Sunday, September 28, 2008

a bit of space and clarity

two things i want to share with you:

1. piano music... how many times have i said (sometimes by way of excuse) that piano music is not my thing? well... sometimes it is, sure enough, but it's true that the instrument itself rarely seems to speak directly to me in the way, say, saxophones or clarinets or trombones do. naturally, when the piano music box set came out, i was tempted even though i didn't expect to be able to enjoy the music just yet. but i couldn't justify the purchase to myself at the time, and that was that.

then some download links turned up... you know how these things go, there are places online where such things are shared among closed circles, i don't frequent such places myself but one or two of my correspondents sometimes pass on things they know will be of interest... even then, it took me a while to pull the files and even longer to listen to any of them. but last night, out of the blue i found myself listening to comp. 5 and being enthralled by it, pulled completely into its world...

... and i went right to the composition notes, which were still sitting almost untouched until the next braxtothon phase shift (imminent!); and i'm not going to get pulled into details on any of this here and now, though i did smile at the discovery that the piece was constructed in three parts (in 1968), the last part added two months after the rest of it... who did that remind me of? :) not that i am for a minute comparing my feeble workrate with our man's, that would be embarrassing, but still...

... anyway, the upshot is that i may just buy the box set after all, while it's still available..! quite apart from any other considerations, comp. 5 itself makes much use of the sustain pedal, hence note decay is a prime element of the sound... mp3 still tells you what's going on, but it's a clear instance where the difference will be highly noticeable - not that i ever said it wasn't... that was never the issue..!

* * *

2. beyond quantum - now what the hell happened there exactly? what was i trying to do to myself? i order the cd, and rather than hunt for a cheap used copy (it being a tzadik release, someone is already bound to have decided they don't want it...), i got it from the label - and this is the crucial bit, made a proper indulgence out of it (both for me and for them) by throwing in a couple more items. hence, a delay of a fortnight in receiving the damn package and a customs charge when it finally showed up... and even then i still don't listen to the music straight away, indeed not for a half a week as it turns out, not all of it anyway...

... a number of reasons for that, but among them a sense of increased pressure, a feeling that i need to write about every single recording i listen to, in at least some useful detail... well, maybe in an ideal world i would, but the days or nights when it just flows out of me are few and far between, the rest of the time it can be a form of slow torture and - this is the point - when the pressure to communicate prevents me from even making time to listen in the first place, clearly something has gone wrong... anyway, rectified that tonight, sat and played the whole album in one sitting as it's intended to be heard (pieces are all distinct, but are merged together on the album); and, again, this is not the time or place to go on about it! i'll be going back to it anyway. suffice to say in the meantime it's a highly successful meeting; whether it's the "vanguard jazz fan's dream come true" as has been suggested is perhaps up for debate, and in any case of course it wasn't the first time this trio has played, just the first meetings in a studio (the rome date from march 2007 is still up at huppes & hyalites, even if the blog itself is in suspended animation..!). if you want to know what the album sounds like..? it sounds like anthony braxton, william parker and milford graves improvising together more or less freely on loosely-prearranged structures, a couple of producers listening in very closely... there's no mystery beyond that, and i still don't like that album title..! but the constant communication between b. and graves in particular is still commended to your attention. and yes, for those minds whose braxton-fuses are as yet unlit, this could even be a flaming torch... those of you reading this are likely to know what to expect, but don't expect the mundane, even so. [as always, there are moments - !!]

Thursday, September 25, 2008

the john zorn depository building

the second issue of eartrip, david grundy's digital magazine is out now. as before, david has worked long and hard to get this published so please give him your support... besides the assortment of reviews, interviews with british musicians etc, this issue includes an interesting presentation vs content experiment from anthony whiteford (bristolian improviser, and author of the superb cecil taylor article in issue 1)... and my own "defence" of john zorn, one of the most divisive figures in the entire creative music scene (i think it's fair to say!). specifically, the piece contains a brief - by my standards - track-by-track analysis of the dreamers, an album which came out earlier this year (and drew even more flak than usual).

so: not that i'm soliciting it, you understand (and i'm really not - little or no enthusiasm for emotive online arguments at present, far better uses for my time), but if anyone really wants to tear me apart over this, please do so by way of a comment on this post, rather than clogging up the rest of the blog with it..! as usual, anonymous tirades will elicit no response at all from me; if you want a reply, please leave a name - and try to be a bit more constructive than "zorn is shit, you're an idiot"..!

i am happy to talk about it (with anyone who is not foaming at the mouth) - i have been sitting here listening to derek bailey's wonderful standards, the original blueprints for what later became the famous ballads album... this whole project would never have existed if it weren't for zorn, and no, it's not cynical or a cash-in, he wasn't exploiting bailey or ripping off the listener... actually just the liner notes make that clear to me, revealing as they do that a) zorn and the baileys were close friends, b) the former had a great respect for, and understanding of the latter's music and c) as a producer, zorn knew straight away that something important was happening before anyone else did. so there... and i still like the dreamers too! [blows raspberry]

* * *

my package from new york finally arrived yesterday (held up in customs, why did i not see that coming). so beyond quantum is finally in my possession! and although i have not yet managed to hear the whole thing, i played some of it last night and early impressions are that yes, it's rather good... i still don't like that album title much (or the packaging, for a change!) but the music is definitely beyond something or other, and the recording stretches time, cramming large amounts of detail into small spaces... laswell doesn't get in the way either... i will try and write something about this album in due course. in any case, next post will be back to braxton...

Thursday, September 18, 2008

diamond curtain wall is now

earlier in the summer (not that we had one of those in the u.k.) a short european tour was undertaken by anthony braxton and his experienced recent students/collaborators, taylor ho bynum and mary halvorson. the concerts were all from the diamond curtain wall series of compositions (the best known of which are probably comps. 323 a-c). dcw pieces are all characterised by the use of electronics, specifically reactive software (usually supercollider, in which b. was instructed by aaron siegel, his number one percussionist for a few years now). for some of the concerts the core trio was enhanced by the addition of bassoonist katherine young.

two concerts from the dcw quartet - in besançon and moscow - appeared on dime and were soon posted on inconstant sol, by tantris, who recently added this superb trio to fill out the picture some more. the two quartets took a couple of plays to worm their way into my ear, though besançon in particular (knotty, turbulent, positively fractious at times) has been played and replayed since then. but the trio, which is from the week after the quartet shows, is just an instant hit. not too much of a surprise, since with no new student on hand to be guided and encouraged through the music, these three (who really know each other's top game inside out by now) can simply let fly and go at it.

the beginning of the piece builds within seconds from delicate flutters on guitar to a full-on, metal-on-metal game of chicken as b. and bynum push their sustained attacks up against each other and do their best to inhabit the same space, hold the same line - it creates sparks, wild overtones, harsh smears (and for a moment sounds remarkably like comp. 23e at the moment just before transition, as captured in the studio) - and then the electronics kick in and both trajectories are now sharing space with metal and concrete. still the guitar flutters on, a simple and edgy continuity behind the lift-off that is the first thirty-odd seconds of the piece, before the first infinitesimal pause which ushers in - something else, the next complex image, the next card, whatever. (we know that graphics are very important for the dcw book... but i don't know much else yet!)

- because this entire set is constructed piecemeal, though organically: episode follows episode, territory changing as seen from a brisk train through suburbs, entire tiny worlds are opened up and explored and then slip into memory as the next follows without pause. a detailed map could be constructed likewise, outlining every single development; there would be seen no dead time, no hanging around waiting for someone else to do something interesting, these three just never stop: start the recording at any point and the open ear is hooked at once.

so let's not list the entire performance, at least not on this occasion..! as with gtm posts previously, i will share a few moments and observations from my informal session... but simply trust this man to show you something interesting every second, and there it is when you go in search of it... all it takes is to listen and listen ;-)

... just the first two minutes introduce a whole panoply of sounds and textures. tune in at 1.45 and see how much is happening! the extraordinary richness of the shared palette is so beautiful partly because the computer is kept well in check, never overwhelming the ensemble and frequently relegated to the background within it. just the three masters - one of god knows what level black belt by now, to continue my occasional martial-arts trope... one of probably third dan and maybe one of second - create a shared improvisational world which dazzles the mind time and again, enchants the ear. the electronics add all sorts of useful shading and echo, but these three have it got it well under control and never lose it the thread...

... typically, the intense opening build-up gives way just as quickly to the first brief water phase, the activity/rest dialectic extended throughout this set just as with so many others (most gtm, many previous, etc etc). but in the crucible that is this piece, whatever its number and symbology, all rest contains activity, just as there remain spaces unexplored within the latter...

... dale wasn't kidding (see comments on the sol trio post) - leading up to 13.30 and especially for the ensuing forty secs, b. really puts the monster through its paces (by now this is likely to be what's known as a contra-alto clarinet rather than the contrabass of the seventies, but a monster is a monster... the many tricks this one has include purring its way up through the registers into feedback territory, and fabulously rich, wrought-iron breath sculptures which b. drags out of the horn by use of the voice. more on this in a minute...

... though halvorson's youth is still constantly betrayed by her defiantly punky aesthetic, she's really well and truly on her way, and indeed it's during this performance that i realise she's fast becoming one of my favourite contemporary musicians (not that i know that many necessarily!). the more i hear her, the more i love her playing, and that's very unusual for me with a "jazz" guitarist (*1). she just never stops sounding interesting and she never stands still...

... around 18.20 b. seems to be setting up some direct quote or other, but... i lose it and it's swept away back into the water...

... 21.45-22ish, a long and twisted sax line once again touches some very deep and precise places through creative forcing of the breath... and winds on and on, the electronics rising then in a wave and being gradually pushed back under control by bynum and halvorson....

... from about 26.38, b. begins a demonstration (following what's already an extended virtuoso display, duetting against the computer at one point then fully solo for maximum impact) of the wind-within-a-wind technique he mastered some years ago and has been displaying at regular intervals ever since, very often in solo recitals, frequently in gtm too. (*2) this really has to be heard to be believed and, naturally, every time he does it the effect is subtly different... never less than amazing... this does not involve the computer...

...when he stops at 27.50, bynum is onto in a flash, runs away with it at once and halvorson in turn gets her cue from the brassman and takes flight... b. honks his support from the wings... 28.50 on, halvorson gets a little time to herself, whips out those messy punky attacks again, winds down suddenly and (with b.) opens up a free space, into which little darts and trails shoot from all corners...

...again, from 32.00 on, b's plaintive alto tone almost conjures references out of the air, but i can't be sure...

...forward to 34.15-35.00, see how well halvorson meshes with bynum to create a complex ballad texture... this summons a burst of furious altotude from the leader, long hanging support tones from the others, bynum seeming to mimic a herd of cattle at one (drawn-out) point to halvorson's mournful and reflective plunked chords... the alto races on and on all the while... finally by 38.15 only the brass and strings remain... till the sopranino appears now, mimicking the cornet...

... and 39.40 we're in the middle of one of those barnyard conversations, full blown, no doubt a little bit of electronic enhancement at work somewhere, but the three players make a tremendous fuss between them... marvellous!..

... forward to 52 mins, the monster is out again, and every time it gets me the same way, i just love to hear that beast purrrrrrr :) seems scarcely worth mentioning at this juncture but nonetheless, this occasion is just like the others, it's a sonic alchemist at work and the time gets duly noted...

... as we pass 54 mins, halvorson is working at something folky, and at 54.10ish she suddenly seems to suggest "oh when the saints..." and hence by extension albert ayler, also therefore (these days) a hotshot from the previous generation (and ayler worshipper), marc ribot. but the defiantly bent, fucked-up clockwork-toy-winding-down attacks she runs out from here probably owe as much to derek bailey... now round and round they all three go, in coils...

... as the hour comes up, sunlight catching long glass from halvorson...

... 61.45, it's bynum's outrageous vocalised blasphemies for a change, and not the leader's, which get my face working...

... lapse back into silence...

- and then, weirdly, as the leader begins his customary list of players thanking the audience and ending with himself, the crowd is onto it in a flash and smothers him, no cathartic yells of note but the inevitable whistles and appreciative claps, yet so eager to get on with it that they drown out the guitarist's name altogether. only a very short list this time, yet he doesn't even get halfway through it... what happened there? and when the recording fades out, was that really it, no short encore as was by now usually the case..?

* * *

mary halvorson - well, like i say, she's turning into one of my favourite current players (and i have hardly heard anything of her outside these contexts). she loves to sound like a turntablist at times, just one of many many tricks she has up her witchy sleeves.

and thb..? always there, the heir to the brass chair and the right hand man, yet i seldom seem to say much about him... trumpet and piano, what can i say, it's not so much where my ear is at apparently... not at this time anyway. still, i do frequently hear him and marvel at his tonal flexibility, the one quality above all that b. requires in a brass player since he switched wheeler for lewis.

the leader... i still have yet to hear this man play a duff solo never mind have a remotely off night. not him as a player, though the band may be a different matter... but that was in another country, and besides...

the music - other than the fact that it is scintillatingly imagistic, i still have very vague conceptions about how dcw scores work, how much is improvised - the entire thing, strung out like a gigantic and impossibly complicated set of continuous filaments, almost sounds as if it could be one seamless group improv but it very probably isn't, so no useful conclusions there. but i tell you what: never mind reheated 80s/90s pop-jazz ironic post-fusion masquerading as "cutting edge" music, this is the coalface right here, this is where the borders of creative music are being updated on a minute-by-minute basis, and it's happening as you sit there... celebrate the living... don't wait to honour this man in death, let us learn from him while he is still among us. there is so much music still in him, and many more minds to reach...

* see first comment

Saturday, September 13, 2008

gap-filling... part two

(first album for byg actuel)

the title of this album is reproduced above - i can't render it for you in text form because it is not a collection of letters and numbers, a cipher: it is a relationship consisting of certain characters configured in a certain way. hence, really, even if the details were correct in the popular title B-Xo/ N-O-1-47A - which they aren't, as you can see for yourselves - it would be no more "right" to call the album that than it is to call it anthony braxton, the other popular misnomer. (in cases where an album - in whatever genre - is released without a title, people inevitably say it's "self-titled".)

- the trouble is, in his urgent need to establish a reputation for doing things his own way, b. had probably not yet had the opportunity to discover the various disadvantages of naming your works in a way which can be neither conventionally written, nor pronounced aloud. but the title of the album is also the title of the piece which occupies the whole of the vinyl side two, the braxton original now known to us as comp. 6g. (no, it would not really be accurate to refer to the album as composition 6g either..!)

this important (if relatively short-lived) quartet is not properly represented in the braxtothon for the simple reason that when i started eleven months ago, i didn't have either of the albums by this group (or even any bootlegs of it). as with for alto previously, i am now catching up in "next best" fashion: having lost the chance to cover the material with (as near as poss) naïve ears and in "actual time" chronologically, i didn't feel the need to listen under braxtothon conditions... as usual, the music frequently distracted me from whatever else i was doing - on this occasion, sorting through photos, a fairly distracting task in itself given that each of them has memories attached... but the musicians (and in some cases the music) were often able to demand my full attention.

* * *

"the light on the dalta" (sic) - one of leo smith's. the piece opens full-on, albeit briefly, everyone playing with some force; but for the first few seconds my ears groped towards the centre of the sound, trying and failing to identify those four voices. it seemed to take a long time, but there they all are. still, it's an odd experience after all this time: a braxton album which doesn't sound immediately like a braxton album. (to me. on this occasion...)

oh god it's that thing again... several minutes in, b's gorgeous playing is puked on by the appalling harmonica. i'd forgotten all about that - these guys, for some reason the mouth organ was part of the setup for quite some time and it was apparently essential that it be played badly. i say that without sarcasm, because i find it impossible to assume that these men would not have heard good blues harp players at some point. but regardless of what the damn thing is supposed to represent in these contexts, the effect for me as a listener is that b's gorgeous playing is puked on by the appalling harmonica.

all of the other notes from this piece relate to a more general conclusion/prejudice which i will relate in the third section of the article. i still have little or no understanding of smith as a composer.

"simple like" is by leroy jenkins and, fittingly, most of my notes seem to consist of the sort of hysterical oohs and ahhs which normally are reserved for the braxbird, here directed at the violinist. it's probably been a little while since i heard jenkins close up like this, and each time he cuts loose on this track, my attention is sucked right out of the memory-laced photos and into the speakers within a fraction of a second. unbelievable command he has in his playing, total ownership not only of his instrument, but of his own voice, rightful ownership of his own means of expression, with all the responsibility that that implies.

right from the beginning of the jenkins piece, before its composer takes it by the scruff of the neck, it's already a joy to hear him and i wonder fleetingly where he was in the first piece that i "missed" him. the music early on is "courtly" and rather delicate, knowingly archaic, mccall playing some sort of tambour to enhance the effect... but it does sound a little bit weedy until jenkins suddenly lights the place up. that, in turn, quickly brings the monster out to play; but, damn it, any momentum which might have been gained is quickly blown when smith's next entries don't seem to relate to what's already happening, and before you know it there's another wheezy noisemaker on the go, either the harp again or perhaps an accordion played equally crudely: either way, it tries to become a sort of analogue synth but this doesn't really come off. the tension slackens again.

as much as all the players have their moments here, the best reason for listening to the track must surely be jenkins, and it makes me feel sad for a moment than in his case, i left it too late to discover him in life and can only celebrate him dead. this blog, above all, is about celebrating the living.

which brings me to comp. 6g, and right away (again, see below) i find it impossible not to think "ah, the real meat has arrived." this despite the fact that the piece opens with the sound of partially inflated balloons being let down. (one of these days i must try and find time to look into the relationship between this piece and comp. 25.) the thing is - and i don't really care how pretentious this might sound - even with inflated rubber as a source, here it works: there is conviction at once and cohesion to the presentation of the sound. it's a completely subjective, qualitative reaction but i can just feel it. at this point the photos are down on the floor forgotten because the sound has demanded my attention. stockhausen? wouldn't really know (yet!). but i did see a piece of his performed once, a shortish piece for solo saxophone and shortwave receiver which came to mind in the opening section here.

- soon enough, there's a pause and a complete left turn, into a classic early b-theme: fast, tricky to say the least, impossible to predict with any certainty. flashes of the repetition series (6f, 40(o)) are glimpsed. needless (i hope) to say, it's not regimentally tight, not at all overrehearsed, messy round the edges... yet still tight enough to say with conviction what, you think the sound was all meaningless? here, suck on that! - so that when the breath returns in its various forms, we can know for sure that an architect is behind it. and this time... well, the braxton solo which follows in due course just left me marvelling, frantically trying to remember (with the reduced portion of my consciousness not busily glorying in the music) whether or not i'd ever said that b. was still not a finished master in '69. i don't think i have said that. but if i did, i was wrong. he already was a master, and this solo is all the evidence one would need to cite.

jenkins gets in on the act again too here - another amazing solo, which has me shaking my head in disbelief at how compelling this man's playing really was. and when the music returns to noises, as it does, it never loses cohesion. (i think that this is exclusive to the braxton piece here. the others wander badly at times, it's not just me i reckon. again, read on...) listen to the noises as free improv - it works, it coheres, there is clear focus and shared spontaneous intent strung out continuously like filigree. it never snaps, merely twists and winds on and on.

and once more, ladies and gents - before the theme restatement, one last re-entry from the leader, which takes my head off. (notes reduced to expletives yet again...) and that sounds like a very good and decisive ending..? no, it's not, they're still - ah, ok, that is actually that. clever at the end there, even. clever and effective, more to the point.

* * *

this band... at this stage, by the looks of it, there were two main continuing concerns being driven within the ranks of the aacm: the art ensemble of chicago and these guys. (more can be read about all this in lewis.) of course, smith and jenkins had teamed up with b. before, had indeed been there right at the birth, recording the very first braxton original composition on wax. what's more, after starting out under his name, then changing (?) to all three names listed equally, they had settled back under b's leadership as a working quartet, an engine room. but with the best will in the world, i can't see how this was going to work. easy to say in hindsight; but these important players can only be squeezed into the same space if the roles are clearly understood, or the territory is completely neutral: here the first pertains on the long third piece, neither truly pertains on the other two. this is because the leader is still trying to be democratic and use his friends' compositions, not unreasonable since his friends are (like him) advanced and serious musicians, but it's not gonna work here, it just can't. he has to lead. and evidently all of them know this, which is why he's the nominal leader of this quartet; but they can't work out how to share the power. b. is not able to impose himself completely on the ensemble by dictating all the repertoire; yet without his focus and direction, the other two pieces just don't sound anything like as convincing. this doesn't necessarily mean that i think smith and jenkins were inferior composers even: just means their pieces won't work properly under b's leadership. (silence was the only braxtothon album so far to get a mere CC recommendation from me... and neither of the pieces was by braxton.) these men could work as equals, but it's not fitting for the other three to be mere "sidemen" for braxton, since after all they are not his students. (none of this will be clear to the leader at this point, presumably.) hence, whilst the idea of their playing whole programmes of b's music is tantalising, at this point it can't happen... and without that, something just doesn't seem right. on side one, moments of individual brilliance are there, but collectively there is perhaps too much avoidance of treading on toes for anything very meaningful to happen. this, at least, is my impression...

... and how far that is simply a prejudiced, overinformed opinion which i failed to shake off before playing the album, is something i can't quite decide.

in any case, the band did pull off an all-braxton programme next time round... but next time was also in a way the last time, since from then on the name reverted (? i think) to creative construction company and, to underscore that, the only recording we have in the discog is a full programme of jenkins. leader no more even in name, our man went off looking for his destiny as a mentor, which - in the first instance -would soon turn out to mean relieving chick corea of his high-class rhythm section, via a curious sidetrack into scientology, and another doomed collaboration called circle... meanwhile, next time will be this time as far as gap-filling goes.

(?s - see comments)

Friday, September 5, 2008

critical massage, pt. 2 - "chromatic" vs belle cacophonie

saturn calling...

- because reconfiguring - or exploding - the rigid aesthetic exoskeleton imposed on the listening ear by society via the diatonic scale is not "colouration", which itself is something very specific, largely timbral/textural and a question for arrangers rather than composers as such; tearing the scaffolding down is something else, something apart. and it's what we need to look at (i think).

there are these two ways - reconfiguration (which itself is a form of musical/aesthetic heresy, punishable at the very least by lack of commercial success - herbie nichols... etc) and demolition, just blasting the whole thing the fuck apart, usually with all the noise and fury that this would seem to imply; but then this too will be seen to be appropriate since destruction is actually part of what's required in the first instance: the programming must be pulled out by its roots, and whether or not that is seen as destruction by the uprooter is neither here nor there: that is how the implanted part will experience it.

reconfiguration is often best done by piano players - notes are all right there laid out in front of you, picking patterns through them is an obvious game; elmo hope, sonny clark (ish), mengelberg, nichols, monk - aha, well, we'd better come back to monk.

demolition often best left to the heavy brigade - but that too can include pianists of course - taylor, crispell (earlier), bley, sun ra, i'm gonna put monk in here as well. just a quick glance at that short list reveals that the job can be achieved with flicks of the wrist as well as thunderous rendings of the skies.

what sun ra knew when he reputedly told trane to play an apple is that using sound to tell a pretty story - and often therewith to inculcate a complex set of normative social and aesthetic values - is just one of the many uses to which musical sound can be put: and he showed us some of the others! listeners who engage freely with his music are, in fact, transported beyond themselves. (this is of course not unique to sun ra... happens to me rather frequently with braxton..!) it is not just colour, not just an effect - it is the substance and it's not good enough to have to use the term "chromatic" when dealing with it. naturally... we are stuck with it for the time being. but free sound is surely what we're really trying to deal with. bailey - again, the demolition can be subtle but it's equally devastating to the structure which is being demolished. defenders of diatonic purity are scornful in their dismissal of bailey precisely because he is such a potential threat... braxton too i suspect. times may be changing, though... we can still have our say in this.

* * *

monk i keep going back to - as a breaker of sound he is almost unsurpassed, yet was content to eke this out so finely and over so much time that many seem not to have noticed it in him at all; yet some of the themes can almost make one ill with the ear-dismantling necessary to learn them ("played twice"), and although these may be regarded as exceptions in a smallish book full of deceptively simple blues and nearly-as-simple 32-bar songs, digging deeper into even the simplest (say, "misterioso"..?) reveals merciless clashes on the higher harmonic levels which are the real clue as to what monk was hearing. let's not forget also that the recorded performances have the bass parts missing - the parts monk played with his feet on the invisible pedals, notes which only he could hear and which many have wrongly assumed was dancing. well, the man was known to dance and on stage, but only (pianist) laurent de wilde among the authors i've read has pointed this out and explained it, and it's worth remembering.

having taste means having your own taste

seek your own music

(if we were all exposed to diamond-clef gtm from day one we would have truly free ears!)