Tuesday, May 10, 2011

easter festival (1)

[ok, let me clarify something here: i am not religious, that is to say i don't adhere to a(ny) religious body or set of codes; i have what i consider spiritual concerns or (if you must) beliefs (- i don't much care for the latter word and tend not to use it often)... easter for me is a time of bank holidays (few of which mean much change to my daily or weekly routine at present) and too much chocolate (especially since i became a parent to a toddler). nevertheless... and a few days early (i've mentioned before (*1) mrs c's insistence that actual observance of special dates may vary according to the year or the individual) some sort of profound celebration did seem to be in order; and the time and place for it became serendipitously available, and that was that, more intensive (semi-attentive, i.e. closely attentive on a sporadic/continual basis) listenings did take place. besides, the main event had begun conceptual life as a braxbite... but as it transpired, something far more philosophical was called for - well, read on: and here endeth... etc ;-)  ]

any longtime readers will know of my highly ambivalent feelings towards vocals in the context of creative/new music, or in my case in the specific sub-context of jazz-related and (western) freely improvised musics. on the other hand, since i no longer hang out on the bbc jazz messagebored (have long since lost-through-disuse the privilege of accessing my account) i have attracted fewer and fewer visits from my old mates in that spher(icl)e and the subject tends not to come up these days, scarcely at all; hence, readers of more recent acquaintance may not know that i have "issues" with singers. (my various private correspondents probably get reminded of this pretty regularly..!)

anyway, this borderline-prejudice goes right across the board, starting with rock music: having been attracted to heavy metal at a formative age i got deeper and deeper in (as it continued to meet my emotional and intellectual needs) and finally gravitated towards the underground after i hit twenty, just as death metal was beginning to flower (there are flora of putrescence also...) - the subsequent (second? third?) period of intensive learning warped my sensibilities permanently as regards rock singers and i've had a very uneasy relationship with clean-toned or orthodox vocal styles ever since. now, in addition, as far as jazz is concerned - hah, where do you start?! i have unresolved poetry "issues" too, half the chicks sound like blokes and the material (almost) invariably tends towards standards... these don't really float my boat either, as (again) some readers will know, and that's just from a musical point of view; when the lyrics are factored in, i'm collecting my coat and making a speedy exit... that area above all is where the great american songbook fails for me, the one aspect in which the status of the message-within-vehicle reveals itself as (above all) entertainment, and the practice of the (original/traditional or neo-traditional) form is seen to be, essentially, craft rather than art.

(i understand that some might consider this to be outright blasphemy, and/or at the very least scathing or contemptuous... and all i can say is that i'm beyond needing to feed that particular demon-pack, at least at this precise moment... the way i've laid it out is perhaps tactless, but it's what i needed to tell you, this is the way it emerged on the night of writing it...)

- but in any case all this is nothing compared to how i feel about orchestral vocal(ists). in these contexts the pure-toned, or at least timbrally-refined human voice has been a turn-off for me since... well ok, not since year dot, as a pre-adolescent i was latterly in the school choir and had singers in the family, but of course there's long been a bunch of those tedious arse-aching "issues" with all that family stuff as well (oddly enough)... in any case as a teen and older i've always fucking hated opera, lieder, bel canto, etc etc and the more intense and committed my exploration and enjoyment of tonal and timbral distortions became, the less tolerance i had with any of it with terribly few exceptions. i greatly admire diamanda galas and can take her actual music in small doses; there's a coupla zappa things, maybe, and so on. needless to say i've not explored much... ANYWAY, the point of all this, naturally, concerns our main man; because my head is not completely up my own arse and i am aware that his trillium opera cycle is not merely an existent and continuing concern but is arguably his major project of projects, and probably has been for some time (along with gtm - but fundamentally that's a system, not a project); and who knows, always assuming the human race survives at all, it may yet even turn out to be considered his magnum opus. in turn, that knowledge could in theory (re)present more of a problem/challenge for me than any other since of all the penguin clans' fancy-evening social diversions, opera  repels me the most and on the most counts (wasteful; bloated and artificial; any actual conceptual/structural density probably lost on the typical audience etc etc).

that's most of the background... so of course i knew there were vocal recordings for me to get to grips with eventually, and the question was: how would i cope with the voices themselves? 'cos i'm not even kidding here, orthodox classical vocal technique so often seems to me to be something extraordinarily unnatural to do with a human voice. it's just... ok, it just doesn't work for me, this is all i can say about it. i had heard my old china king kennytone say that b's operatic work was way-out even by his (b's or indeed kk's) standards, which was basically encouraging... but then a long(ish) time passed and i didn't hear any...  in practice, how would i get on with this stuff? and then late last year there was that previously-mentioned leo's (mailorder-only) sale... perfect opportunity for a few of those multiple cd sets to fall into my shopping cart... one of them has already been "done" and another is on the backburner... but the third was always gonna need a little bit of special preparation, this time above all i was going to need to be in the right mood for it.


in point of fact, the first disc of the set - comp. 175, being the (presumed) first half of this 1994 london concert - was played on an earlier occasion than the *early easter* which was celebrated back then (monday 18th april as a matter of fact) and is being commemorated now... i can't remember the date for disc one; it was an evening with no pressure to get up early the following morning, i listened with headphones... and gradually gave the piece less and less and my attention until i was somewhat rudely jolted back into attentiveness only by the sound of applause... is how i remember it... anyway... sure enough, i first had a whole series of hurdles to negotiate (in terms of timbrally rigid, prescribed voices delivering b's already idiosyncratic written prose): with vocalists at this level, one cannot expect too much familiarity with/mastery of extended technique/s - this term of course is bandied around very freely in creative music circles, though in truth it has little or no meaning outside the posh-frock-and-tux-brigades: anyone who thinks there is such a thing as "orthodox" technique in jazz and related musics must leave me scratching my head in wonderment that s/he can conceive of what the term means at all (*2) - and so a composer/conductor (in this instance both roles are filled by the same man of course) is left with no recourse but to spell the otherness of the voices' text/s by way of non-diatonically based written parts; the effect is rather semicomic (or so i found) and although to be fair this is, in itself, not actually unsuited to the relatively light-spirited, ludic ethos of the piece (as i perceived it during a non-focussed "sessionnette"), the tonal palette for the vocalists/actors just struck me on numerous occasions as way too limited and i was not really able to shake this impression off. however: in a seeming paradox, i did find myself within fifteen mins or so thinking that, well, if vocal music was all this much fun then i might be persuaded to give more of it a go from time to time... there was also much to enjoy in the instrumental passages; and, well, there was also much to enjoy in the instrumental passages, because at root i couldn't help feeling that this approximated sprechtgesang effect (*3) of the voices up-and-downing the escher staircase (which could after all be one compelling image of the aformentioned ludic conception which is the piece) was not really what the composer would ideally have wished. hell, why am i beating about the bush here?! listen to one of the guy's own solos and tell me you've merely heard the same timbral effect replicated passim with only harmonic, scalar/modal  and/or melodic/contrapuntal exploration being engaged; these voices don't quite cut it for this listener, not just them personally but this type of vocal arrangement. for what it's worth, the singers may be trained up and down and inside-out for all i know, the group is clearly somewhat prestigious and well thought-of at the time of the concert at least, so much so that the music director (who takes no part in these performances) is credited even before the maestro on the official personnel listings; conservatories can only prepare one so (not very) far for this kind of fast-moving music, though - they don't call 'em conservatories for nothing. though i was enjoying the music overall, insofar as i was paying it (at least some of my) attention, somewhere around the halfway mark i flagged and never recovered, eyes and intellect fully hijacked by the various other facilities on the computer...

... for the record, the only names on the list which ring significant bells with me are: mike walker, guitar (whom i know i have heard on several different occasions and in divers (british) contexts, albeit not for a few years now... since i very rarely listen to any radio these days) and nikki iles, piano (just a name to me prior to this cd - richard iles, one of two trumpets must be her brother or husband i presume).

now: the easter festival (for that was, indeed, pretty much how i thought of it even at the time, with the whole morning to myself and no need to leave the house - knowing full well i'd be lucky to get so much as one hour at a time to myself over the actual "calendar easter" weekend) did not revisit disc one, but plunged right ahead into disc two and comp. 126 - trillium dialogues m (acts 1 & 2 of 4) which is clearly the more important of the two works presented, as it's part of the (putative) magnum opus. entirely fitting that this is the second half of the evening's presentation/s... 

... and many may be pleased to learn that this one was so much simpler in terms at least of what i have to say about it: it was a profoundly beautiful experience and left me feeling truly lit up and inspired. some more detail, just a bit by way of backing that up? yes, i can sort that out before i put this one to bed, let's see... 

- first of all i remember the piece being immediately more taut and springy, delightfully so in fact, nikki iles in particular being a continual aural treat on this rendition (and again, some "older" readers may know that piano is not my main bag either -!). this time out i am reminded very quickly of what many listeners must already know: namely that the reason the human voice is trained and used in this fashion is because of its consequent terrific (*4) power as a resonator - under these circumstances actual semantic delivery of written, verbal text is a sort of optional extra, it can go either way potentially but in classical circles at least, said buzzing-membrane-engine would usually be called upon to tell a story and enchant the hearts and minds of the paying seen-and-seeing audience; in principle of course a magic/kally inspired composer-conductor might put the complex mechanism of several such resonators to altogether more critical use (*5); BUT - in any case, here it is a void argument since the delivery of the words is, this being trillium, utterly crucial to the spirituality of the composition and indeed of the performance (which i remember being roundly excellent - artistic director nick purnell has clearly learned how to make a smallish palette go a long way... i daresay he deserves his kudos well enough). 

- the suite is subtitled  joreo's vision of forward motion and it is (on a human level) reassuringly confusing to find early on that joreo (played by the vocal bass) is nevertheless not wholly a "goodie", at any rate: well, that's how it came across to me, unless i somehow got my bass and my baritone mixed up, but it seemed to me in those opening exchanges that the titular character is the one attempting to deny or limit entry to the other..? or perhaps not... impressed and (often) enchanted as i was, still, i was not paying full attention at all times and the combined memory of the ambient collective vibe and the closing scenes - which seared the listening into the "experience archives" in my (alas poorly-organised) internal reference library - is what seems to be important, what i must convey here to anyone who strays upon this bit or has kept his concentration thus far (*6): because the verbal text/s in this operatic suite are effectively core braxton ethico-metaphysics, as i understand that (*7), they eventually bely the bewitching silhouette of the lithe, dancing spectacle which is the CJO in full flight by revealing deep, gut-familiar truth as the bone of the substance which cast that beguiling combined-shadow... and real weight, accordingly (which is never attained, i guess, in comp. 175 (disc one) - nor attempted, as i suppose). the truth:

     CT-6 "I have watched a whole generation of young people be side tracked into materialism and repression -- and it is not their fault....but ours. We have only ourselves to blame for this tragedy."
     CT-7 "ourselves to blame."
     CT-6 "Our children must be told about what ethics really are -- and why the world of spirituality is serious. And we must tell them!" (*8,9)

- only in the performance the last five words are declaimed with such force - and by more than one voice - that the impact is at least partly visceral (*10): the effect of such powerful, simple and stark truth presented in such strikingly effective fashion as is achieved here - and needless (i hope, by now) to say, comp. 126 itself is waaaay more ambitious than can be presently appreciated by an unschooled country boy like me ;-) ha! - so i'm not getting into any hardcore analysis of it at all; yet - was to leave this listener temporarily stunned into deeply reflective silence. 

not that one would have guessed from reading all that ;-)

- but in any case, if it isn't already clear by now, it really was a religious experience in (arguably) the only meaningful way, i.e. between this heart and its understood-universe... and from then on the morning was filled with music and magic, and lo, there were three courses further prepared, and time adequate to the very last second available to me... so it came to pass, and thus may it be recorded {{{@@@}}}

* see comments

[nb: there will be a follow-up post in the near future detailing items 2-4 on the festival programme - festival both curated and attended solely by myself! no really try it, i recommend it wholeheartedly... i came away feeling massively uplifted and lightened, yet grounded... effects which lasted at least the rest of that day..!]

Wednesday, May 4, 2011


"april is the cruellest month"... well, it was an unusually hot month here in the u.k., day after day of bright blue skies and brilliant sun; and if the last few years are anything to go by, this may actually have been the british summer over and done with early - but quite apart from that, from my point of view it was a month of more or less continuous frustration. if it wasn't something to do with the computer, it was problems with the internet: one damn thing after another, so that several posts i'd hoped to get sorted out remain at the planning stage. i do still intend to get these done... there's a list of 'em coming up below.

before i forget - those discog links i needed to get changed... not surprisingly, i haven't got any further with those for the time being. it wasn't the sort of thing i was gonna sit and do in the library, and since we got the computer back, i confess that i forgot all about doing it. it will get done! it hasn't exactly been top of my list of priorities, but it doesn't sit too well with me to leave a bunch of dead links up here, and i am going to get round to it sooner rather than later.

one thing that has happened recently: the resources page at tricentric now has a link to the blog. yes, i do feel somewhat validated by this development and no, that's not entirely an ego thing (though doubtless there is an element of that). i am trying to do serious work here (as time and my own lack of discipline permit), and it is gratifying to feel that the work is being recognised where it most counts... if not in many other places ;-)

- oh, and following the acquisition of the friday night sets from the knitting factory, november '93 (as detailed here), mcclintic sphere fixed me up with another one, this a single set, dated the 14th and purporting to be the "last quartet performance". i don't know if this is actually true, but it is my understanding that the great quartet was disbanded for good in that year (at least until last june's one-off reunion), so it may well be the case that a short residency in NYC was how it got sent off... it didn't seem to make much sense that the band would have played two sets each on thursday and friday without sticking around at least for the weekend, so i'm happy to believe that there will be recordings from the saturday and sunday out there somewhere as well. for the time being, there is only this one extra set that i've managed to get hold of and i don't know much about it... and indeed i haven't yet found the time to listen to it; but what i can say is that it is definitely not the same as any of the four sets i already had. this one begins with comp. 40b, which was not played on the 11th or 12th... the bitrate is rather lower than those others, so i'm not sure yet whether it will be worth sharing it here, but i will check it out very soon.

ok, so the planned posts, as mentioned above... some of these were already alluded to (hurriedly!) here, but there are more besides those, and of course i am still trying to get the next phase of the braxtothon launched, though it never quite seems to be ready. anyway... here is the list of what is in the pipeline:
  - a re-examination of the châteauvallon 1973 recording, complete with some downloadable sound clips (*)
  - a quick write-up of the hamburg 1975 gig, following on from antibes
  - a gap-filler covering this time
  - something or other regarding vocal music, specifically this recording
  - and possibly some other stuff! but let's not get too carried away here... given my track record, it'll be something of an achievement if i manage to get all that lot posted in the near future... i am on it.

and that is that, for now... peace out, as they say... c x

* see comments

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

student studies 2 (the return!)

 haha, it's been rather a long time since the first one -and that's only somewhat appropriate since, erm, that one was a bit of a false dawn anyway. who was i kidding?! i didn't have the time and single-mindedness to chew through hundreds of pages of hyper-dense musicological philosophy; and i didn't get very far really (30-40pp) before i figured that one out and stopped, for the time being. and i'm not at all sure how long it will end up taking me to get back to the tri-axium writings (or any other hyper-dense philosophy for that matter!) - but i have been delving into the composition notes of late. specifically, this means book a: my long-delayed search for positive opus id's for live sets had eventually led me to read about some of the 6 series pieces in some detail; there are numbers from that first creative songbook which i've only (knowingly) heard once, and wouldn't necessarily recognise if i heard them in a concert set - for that matter, some of those early pieces have never been recorded officially... so the only way to get a positive id for a live rendition is to get to grips with the composition notes and listen very carefully. but so far, being me, i have not attempted to read the whole lot... well, anyway, you'll see if you read on.

what was most interesting about this last burst of sudden enthusiasm was that it brought an almost immediate reward: a couple of days later i received a (second) phone call from mr b., totally out of the blue this time (and very enjoyable it was too!). if the first conversation i had with the teacher had been somewhat surreal, albeit hugely gratifying, this time it all felt much more natural and relaxed... and in the end it's just a bit of a shame that for the time being, at least, we can't just sit there for hours on end and bore the pants off everyone for miles around ;-)

as for the actual observations... well, the books are arranged so that each one carries a proportional amount of text on the compositions, and also of extra material at the end of the volume; there are lots of useful interviews (though details for them are alas thin on the ground). these interviews are actually fantastic and provided me with loads of useful points for discussion - which i'll get around to next time! right now i'm about getting a few of the 6 series observations down on the blog, while i remember..!

1. comp. 6f is dedicated to stockhausen. i'm pretty sure that there are other pieces - or at least one - which also have the same dedicatee; this one is really a bit of an eyebrow-raiser though, it doesn't seem the most obvious candidate. the original (publicised) repetition structure is weirdly forgotten now, considering how many versions there are of it in the official catalogue: after a certain point, pianists in particular decided definitively that they preferred playing comp. 40(o) and that was pretty much that for the earlier piece... so far i have not come across a rendition of it after the '76 berlin quartet one. still, it was obviously utterly crucial to b's development to get this sort of piece heard on a regular(ish) basis - there will have been others of course, different repetition structures in several different orders of classification, but they haven't necessarily been aired much, if at all; the origins of the diamond clef device are right here in this number; and (as we shall see shortly with this time) it has open spaces built into it which can allow occasionally for the truly exceptional. just don't expect it every time... anyway, the importance of the piece to b. personally, and the nourishing magic space which is woven into the fabric of this one perhaps, between them, indicate why stockhausen is a natural choice for dedicatee after all.

2. comp. 6h is a good example right away of a piece which i have heard in live recordings but not been able to identify (and very possibly have failed to identify even as a composition rather than a long and drawn-out transition phase). so far, i haven't managed to locate a live version - i haven't really known about this for more than a couple of weeks, so have had limited opportunity so far to go back over all my listening and find one! anyway, it'll turn up i'm sure. for the time being, there were a number of things i thought worthy of mentioning here:
i) like several other first songbook pieces, this one was written specifically with the creative construction company in mind (just in case anyone doesn't know: this refers to the combination of b. with leo smith, leroy jenkins and steve mccall; for a while back there this group rivalled the art ensemble of chicago as "most significant visible project" to represent the aacm) - it's not at all surprising, bearing in mind that this, too, appears on this time (indeed it contains most of the album's meat); just worth mentioning briefly that it was in fact written for that line-up (as opposed to the extreme cynic's possible suspicion, to wit: that b. found himself having to come up with something which could stretch to that band and was forced to delve into past material... i'm not alone in thinking that the project was fundamentally doomed - it's already birthed at least one great recording and that was very probably its simultaneous zenith, the top of the curve... there's no mileage in it, the teacher needs younger players to teach)... as always the piece is designed for use outside/beyond its initial context and in this case the explicit prescription is for any three single-line instruments, plus optional percussion.
ii) b. regarded the completion of the piece as being "a major step in the formulation of alternative composition tenets for my later compositional growth (and focus)". although the opening phrase is composed and governs the tessitura of the piece ("...transmits the basic idea germ of the composite structure"), the piece is described clearly as "not thematic" and any performances of it will therefore vary greatly. very easy to see how this is a crucial idea for the composer, and for his development. (just think about the last twenty years or so!)
- the details of how this is to be achieved make the piece sound more like a ritual or magic/k spell than a "composition" as such (although by this point open minds were used to a great variety of notational techniques, and many more were in the post): "the science of this work is designed to operate as an isolated formation that affects the working floor of the ensemble's procedural dynamics". instead of generating "recognizable ingredients" for thematic development by the improvisers, the piece is designed to "establish a vibrational state of being that is maintained throughout the whole of its treatment". as i say, this more or less guarantees that no two versions of the piece will sound the same, but until such time as i track down a live rendition of it, i can't actually vouch for how that works in practice..!
iii) one of the specifications of the piece is that it includes the use of pre-recorded tapes. this sort of experimentation never really outlived the creative construction company - that is, not in b's work - but will presumably have been necessary to the (temporary) survival of that line-up. there are other, similar, strategies employed on this time (which don't really work imo) and it's very hard for me not to see all this sort of stuff as a slightly desperate way of keeping together a band which was (unfortunately) destined to add up to to rather less than the sum of its parts... braxton, smith, jenkins, mccall: on paper it reads like a dream ticket, but in reality there are just too many cooks in the kitchen (if you'll excuse a mixed metaphor). now, as regards the use of recorded material in particular, b. did eventually return to that idea: the echo echo mirror house music system is, as i understand it, an extension of the principle (pioneered during the collage phase and very widely used in gtm, but predating both systems, as the composition notes make clear) that material from any composition may be inserted into any performance; this very recent development sees each member of the ensemble tooled up with an mp3 player, loaded with albums from b's back catalogue, in order to incorporate said material into the mix as and when. however, as far as i know there are not yet any recordings of this system extant, nor has it been performed publicly (?).
- as i mentioned in my previous (very rushed!) post, there is an article about this time on the way. (like its byg predecessor, i did not have a copy of the recording when i covered that period in the braxtothon.)

3. comp. 6i is a favourite of mine, as i've said on many occasions before. as well as the original version, recorded in the studio in london (it was one of several pieces written for specifically for that date: the composition notes wrongly date it to the summer of 1971, which is clearly impossible!), there are several live versions in circulation, a couple from as late as 1976... i have yet to come across a later one. also, as i've (again) said numerous times previously, "see-saw" by dave holland - the closing track on conference of the birds - was obviously influenced by this piece. (i keep repeating myself knowingly, since i have to assume that there aren't too many people reading the blog! and those who do can't be expected to remember everything i say...)
 - the most significant discoveries i made about this one: firstly, that although it is a "light structure that contains very little notated material" and was usually interpreted "in the traditional A B A structural context" (i.e. theme-solos-theme; or at least, that's how i understood it), there remains the possibility of other treatments, and the piece has been given extended renditions; secondly, b. considered this composition personally significant in his development, like comp. 6h as mentioned above. as regards the first observation, this explains the ultra-long version of the piece from avignon, 1974, which contains all sorts of weird and wonderful things; also, the fermata section which precedes the restatement of the opening written material (and which was again emulated by holland for "see-saw") "can also be viewed as an optional platform for extended improvisation" and this option, too, was apparently used "many times in concert... sometimes for as long as five minutes". as far as the second point goes, the composer considered it to have been a "turning point in my creative growth and future direction... reawakening my awareness about tempo structures and traditionalism in general". throughout the rest of that decade, b. continued to write decidedly jazzy themes as well as all manner of more outlandish, ambitious or sophisticated material: evidently this particular number helped to kickstart that trend.
- addendum comp. 6i is dedicated to multi-instrumentalist joe stevenson; this is not a name many people will be familiar with, and didn't ring any bells with me, but a quick check in lewis reminded me right away of who he was: b's saxophone teacher in the army. (there are two mentions of him in the book: roscoe mitchell describes him as "incredible on the saxophone" and says that he influenced b. greatly while he was stationed in korea; later on b. himself talks of studying with stevenson, who couldn't believe what a hard worker his student was and said that he had only met one other like him - a certain roscoe mitchell! he had no idea that the two knew each other, not being from chicago himself... i had remembered this anecdote from lewis' book, but had not recalled the name of the teacher.)

there will be more to say about other pieces at some point... that's enough to be getting on with, for now :)

[apart from those in the addendum, all quotes are of course from anthony braxton, composition notes book a]