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..!]


centrifuge said...

any takers for joseph heller's second novel..? :)

anyway... as is customary by now in this deeper posts:

1. (though i'll be buggered if i can remember when/where... somewhere on this very blog, for sure..! i wanna say easterish 2008)

2. of course, many people, including i presume wynton marsalis (to take a pretty obvious yet cogent example) would say that jazz precisely DOES require/prescribe received, orthodox technique - and that any music which does not meet these fundamental requirements "is not jazz" (as if that mattered - whatever the hell it means anyway)

- not really worth refuting that one round here, is it...

3. i'm rendering that term from memory. as with so many other things in the field/s of modern "classical" music i'm indebted to zappa for getting that one clear in my head - "speech song", which mimics the cadences of (demotic) speech while in fact specifying both the pitches and the phrasing of the voices uttering the text... it's an intriguing enough principle - but here? really..?

4. and indeed terrifying, in the case of the aforementioned ms galas... the female voice-as-weapon if ever i heard one :-O

5. such as that described in the (near-)forgotten novel *the human chord* by algernon blackwood, known now if at all for his short stories... powerful, powerful images conjured up in this book which made it well worth the time it took me to hunt it down and read it, back when i read lots of fiction... had forgotten all about it though until the time came to write this one up (one night, one afternoon, no sleep) - !

centrifuge said...

6. not for the first time i'm basically assuming that anyone who hasn't just blown in with a particularly capricious wind is overwhelmingly likely to be male ;-)

7. i'm neither bragging nor being pretentious when i say that my limited understanding, such as it is, outweighs pretty much everyone else's at this point. i exclude, of course, those who have directly associated with b. in the capacity of a musical collaborator, whether once or five hundred times: i will assume that all such players will potentially have more to impart than i do when it comes to the maestro's character, presence, projected spirituality, codes and core ideas et al...

... otherwise... out of the rest of us... i am actually now claiming (at least shared) seniority here, just for the record, and with doubtless hardly anyone there to witness it even... i claim this because i have put in the (hundreds of) hours, clocked up the (thousands of) idea-miles with our man... until such time as someone comes along and blows me out of the water, as i sincerely hope and trust will eventually happen...

8. the pochette-libretto gives 6 as ALVA, 7 as NTZOCKIE. (and 1 as JOREO, in which case what i said about his nature was not misconceived after all..!)

9. i hope i have rendered this exactly verbatim and with precise orthography (as presented in the leo's cd booklet)

10. visceral, both in terms of the initial shock-thrill and of the subsequent deep-processing of the "aftershocks" (all of which continue to reverberate at their different volumes and frequencies in the lengths of the arm-tai-yang small intestine channel... this much i can vouch for)

Jon-A said...

I am perplexed by something about the recording of Comp 126 "Act 1" and "Act 2" - did you notice that Act 2 is a repeat of the last 14:37 of Act 1? And by 'repeat' I don't mean recapitulation - it is actually the same recording.

centrifuge said...

jon, thanks for your comment (and sorry for a slight delay in responding). no - i must admit i didn't notice this, and will have to go away and do some further research/listening! cheers for the tip-off, i will report back here when (if) i have more to say on the matter...