanding, memorable scores outside of Hitchcock’s golden era of the 1950s are fewer and farther between.
A cooling of Hitchcock’s critical and commercial reputation began in the wake of Psycho (1960) with the “scoreless” The Birds (on which Herrmann was credited as “Music Consultant,” and in fact had played a huge role in developing the electronically synthesized faux-aviary sound bed in lieu of a proper score) in 1963, and came to an anticlimactic sizzle in the Sean Connery-led Marnie (1964). Herrmann was commissioned to write the score for Hitchcock’s next film, Torn Curtain (1967), and with big name star power like Paul Newman and Julie Andrews as the leads, expectations for the director’s first return to the international intrigue since North By Northwest (1959)—a genre that had almost exclusively defined the director’s early career up to the late 1930s— were sky high. But the finished film was a commercial and critical disaster, and the version that was screened for the public contained no evidence of Herrmann’s collaboration for the first time in over a decade.
Incidentally the two had a falling out over the score that the composer had presented, and it was replaced in the eleventh hour of post-production. Hitchcock was insistent that Herrmann should produce a more contemporary, pop/jazz score—arguably an ill-advised strategy formulated in the directors growing insecurity over his widening gap with the young, movie-going public. The approach that Hitchcock had demanded of Herrmann was totally at odds with the composer's signature ostinato-driven, slowly unfolding style that had initially been shaped by his work on radio-dramas of the late 1930s, found its first maturity in his monumental score for Citizen Kane in 1941, and would remain visceral and vibrant to young audiences up to his final completed score for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver in 1976. The composer declined to revise the score that he had presented to Hitchcock, and their working relationship subsequently terminated on a point of abject irresolution much like the unceremonious conclusion of one of their late 1950s collaborations (no spoilers here for anybody that hasn't seen...). To date, the late 1960s remains widely regarded as the director’s fallow period, evidencing that the cooling of Hitchcock’s reputation into this period decidedly correlates with the dissolution of his and Herrmann's working relationship.
The point in drudging through all of this background is that often throughout the career of Hitchcock, that which made or broke the film was the quality of the accompanying music score. While the Nouvelle Vague critics at Cahiers du Cinéma placed Hitchcock on the high and much-coveted pedestal of cine-auteur-nonpareil, the weakness of their director-as-principal-creative-proprietor theory shows in Hitchcock's international intrigue flops of the late sixties. Without a strong collaborator in the composer’s co-pilot seat of the storytelling, narrative process, the Hitchcockian sensibility suddenly imploded inward upon itself into a befuddled mess. While it’s incredibly difficult to challenge the accepted notion of Hitchcock as a brilliant innovator with lasting contemporary relevance, it’s simultaneously very easy to overlook the degree to which his successes depended substantially upon the contribution of outside parties, and in for the purposes of this discussion, a specific dependence upon a strong score to see that the various audio-visual cinematic elements coalesce harmoniously with one another—or in the words of Martin Balsam’s Investigator Arbogast of Psycho, “Well, if it doesn't jell, it isn't aspic, and this ain't jellin'!"
And having mentioned next to nothing on the works of Waxman and Tiomkin, it would only be just to offer a few comments on their indispensable contributions represented in this Toccata presentation:
Distinct among musical innovation in the music that accompanied Hitchcock’s 1950s films is Franz Waxman’s jazz-derived score for Rear Window. As a first of its kind, Waxman’s summoning of the that which was regarded as the musical vernacular of the day only served to accentuate the edgy, gritty, and ultimately groundbreaking essence of the film. And Waxman’s score for Rebecca (1940), Hitchcock’s first Hollywood film from fourteen years earlier remains fresher than the dated and overwrought performances of Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine. Aside from being Hitchcock’s first American-made film (under contract to producer/mogul David O. Selznick- Gone With the Wind), Rebecca constitutes an early presaging of the themes and style of Hitchcock’s late, highly personal masterpiece, Vertigo (1958, portions of Herrmann's masterpiece of a score is represented in this collection). As an eerie, ghostly mood piece about a modest, earthy young woman trapped the shadow of, and haunted by, the lingering memory of her elegantly cosmopolitan upper-class predecessor in the role of “Mrs. De Winter”—Joan Fontaine’s character is never addressed by her own name, so her persona is literally subsumed by the deceased. The film’s meditations on marital/domestic homicide (and suicide), as well as the idea that legacy and memory can in and of themselves constitute matter-of-fact reifications of ghosts paved the way for later films as disparate in style and genre as Stanley Kubrick’s cinematic reading of Stephen King's The Shining (also heavily dependent on scoring for dramatic efficacy).
Collaborating with Hitchcock on four films—the director’s personal favorite of his own canon, Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Strangers on a Train (1951), I Confess (1953) and Dial M for Murder (1954)—Tiomkin ranks as one of the director’s most frequent and indispensable collaborators. The two represented in this collection (Strangers on a Train and Dial M for Murder) stand out as the high-points of Hitchcock’s early 1950s output. The distant carnival music (based on the popular tune “and the band played on”) that plays over Strangers’ memorable murder sequence renders the audience complicit and accomplice to the onscreen violence, while simultaneously transporting them into the joyous inner world of the homicidal maniac unlike anything before, or again until A Clockwork Orange, and Resevoir Dogs many years later.
So in summary, music and its use in the films of Alfred Hitchcock is a substantial enough topic as to justify the program Toccata presents here, and should provide pleasure even to the most pedestrian of Hitchcock, or even more generally, classic film score enthusiasts.
Things may have been quiet on the #newmusictuesday front as of late, but by no means should that be taken to imply a shortage of MODULATIONS-worthy titles... quite the contrary, in fact. Here’s an (incidentally saxophone-heavy) overview of some of the best new titles that have hit the streets over the last few weeks.
Earlier this year we ran a post on NYC saxophonist Alex Hoffman’s critique of Wayne Shorter and the fellow members of his quartet’s proclivities toward the experimental and the abstract- the abandonment of premeditated formal procedure. While the young musician stated a compelling case for the value of formalism to the meta-narrative of the development of genre and musical style, one may argue that such a rigid opposition to the Dionysian abandon characteristic of Shorter and his quartet's music overlooks that to which the title of this new Arthaus documentary (available here on DVD and Blu-Ray) points: the evolution of language, with which music shares many overlapping properties, is a never ending process that invariably begins with the summoning of the mind's subconscious elements to cross, ephemerally, over the threshold of the unknown and into the realm of conscious thought.
While Irina Bjorklund is better known stateside for her work on the silver screen alongside George Clooney in 2010's The American, the Finnish entertainer is also a singer in her own right. La Vie Est Une Fête, or Life is a Party for our English speaking audience, is her second full-length studio album, available now from Naive records. While the songs here are performed in Bjorklund's native Finnish, rest assured that language barriers should pose no preventative factor in the enjoyment of these smokey, sultry retro-lounge tunes. The title track brings to the mind's eye a sequence from a yet to be conceived Quentin Tarantino project... yeah, its just that cool.
The latest release from the Switzerland-based progressive/experimental jazz label INTAKT has so much going for it that it's almost pointless to try to explain it in under 5 sentences (but when have we ever been preoccupied with having points?). Possibly the most accessible release from the label to date, the performances of Iyer, Lake, Workman and Cyrille are eccentric without distracting from their ample melodic ideas. And musical autodidact Vijay Iyer (seriously- his formal degrees are in Mathematics and Physics) is simply one of the most important rising players in the U.S. Jazz scene. With liner notes constituting one of the very last complete works by the late poet/writer Amiri Baraka, Wiring is a grand slam.
Namesake aside, Gabriel Prokofiev is one of the most important working composers of our era. Dedicated to challenging and ultimately abolishing the binary opposition of classical and popular by way of novel variations on traditional forms (i.e. a 'Concerto' for Turntable and Orchestra), Prokofiev's works on Selected Classical Works 2003-2012 label should be compulsory listening for anyone with musical aspirations that may even vaguely resemble that of the classical composer- musically trained or not. And DJ Yoda: what more could you possibly want in an alt-classical compendium?
And rounding out the last of our Saxophone-intensive titles, we present sax-quartet Battle Trance's Palace of Wind. A triptych, speaking in terms of formal structure, minimalistic repetition and extended technique (a fancy way of saying that you're playing an instrument in ways its creator never intended) are utilized by the ensemble to the extent that its easy to forget that one is listening to solely single-reed instruments, let alone saxophones. Then there's the hip factor: group leader Travis Laplante regularly collaborates with post-punk/experimental/avant-garde jazz/former Mr. Bungle bass virtuoso, Trevor Dunn. Circular breathing becomes so much cooler once out of the hands of Kenny G.
4) Why have you chosen this project at this point in your career?
Partly it's because, as an artist, I need to take wild turns in my musical explorations. I don't like to follow one path.
I have interest in many different kind of music and Classic Rock has been part of my musical landscape and constitutes a lot of the music I listen to everyday. I find these artist that I "uncovered" in this album to be worthy of this kind of exploration. They are immortal and powerful and the idea of treating this music with the weight that it deserves and literally uncover the inner layers of it core was really interesting to me.
Also, Evan Ziporyn and I, worked on Kashmir together in my album "Provenance" and I really liked that journey and wanted to do a whole album collaboration with him.
My next project will probably be performing Xenakis, or Renaissance music - I think the people who follow my work are in for the ride....