For about 15 years I contributed words to print and online publications: Soundworks, The Wire, Signal To Noise, News of Music, Paris Transatlantic, One Final Note, bagatellen, and others. Only the first two on that list are still in operation, but don’t blame me. I ceased formal literary operations in 2012. Looking back at the work, I am sometimes embarrassed by my need to privilege cleverness ahead of the delivery of useful information. The pieces included here mostly avoid that tendency, I hope.
Roadmaster (DRUMMER Magazine, 2012)
Tatsuya Nakatani is an organized person. When he steps onto a stage to improvise his way through a set of percussion music, it sounds composed. When turning to a particular stick/metal/skin combination, he knows exactly what kind of sound he wants and how to get it. Yet he carries it off with a sparkle and urgency that’s often lacking in composed music, and not always found in the improvised sort. This exceptional balance of virtuosity and freshness makes each solo a richly rewarding experience, and not just for the audience. He’s having a great time, too. Nakatani performs with a verve and intensity that’s simply riveting. The urgency of his performance works its way into the muscles and makes people want to move. At a recent concert at San Francisco’s Meridian Gallery, several audience members were dancing in their seats for the half-hour duration of his solo set.
In Nakatani’s hands, each gong, bell, cymbal, stick and drumhead is a multi-purpose sound device, capable of a huge range of both percussive and sustained sound. He typically starts a set bowing a 40-inch Chinese gong (he makes his own specialized percussion bows, too — available at his website), applying a second bow to achieve blood-stirring low frequency beating tones that travel through the floor, massaging feet. Five minutes in, he puts the second bow to the edge of a smaller gong that stands in front of his small kit. A high-pitched howl curls around the room. Soon his bass drum is blowing up deep thunderous crescendos. The surfaces of his floor tom and snare drum are slathered in small cymbals, singing bowls and bells, and the floor around the kit is strewn with more pounded metal and wood and plastic things, for drawing out their sounds. Now he’s swirling a bowl edge on the rim of the floor tom — inside the bowl are more little bells — making a clattering metal-shop racket on top of the bass drum rumble. He grabs a small, flexible cymbal or two and applies their edges to drumheads, sawing back and forth. He flips the bells upside down on the snare drum. Bowing them in sequence makes them sing out, one by one, and their vibrations are picked up and reverberated by the drum for a soulful melodic passage. As they wobble back and forth, a frog’s chorus of little buzzes bubble up from the drumhead. A manic stick-driven interlude erupts, with Nakatani ping-ponging all over the kit, from Roto-tom to snare to floor tom and all the stuff that’s still on them; rolling over, under and in between, sounding like three or four percussionists at breakneck speed. He bows a small cymbal on a drumhead, gradually gearing down for a final deep-throated drone, back at the gong behind his kit. He ends as he began, bowing sepulchral moans from the heavy metal. It’s a encompassing circle of ever-smaller circles, a trip around the percussion world in thirty minutes, taking in most of the sonic artifacts possible to be made by one human — and it all sounds perfectly thought out, with that “it-had-to-go-that-way” inevitability that flows from a deeply artistic and professional performance.
Nakatani is just as focused and organized when it comes to the business of touring. Japanese-born but USA-based — specifically, Easton, Pennsylvania — Nakatani crisscrosses North America twice a year, piloting a van he’s outfitted himself. To bring his percussion music to over 120 venues a year (on average), he has to fit a trove of gear and instruments into a compact space and still leave room for living quarters. We recently caught up with Nakatani in Berkeley, and were made to feel right at home in his big cargo van, parked by the San Francisco Bay. He drives a Dodge Sprinter 2500 — a Mercedes in all but name — with a 5-cylinder MB turbodiesel engine and cargo capacity of 530 square feet. Sprinter vans are highly coveted vehicles, and as with other trending things, a teeming online subculture has grown around the versatile haulers. “Sometimes, if I don’t understand how to repair something, I ask the online forums, and always get a great answer,” says Nakatani. “And when I see other Sprinter drivers, they always wave.”
Experience and necessity have transformed this Sprinter van into a unique rolling home-studio for man and percussion. Since having bought the Sprinter (used) in 2010, Nakatani’s averaged twenty thousand miles a year, the bulk of which was racked up on two cross-country tours each year. On his spring 2012 tour, he knew he had one significant repair to make — replacing the front shock absorbers — so he planned ahead, first emailing friends who might be able to loan him garage space and jacks, then ordering the parts, picking them up in San Diego, finally installing them in Wasco, between I-5 and SR 99 in California’s San Joaquin Valley. Before the trip, he says, he replaced most of the engine hoses and belts (the Sprinter’s odometer clocks over 80K miles). Some modifications seem insignificant: he shows me a small L-bracket bolted to the inside of one of the back doors. “This is a very important bracket!” he says, proceeding to demonstrate its function: to prop up his gong rack components so they won’t fall over during unloading. “Little things help so much!” he laughs.
From his initial forays at outfitting the van — storage spaces for the instruments and brackets for the gong racks (which are made from chromed plumbing parts, and roll on casters), a bed, and a rudimentary kitchen — Nakatani has steadily adapted and improved the accommodations over the intervening two years. The gong racks are now bolted down instead of strapped with bungee-cords. The bed area, which sits atop densely packed store of drum hardware, is tricked out with little amenities: a holster for muscle cream and a book, another one for his iPod and earplugs, hand-cut air vents, and a cooling fan for hot weather. In front of the fan, at the top of the “wall” separating the kitchen, are fresh water jugs that use tubes and gravity to serve a faucet’s duty. The kitchen prep area has a sink and a gas burner, and there’s a small refrigerator too. Everything is within an arm’s reach. Under the sink are cabinets for food and utensils. Also within reach are a rice cooker, a coffee grinder, various pots and pans, and an electric toothbrush. Often, he cooks rice while he drives, powering it off a big 110V DC-AC inverter next to the driver’s seat. There’s also an auxiliary battery, custom-fitted under the passenger’s seat, for powering things when he’s not moving — the nighttime fan and the refrigerator, mainly. “You see other people in campers on the road, and they’ve got TVs and microwaves and, I don’t know, dishwashers? (laughs) I don’t use that much electricity. But I am thinking of getting a propane gas refrigerator, because the electric one uses a lot of power.”
While we talk, he prepares and eats lunch: a simple stir-fry with garlic, kale (from a Berkeley community garden), peppers, and rice with nattoh, the Japanese fermented soybean product. Everything’s fresh and van/home made. Nakatani avoids processed and microwaveable foods, not to mention restaurants. His austerity is not just for economy’s sake. “Cooking for myself is a lot healthier,” he emphasizes. “Road food is the worst. Not just in America — Europe, too.” The rice cooker runs while he drives, so he tries to arrange for a pre-meal jaunt that will last at least twenty minutes. Just as there’s no wasted space, there are no unaccounted-for minutes in Nakatani’s monkish life. Exercise is an essential component. He’d spent that morning at Oakland’s downtown YMCA, swimming laps. The ‘Y’ is also handy for its spa facilities — sauna and Jacuzzi — “Really nice for relaxing the muscles. I build up a lot of tension from driving all day then playing a strenuous concert.” In smaller towns without a ‘Y’ or public swimming pool, he’ll practice yoga in a parking lot. He has a unique energy-building regimen: “Sometimes I’ll walk around inside a Walmart, fast, two or three rounds. This makes you awake.” The same might be said for Walmart’s security teams.
In front of the kitchen are two more passenger’s seats — the ‘home office’ area. They may be the next to undergo a wave of upgrades. “I put in the seats and seat belts, but I don’t use them. I always travel alone, and I do everything in the kitchen — cook here, eat here, set up my laptop and work here.” Like any high-functioning road warrior, Nakatani is connected at all times, always checking email and Facebook, chatting with fans, friends, and presenters, forever nailing down the next gig. “The iPhone — this changed my life,” he emphasizes. “I can do email anywhere, get maps and directions and find grocery stores. I want to get a MiFi 3G box for the van so I can get broadband reception anytime.”
Home-installed upgrades to the driver’s area include a TomTom GPS system, a ScanGuage gasoline-mileage monitor, a hand-carved wooden shift lever, and plastic flowers. “Even fake flowers make the cabin nicer — more colorful,” he explains. There’s an electric shaver handy. “I never shave in the house, always on the road.” The sun visors and other nearby surfaces sprout ever-shifting layers of post-it notes, notating everything from the last trip’s average mileage to what to get at the next town’s food co-op. There’s also a motorized back-massage cushion (a gift from mom), and, on the steering wheel rim, a spinner knob (aka Brodie knob or necker knob) for help in parking — “And it’s good for long, straight stretches of road, to rest my elbows.” As far as gas mileage goes, 21-27 mpg is the range Nakatani can attain “if I don’t push it — about sixty miles per hour. But I’m wishing to get out of California as soon as possible,” he adds. “Gasoline here — so expensive. It’s crazy!” Gasoline is the biggest expense for this wandering life, and Nakatani doesn’t like surprises like sudden gas-price spikes. “Everything I do is based on sophisticated calculations. It’s very difficult to factor in everything. Gasoline is a huge expense. When I do taxes, I always freak out — I’m staring at a pile of receipts. It’s thousands and thousands of dollars.”
A typical ‘evening at van/home’ involves finding a place to park for the night — preferably flat. Cooking, sleeping, even just relaxing are simply more comfy on even ground. Then it’s on to setting up and eating dinner, followed by more time networking. If he finds himself in a truck park, earplugs are handy to help with sleep. In the morning, it’s off to the next town, the next gig. “I don’t need to go out. I can stay in; make tea or coffee, read a book. When you tour a lot, you’re always meeting people, so I really need lots of alone time. I don’t have to worry about finding a house to stay at, or hang out with people late at night after a show. This way, I can go anywhere.”
It’s a spartan life, but it’s a living. Nakatani doesn’t have a day job or teach, except for the occasional workshop. “I play a lot — about 150 shows a year — and I sell lots of CDs and vinyl. From this I pay rent and all my other expenses.” His audience is growing: “I’ve been working towards performing my music at more open, public situations, all ages, all kinds of people, in museums, bigger halls or festivals. When I do these kinds of gigs, I always feel it’s a success. I come from the improvised music community, and that music is fun to play. I always enjoy playing it — it’s maybe more fun to play than just listen to! And when I play, I’m always having a good time. Solo work is very easy — I control everything that’s happening. And I open up to the audience. I learned this from playing with Billy Bang. I liked it very much when he would say a few things before we started. Especially at a public library or a presentation — it’s like opening a door for the audience. This is very important to me.
“I started public performances with my gong orchestra last year, after a long time of developing the music. I use all my own instruments — they’re all there in the back,” he points out. Nakatani prefers Chinese-style gongs. At each gig Nakatani enlists five or six local players to perform with him. “I did a Nakatani Gong Orchestra performance at the JFK Center in DC, first gig of this tour — one thousand people — it was packed! The organizers told me at the center that usually people leave early at the Millennium Stage shows, but everybody stayed for my show. No talking, no noise. I’m very proud of that. This is what I mean by success in my work. And I talked about what we were going to play at the beginning, to help people understand what it’s about. I’m Japanese, but what I do isn’t developed from any tradition. I don’t know where it comes from — life, really.”
NOTES to Kyle Bruckmann’s On Procedural Grounds, New World Records, 2012
“The past does not influence me; I influence it.” — Willem de Kooning
Music, a time-dependent art form, provides good accompaniment to evolutionary thoughts. If a musical module or gestalt shows agency along with an imperative to promulgate itself (or its ‘DNA’) throughout the life-cycle of a sonic ecosystem — attributes of an adapting organism — then an evolving system of such modules, fighting, eating and fornicating each other for survival, characterizes a great deal of Kyle Bruckmann’s work. An obsession with the dynamic tension between stasis and sudden breakouts can be found over the course of his entire output. The theory of punctuated equilibrium comes to mind. In this view of evolution, instead of a slow and steady progress of changing life forms, long periods of ‘equilibrium’ are ‘punctuated’ by sudden, drastic episodes where entire classes of organisms are replaced by radical new ones.
Those surface attributes of Kyle Bruckmann’s music that engender this association — relatively static interludes broken by short bursts of hyperactivity, resulting in abrupt, extreme shifts in mood as well as ‘evolutionary progress’ in the formations of musical elements, their interplay and development — have, lurking beneath them, a disruptive intelligence at work, showing scant interest in 19th century ideals of “progress” and “evolution.” In his cheerfully contrarian way, he debunks any connection between his music and punctuated equilibrium: “That’s pretty cool! Because I don’t have the slightest idea what it is.”
Cozying up to Bruckmann’s sonic world is like hugging a saguaro cactus: it’s beautiful, rare, monumental, and ripe with nourishment accessible to only the most puncture-proof of admirers. Just when you’re thinking you recognize something or know what’s happening or is about to happen, a barb of The Unexpected pokes you right in the assumption. Bruckmann’s music is about experience in the moment; the pleasure and challenge of new sounds and new ways of listening; engaging in the real-time process of applying meaning to seemingly chaotic and unrelated forms. In the post-Cage continuum — with all sounds being equal, and shifting sonic relationships/juxtapositions providing what if any ‘meaning’ is to be found — the art of improvisation has become one of recontextualization, not just of cool sounds but of modes of being. In his own words:
My composing is governed by the mindset of an improviser. I’m after a fundamentally social music; in one sense, this involves my obsession with the productive tension to be found at the borders between genres and aesthetic philosophies, with all their attendant socio-cultural baggage. In another, it implies that the skills inherent to the act of making music of any kind in real time – attention, intention, communication, flexibility, spontaneity, etc. – are conceived of as foreground. I tend to think of these procedural elements as the real compositional materials that melody, harmony, rhythm and the like are employed to realize, rather than the other way around.
I’m far more interested in listening and playing than in writing; what I do write makes grudging concessions to the score as a problematic literary means to an auditory end. I try to design materials with internal logic and contrapuntal integrity, but above all I focus on their potential for development in the hands of my colleagues. The notation is idiosyncratic and incomplete; the tasks required are often intentionally impossible to perfect. Building a degree of inevitable failure into the system ensures that the liberating energy of the ‘mistake’ is not only acceptable, but entirely the point. Detours and derailments are always an option.
I prefer to outline form in broad strokes, steering dramatic contour in admittedly rather traditional ways. But the heart of the matter – the fleshing out of materials – is entrusted as much as possible to the players, and not just in the sense of theme-and-improvised-solos. I’m particularly interested in games and processes that yield richly nuanced results through the simplest, most readily discernable possible means. It’s crucial to play this music with my friends, in a context of mutual trust and mischievous play. Challenging, koan-riddled, potentially exasperating fun, but fun nonetheless.
Along with fun comes responsibility. Bruckmann’s had some experience bringing light to the masses, having been a radio DJ (in Texas, no less). As a composer, however, he pushes the responsibility of enlightenment straight into the ears of the individual audient. Keeping it fun (for performers and listeners) while administering this solemn duty is the miracle of this music. Keep your wits (and wit) about you, and you may just evolve into a higher-order organism.
Visceral fun: Steve Adams’ exhilarating solo launch in Procedural inducing a collective (silent) roar among the assembled in studio. Exasperated fun: Matt Ingalls’ and Tara Flandreau’s recurring entrances in Tarpit (insistently recalling Ives’ Unanswered Question). Zen fun: volleys of melodic koan challenges, ping-ponging across the wasteland of Cell Structure. Any aesthetic invested in “progress” and “resolution” smells of old books in the fresh air of such music, where one epoch follows another, the accreted lithostrata of history not just buried but squashed, obliterated by the ever-flowing eruption of hot, molten NOW. Even Orgone Accelerator, for CD playback (what used to be called “tape music”) and therefore presumably conveying the exact same unfolding of sonic information with each performance, was brought into being with “the mindset of an improviser.” Surely it’s the audience’s duty to come to the music with the same type of mind?
The art of musical improvisation is first and foremost one of listening, of taking in and recomposing what you’re hearing. Listening as an improviser means a relaxed letting-go of preconceived ideas of what one thinks of as ‘music,’ and a profound acceptance of whatever is going on, even if what’s going on violates your most heartfelt notions of musicality. As Myles Boisen once wrote, “The textbook incinerates itself as it is written, pal.” That’s what makes improvisation the most dangerous game: often, and without warning, a sudden self-subversion is required to keep the ball rolling. Re-generate your music out of your own ashes, over and over. There’s nothing to hold onto, because music is always and only happening in the now. You might think you’re learning some rules as you go through this process, but even rules forged in this moment may be shattered in the next. John Cage put it this way: “I’m not interested in learning. I’m interested in change.” Cage, whose feelings about improvisation were darkened by years of seeing classically-trained musicians do it poorly, was speaking of his own composing, but the idea applies here. “Learning” implies an accumulation of ideas, and of the soft, imperceptible surrender to the comfort of “what I already like.” Accumulation weighs you down, drags you behind the moment. Sorry — no carry-on baggage on this flight. And no seats, either! (Really, it’s a shame Mr. Cage isn’t around to hear musicians such as those on this disk — surely it’d be an experience rewarding enough to change his accumulated notions about improvisation.)
Kyle Bruckmann is one of the most self-subverting people one could hope to meet. When talking to him about his composing or his playing, one feels sometimes one has met a guy who’s not much impressed by this dude Kyle Bruckmann. Of course he’s got an ego, just as any creative person has, but enveloping that ego is a shape-shifter of the first order, with the whole bundle enveloped in a cloud of self-effacement. To span the distance between classically-trained, professional oboist to circuit-bending punk-noise-rock composer/bandleader — with all that other stuff in between — requires a nature that is not just ever-ready but eager to throw off its shell of identity and appropriate a new one (we might as well mention he’s a steady-as-she-goes husband and father, too). Maybe always erasing your tracks is the only sane way to go about it.
All his protesting to the contrary, Bruckmann’s composing is rigorous. The act of composing often seats itself in an arbitrary decision, calibration, or analogue — “This composition exploits a pitch-set generated from the pattern of raisins I saw in my kid’s oatmeal this morning” or whatever — just as all scientific theorems start with “Let us assume that…” Thankfully, that sort of silliness is absent from Bruckmann’s scores, and the notes seem to be standing in for nothing but the sounds they chart. Start with the notes in Cell Structure: a finely tuned set of inverted intervals in section D (minute mark 2’47”), returning, an octave higher, in D’ (7’02”), and near the end of the piece, temporally stretched (9’57”). The fine-tuning is all about de-tuning: over the course of Cell Structure, the two instrumentalists intercourse with the notes, smearing and prodding with false fingers. There’s a breakout moment at section E (8’49”) where the horns attempt to assert their intellectual and physical supremacy over an ominous digitized heartbeat and glitchy fleabites, to no avail: a final, overwhelming detonation stops them cold. The final recurrence of section D’s melodic mirrors unravels over vaguely reverberant pre-echoes, sounding like a surrealist recitation of “Taps.” Suddenly a slam of needle-drops from the electronic track shuts the door on our feeble indulgences in allegories of “what the music sounds like.” Just noise, and we’re done.
From the score: “Advances from cell to cell are triggered by unmistakable sonic cues in the electronic part. Double barlines are thunderous blarps; dashed barlines are jagged electroshocks.” Each advance is a door opening into yet another incarceration. Faintly reminiscent of Stockhausen’s Telemusik and the Lescalleet-nmperign collaborations, with a nod to Anthony Braxton’s language music (not to mention Bruckmann’s solo CD Gasps and Fissures), Cell Structure is perhaps the starkest exposition of Bruckmann’s art. Humans attempt a détente with their electronic overlords but, in the end, remain wistfully, echoingly exiled on the far side of a no-man’s-land of blarps and electrocutions, locked within the muscle-cell limits of instrumental technique and the brain cells’ illusion of passing time.
Composing for a bigger sonic playpen in On Procedural Grounds, Bruckmann gets personal. All of the major cues and sections in the score are written for players, not instruments. Thus, when Ochs of Rova starts with the paint-peeling tenor sax after the energetic, tumbling ‘tune’ is done, the score says “HEAD & LARRY SOLO.” Every name gets a turn, some in duos or trios, but the Rova masters are each granted a solo over differently orchestrated backgrounds. Unfolding over nearly a half-hour’s time, it’s a huge, sprawling canvas Bruckmann’s laid out for the Wrack/Rova+E machine. Dichotomies are transcended in abundance: compo/improv, fixed/moving, rhythm/horns, Rova/Wrack — even left/right is messed with, in the electronics mix: Perkis is left channel while Robair’s sounds bounce back and forth in stereo space, taking both channels. Ultimately providing the strongest chain of commonality is Rova, at this point in their deep and wide history more force of nature than musical institution. Their epic backstory (reaching to 1978 at least) has infused Rova with the ability to sound like a solo instrument when they’re all playing, and like a quartet when it’s just one guy blowing.
Besides Rova, the instrumental cohort in Procedural includes Bruckmann’s beyond-category band Wrack, which traces to his Chicago years. Wrack takes on jazz a bit like Bartok approached Balkan music — clinically — incisively translating the inbred language and tropes into a hybrid that’s at once synthetic and utterly stand-alone. Drummer Daisy and bassist Hatwich provide a sure, abiding underpinning when it’s swing-time, even if the notes Bruckmann’s given them are as off-kilter as he can make them. (That vamp underpinning the ‘head’ — a 9+5+9+4 cycle — recalls Bartokian funk, again.) Hatwich and violist Paulson furnish a memorably vacant interlude following Ochs’ solo (the switch happens around the 8 minute mark). Stein’s bass clarinet flutters and barks at Robair’s electronics, providing an abstract bridge between the pulse-based flights of Raskin and Adams.
Pointillist cues interrupting/directing steady-state sound is tactically used at the outset of On Procedural Grounds, only, contra Cell Structure, live electronics provide the wash while the horns furnish the sonic openings. There follows (at 3’34”) the vamp+head formula beaten to death in jazz history; here Bruckmann resurrects it with a lurching zombie footstep overlaid with “tumbling, frantic” melodic lines in a horn quartet drawn equally from Wrack and Rova, oboe-bass clarinet-alto sax-tenor sax. The same material comes back, slightly recast, at 24’49”, revealing the overall form for Procedural to be an arch, another thing Mr. Bartok liked to play with. (Or is it the hoary head-solos-head jazz construct? Mr. Bruckmann would probably like to have it both ways.) Any such abstraction is incidental to the experience of the music which, in a piece so big and kaleidoscopic in its revolving foregrounds and backgrounds, is more like a mod(ular) road movie with high-wattage cameos in every scene: each emerging star turn obliterates the preceding one. Reinforcing this impression is Bruckmann’s preference for abrupt tape-splice-like transitions over smooth segues, displayed at nearly every junction.
Orgone Accelerator is another of those Bruckmann-instigated experiences that seems to erase itself as it proceeds — not that it isn’t memorable, but that each new airing is bafflingly virginal. Erasing the human element from music, à la the Berlin echtzeit movement of the last fifteen years, is something Bruckmann’s well acquainted with (hear his duo project with Ernst Karel, EKG). But he’s able to hold on to humor, somehow, which isn’t always heard in such decidedly ascetic music. At 5’ the mostly oboe-generated sounds cease — in fact, the whole thing stops dead — and after a second or two, another process starts up, a distorted throb + crackles that would seem to have nothing to do with what came before. But have we forgotten the other throb (1’– 3’), which fills the air to the point of suffocation? If all this is somehow a tone parallel to eight minutes of heavy breathing inside an Orgone Box, we’re convinced.
Bruckmann, in response to the observation that significant events in Orgone Accelerator happen at minutes 3,5, and 8 — and was this the result of an application of the Fibonacci sequence — says, “Gosh… no, not consciously. I guess organic certitudes DO have a way of asserting themselves organically.”
I suppose it’s less immediately obvious how a faith in real-time interaction and open forms translates to ‘tape music,’ which is susceptible to infinite editing and paralyzing perfectionism. But I approach my electronic work in much the same spirit as I do the notes I scribble on the page, with a similar trust in accident and a healthy dose of bricolage.
The technology I use is cobbled together, half-broken, and anything but cutting-edge, for reasons that are aesthetic (I love the warm, raw timbres of vintage analog instruments), procedural (I’m interested in the creative challenge of arbitrary self-limitations), and pragmatic (I can take advantage of whatever equipment I happen to have or can borrow). I play games with my gear like the ones I devise for my colleagues: using means that are blunt, even clumsy and obvious, but in the service of highly complex, finely textured results.
We end with Tarpit — the “cautionary fable.” You might say it has a plot that thickens over time. As a final nose-thumb to any generalizing about his music, Bruckmann builds the piece over a highly disciplined example of a smooth ramping process, in the spirit of James Tenney or Tom Johnson. On top of that the composer plants three pairs of players who are instructed to mess up the melodies he’s given them: “Strive for impetuous, even eccentric, lyricism. Start in unison, but diverge gradually, and maintain independence… vary phrasing etc. ad lib, growing very gradually towards improvisation.” (emphasis added) The ensuing complexity grows, not from of a set of mathematical instructions, but from human agency and accident, something Bruckmann values, refreshingly, over strict adherence to rules.
Being acquainted with Bruckmann’s bloody-mindedness at this point, we’re duty-bound to ask: could the title mean “Tarp it,” like Christo — take a giant monument and wrap that sucker in vinyl, create a zeppelin-sized art burrito and hide it away in plain sight? (The wrap here being that ever-growing electronic drone.) Or, more topically, “TARP” it: throw gobs of money at a giant, invisible monster that threatens to devour everybody and everything on the planet, to placate it for a quarter of an hour? Bruckmann’s characterization of Tarpit as a “cautionary fable” is our only clue, and maybe the obvious reading will unearth a greater cache of artifacts. The ecology lessons in Captain Beefheart’s Petrified Forest suggest a parallel — ancient forms of hairy, snorting beasts alongside politicians, scientists and other culture-makers, smothering in a bottomless pit of boiling black glue, slow-oozing ideas and sulphurously stinking, outmoded moralities from prehistoric times. The harder they struggle to get out, the worse they’re mired in it. Thus the sonic allegory: a wooly-mammoth wedge of black noise that looms in the background throughout Tarpit, and finally overwhelms the ensemble by the piece’s end. At ten minutes in, the ensemble’s collective sound resembles a room-sized birdcage full of flaps and twitters, telegraphing for help but receiving no answer. The mix at minute 14 favors the electronics: the point of no hope has been reached; the human players are no match for it. The looming blackness triumphs with just a few pitiful squeaks and gasps left to suggest any life, much less any of the intelligent variety, was ever here. The moral of the fable: Tread respectfully in Mother Nature’s playground, humans, lest you end up another evolutionary shunt to nowhere, your evolution punctuated, period.
Why Roscoe Mitchell Is Important (2013; blog for Table and Chairs Music)
I first encountered Roscoe Mitchell at Karl and Ingrid Berger’s Creative Music Studio in Woodstock, at the 1978-79 New Year’s Intensive with the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and again, the next summer, where he led a Composer’s Intensive that lasted five weeks and brought in other AACM artists such as Leo Smith, Anthony Braxton, and George Lewis. Every other day, he’d lead the student orchestra through his composition Nonaah, which I already knew from the Nessa recording. The version we played was scored for ‘cello quartet, but Roscoe took the players through it, reassigning parts and re-orchestrating it. On alternate days, the thirty-odd of us would freely improvise under his direction.
Those were challenging sessions. Roscoe placed himself behind a red table with just a stopwatch, the student players seated in a semicircle around him. He was a tiny figure, but his presence filled us with awe and respect. He’d bring his hand up and give a downbeat. At first, everyone jumped in. He stopped us after a few seconds, then waved another downbeat. The soundscape would again quickly devolve into a free-for-all, and he’d stop us again. The message soon made itself clear: You don’t all have to start playing when the space for creating sound is opened. Listen first. And if you don’t offer anything that builds, extends or complements what’s happening, Lay out.
Slowing the process of improvisation down to something more like the pace of scribbling notes on paper revealed immense lessons for Roscoe’s students. First, that improvisation is composition (or, as Schoenberg said, composition is improvisation slowed down). Further, improvisation is fundamentally about listening. It’s a reflective process before it is an expressive process. Roscoe put forward the grounding lesson that making music is very serious stuff, and demands a microscopic level of attendance to the moment. As I look back, I see in his manner of pedagogy that Roscoe embodied another fundamental teaching that reaches across those thirty-four years with a resonance: Simplify your materials and methods, and let complexity arise out of the interactions that naturally follow.
Finally, group improvisation is a process owned and stewarded by community. Roscoe cared deeply about the ensemble as a functioning unit of people engaged in a common cause. Out of that naturally arises a sonic ecosystem that feeds and inspires everyone within. He taught us how to listen to the entire soundscape and how to place our sounds in a way that kept it alive and meaningful for everyone, not just as a backdrop for one person’s heroic solo. In this way the act of making group music can be a kind of perfect place, a utopia on Earth, if only for a little while. It’s enough for a lifetime.
Thank you, Roscoe Mitchell.
(For Paris Transatlantic, summer 2011)
An Opera in Real Time by Gino Robair
Presbyterian Church of St. John the Evangelist, July 5, 2011
Here we have one of those rare phenoms in San Francisco, a hot, still day. Normally fog-swaddled and blustery, the City By The Bay today basks in calm oceans of sun, nowhere more than the Mission District, cradled in a sun bowl (really a “fog shadow”) made possible by the stature of Twin Peaks, which rise twenty blocks to the west. The Mission’s streets are teeming with sun-seeking hipsters, but inside the Presbyterian Church of St. John the Evangelist, just off 15th and Valencia, the benches are filled with organists, and they’re in a sweat, not just on account of the weather but from the sounds coming out of the onsite pipe organ, a formidable device the size of a bus and packing the decibel pressure of a jumbo jet when it really gets its bellows up.
Right now, the organ’s being put to decidedly nonstandard uses. As the man at the manuals gets beyond the first few phrases, funny things start to happen. The score calls for some organ stops to be somewhere between fully open or closed. What started as a mildly skewed chorale — pleasing contrapuntal lines hitting a dissonant guardrail here and there — passes into a spiraling sound tunnel wreathed with dark, furtive wraiths that slip by, intoning “Wo-wo-wo-wo.” A few stops later, the organ-bus ride opens up into a valley bathed in candy-flake beating tones that make ears flutter and eyes brim. No wonder the audience, convention-going members of the American Guild of Organists, are fanning themselves with their programs. Doubtless many of them have heard of these phantom effects, yet one wonders how many church organists have been allowed to test them out on their congregations, let alone expand these sonic heresies into a ten-minute improvisation, complete with a two-foot block of wood for mass pedal clusters. It’s a well-built church: the windows aren’t rattling.
What is that rattling, though? Heads turn to see Joshua Norton (played by Tom Duff), resplendent in tatty tux and feather-festooned top hat, jangling a ring of church-size keys at the organist (Dave Hatt), who lifts his fingers, halting the thunderous whoomping. As the bellows expire in an asthmatic wheeze, Emperor Norton announces, “Something is definitely wrong with this organ.” Having given the diagnosis, he heads back up the center aisle to where his desk has been set up. He takes up a pen, presumably to write another of his decrees. For two suspended minutes, there’s not a sound. Then, on cue, the choir starts ringing bells.
So opened San Francisco’s July 2011 performance of Gino Robair’s I, Norton, “An Opera in Real Time.” Its subject is the life of one Joshua Norton, who, unhinged by a tycoon scheme gone wrong, in 1859 declared himself “Emperor of these United States, Its Assorted Territories and Protector of Mexico.” Norton quickly became a fixture in San Francisco’s streets and press rooms, where his jaunty decrees against Congress and injustice — Tweets of Yesteryear, indeed! — started selling papers. As San Francisco’s first and most celebrated eccentric, Norton inadvertently set the stage for the characterization of the City by the Bay as a fog-haunted bughouse.
Gino Robair has put The Emperor’s legacy to more profound uses. Events and proclamations from Norton’s life become the generative texts for musical activity. Improvising itself into being everywhere it lands, the life-and-death story is carried by the composer anywhere and can be up and running overnight, like a traveling curiosity show. He says: “I, Norton was created as a kit that could be performed by any number of people and assembled in a unique way for each performance… I, Norton takes the shape of an improvised collage structure that combines conduction (using hand cues), graphic scores, and memory-based improvisational structures. The opera can be performed by a mere handful of people or with a large ensemble. Although the score includes text-based material for speakers and singers, a realization of the opera can be completely instrumental. The piece does not require staging, sets, lights, or costumes. It is meant to be performed anywhere, anytime: A ‘mobile guerrilla anti-opera,’ if you will. One of my intentions is that it serve as the culmination piece of a festival, where I, Norton gives all the festival participants a chance to do a structured improvisation together, whether they’re musicians, dancers, or visual artists.”
Performances have been staged in San Francisco, Oakland, Seattle, Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, Chattanooga, Birmingham (Alabama), Athens (Georgia), Miami, Toronto, Milan, Palermo, and Stockholm. In addition, ROVA took a quartet version on tour through Europe, and Shoko Hikage’s koto quartet toured Japan performing sections of the piece. The fall, 2011 performance is slated for Sweden, as part of “(Re)thinking Improvisation, International Sessions On Artistic Research in Music,” at the Malmö Academy of Music.
The ‘collage’ presented at the 2009 San Francisco Electronic Music Festival found its subject (who is usually played by Mr. Duff) tormented by a cloud of visions and voices, distorted echoes of his own. The psychotic chorus was sampled and processed by the laptops of Chris Brown, Kristin Miltner, and Jon Liedecker (aka Wobbly). What transpired was a desolate-feeling performance, spotlighting the Emperor alone in his garret and losing the rest of his mind, spouting incoherent yet still somehow portentous babbles, after a long electronic interlude where he simply sat, motionless — think Krapp’s Last Tape overlaid with Gesang der Jünglinge. There followed an episode of time travel, as the Emperor disappeared from the stage while digitally scrambled crustaceans from the 25th century clicked their claws and growled their growls.
Altogether different in forces and effect was the first Bay Area performance of I, Norton, performed by approximately forty musician friends on the occasion of Mr. Robair’s fortieth birthday. Appropriately, a celebratory mood ruled the room, amid a raucously DIY approach to opera staging. Excerpts may be sampled in the Robair segment of Tim Perkis’ film Noisy People, at around 7:42. The October 2008 performance with sfSound (plus the laptop trio of Brown, Miltner and Liedecker) groaned with Ivesian density — Ives was, after all, the granddaddy of musical collage — massed strings and dual pianos lobbing tone-cluster mortars into the fray.
Robair’s “anti-opera” fête of the outsider Mr. Norton is a wink-nudge tribute to the rebel spirit of the musical scene the composer himself inhabits. Robair’s bona fides may easily be found online. Suffice it to say that since 1986 or so, Robair, a classically-trained percussionist with a deep background in avant-rock and degrees in composition and electronic music from Mills College, has been one of the dominant figures on the Bay Area improvisation and new music scenes and has played with practically everybody and recorded with most. Case in point is the just-released Scrutables (Weight of Wax), a studio recording from 2000 with John Butcher and Derek Bailey. As with many American artists, Mr. Robair has found Europe a greener pasture for his efforts.
Besides performances in Milan and Palermo (the latter town is a favorite stomping ground for Robair), Stockholm was the scene of I, Norton’s June 2011 incarnation, in an extended workshop setting that gave the composer a chance to get his music played while simultaneously initiating young musicians into the mysteries of improvisation — a tried-and-true formula. Robair says of that one, “Stockholm blew my mind because I had a fearless butoh-trained dancer and a painter, both of whom had never improvised before, but who found unique ways to explore the score.”
Returning to the July 2011 performance in San Francisco: After Duff held the audience in hushed suspense at his desk, Robair cued the organ back in, and coaxed some “gasps and fissures” sounds from Kyle Bruckmann (that’s how it’s indicated in the score; it’s also the name of Mr. Bruckmann’s solo oboe release on 482 Music.) There followed a series of activity/repose cycles for the Emperor at his desk, while different ensemble combinations were brought in and out.
Act II, “Letter to Miss Minnie Wakeman,” extended the hushed wonder of the sounds in Act I, building onto them a crescendo of pathos via the antiphonal voices of Dana Anderson and Hannah Williams (age eleven), intoning the letter, a shy plea from the never-married Norton to borrow the lady’s name in a proclamation: “My Dear Miss Wakeman, In arranging for my Empress, I shall be delighted if you will permit me to make use of your name. Should you be willing, please let me know. But keep your own secret…It is a safer way I think…Your devoted loving friend, The Emperor….” At the close, after the horns and organ died for the last time, Mr. Duff read the letter again slowly, line by line, followed close upon each phrase by young Miss Williams. A long pause before the applause allowed all present to reflect on the transience of life, illustrated by the demise of a harmless yet prolifically creative and peace-loving man who died, alone, in the street.
The organ/church combination played no small part in the poignancy of the moment. The 100-year-old instrument offers a range of stops, which keyboardist Hatt exploited using the following fabulously-named combinations:
- Air effects, from the Great Open Diapason 8’, Fifteenth 2’, Swell Nasard 2 2/3’, Tierce 1 3/5’, Flageolet 2’, Pedal Open Bass 8’
- Basic flute tone, from the Great Doppelflute 8’, Lieblich Gedeckt 16’, Swell Gedeckt 8’, Gemshorn 8’, Fugara 4’, Pedal Bourdon 16’
- Loud reed sounds, from the Great Trumpet 8’, Swell Oboe 8’, Pedal Trombone 16’
Gino says about the pipe organ effects: “I was planning to notate the position of the stops until I realized I should just let Hatt do what he does as an improviser. I consulted with him on the general tone I wanted to hear in the opening chorale, but after that I left it up to him. Despite having only a few stops compared to the huge modern instruments, the tracker organ† is capable of great timbral complexity once you begin working with fractional stops*. And I didn’t get enough time on the organ before the event to go through all the possibilities — and I’m not even sure you can go through them all… Dave and I had one of these instruments at our disposal at the University of Redlands, where we met. We’d do this thing where we’d hold down clusters, then power the organ down. It was like having dozens of balloons deflate simultaneously. I could’ve made a record with just that sound, over and over again.” (†A tracker organ is one in which the linkage from key to pipe is mechanical, with no electric or pneumatically-assisted action — literally old-school organ design. *Fractional stop: a stop that is not engaged fully; like a half-valve effect on the trumpet, where the air flow is split between two or more pipes instead of one.)
“What I didn’t realize (and something that seems to have surprised Dave, as well) was that there is a lot of unpredictable behavior in the fractional stops when you hold down a pedal cluster AND clusters on the upper manuals; as you pull out a stop, the timbre doesn’t always change in a linear fashion.
“The reason has to do with the amount of air you’re drawing when holding so many notes down and what stops are chosen. You’re asking for a lot of the organ’s air when you hold down twenty or thirty keys. And as you move stops slowly in and out, you get all sort of sonic surprises, because that air gets redirected in uncontrollable ways. It’s pretty exciting to experience first hand — a recording of this just doesn’t capture the feeling you get sitting near the organ when it sounds as if it’s going to explode.”
This writer was about ten feet from the big wooden cage housing the bellowing pipes. In between was the extraordinary sound artist Krys Bobrowski, playing her self-designed Gliss Glass in a delicate passage exploiting sliding difference tones with the organ. Her instrument uses the physical principle of water seeking its own level and the bowing of glass with wet fingers to form its unique sounds.
Robair pulled out a few more stops, figuratively, to create opportunities for difference tones, or as he calls the phenomenon, heterodyning. The horn section, besides Bobrowski (French horn) and this writer (trumpets), was comprised of flutes, oboe/English horn, and clarinets, handled by Polly Moller, Kyle Bruckmann, and Matt Ingalls. Moller was called to duo duty with pianist Matthew Goodheart, who brought to life his instrument’s strings using an Ebow. And the Cornelius Cardew Choir moaned, hummed, hooted on bottles, and rang little bells. All in all, sort of a Large Heterodyne Collider, if you will. The combination of setting, instrumentation, performers and audience, together with the ‘libretto’ excerpts, made the emotional content of the piece swell and throb like the 32’ pipes in the hall.
Robair says: “I agree that the setting and instrumentation added to the intensity of this performance. I also feel that it’s because I set up a time-line for the performance, where certain sections would begin and end. This version had to be a specific length, and I wanted to feature certain instruments, so it made sense to give the event a narrative arc. That’s something I typically avoid with I, Norton, in order to open the door for surprises. But I do like how a narrative shape can deliver emotional impact, so I wouldn’t rule it out in planning other performances.
“One more thing: we rehearsed this piece in that form, with the order of events predetermined. I haven’t done that since the premiere in Chattanooga. That one was linear and scored, but I wasn’t happy with the results. Now it’s designed so that we rehearse each improvisational strategy on its own, and then let the order and overlap emerge in performance. I love that method of working, but I definitely see the benefits of rehearsing the overall structure ahead of time.
“Part of me feels that the open structure is one thing that sets this piece off from other operas, so I’m not inclined to give it up. However, it’s extremely useful and I would consider it an option for the future — particularly by having a narrative arc or two nested within a larger unstructured performance.
“I could tell during the rehearsal that we were heading in the right direction, but I was not prepared for the level of musicality reached in the actual event itself. I was happy that I could really listen to what was going on and not worry about constantly cueing. In Act II, where everyone was exploring beat frequencies, I crept into the center of the room to see if I could hear everyone, and — bottles, flutes, Gliss Glass, winds, vibes, organ — all there. It was a breakthrough concert for me, in terms of the opera and the kinds of things I strive to make happen in music, generally.”
I, Norton on CD: http://www.rastascan.com/catalog/brd063.html
SOUNDS FRENCH (The Wire concert review, 2003)
Luc Ferrari, DJ Olive, William Winant, Sue Costabile
Monday March 17, Wheeler Auditorium, UC Berkeley, Berkeley, California USA
Even more than Stockhausen or the Pierres (Henry and Schaeffer), Luc Ferrari must be regarded as the most potent sire of today’s mixmasters. Partly it’s his pedigree—Darmstadt in the 1950’s, improvising and recording on the street in Paris in the 1960’s, all leading up to the revolutionary Presque Rien No.1 of 1970: sounds of a fishing village, presented without manipulation nor composerly conceits. Ferrari’s preeminence is due also to his eagerness to examine every sound and technique that comes his way and use it to brilliant sonic ends, leaving aside any fuss over joining movements or cranking out manifesti. Having mastered serialism, minimalism, musique concréte, electronic music and improvisation, Luc Ferrari can now incorporate everything elegantly and in bravura fashion, leaving audiences astonished and delighted.
The SOUNDS FRENCH concert in Berkeley opened with Far-West News No.1, a live-diffusion, performed by the composer, of a 1998 audio travelogue “from Santa Fe to Monument Valley.” The piece is suffused with the intellectualiste fascination with the American West, vast and incorruptible—regardez Varese, Godard, Baudrillard, etc. Ferrari focusses on everyday sounds, as in Presque Rien, but sets them in a sonata-like form via car-door slams from the deserts of New Mexico and Death Valley to the cultural desert of Los Angeles. At the Baghdad Café in Arizona (ironies duly noted), Ferrari and his wife confront banal Yankee tourists with a sexual-political catechism: “What do you think of impeachment?” Then arrives a “pure music” section, a lovely klangfarben kaleidoscope of sounds from Death Valley—crunching footsteps, crow caws, garbled voices furtively murmuring, and samples of marimba, beats, and synthesized serialisms. The montaging is trés Nouvelle Vague in the concluding Hollywood section, echoing shards of previous elements and sounds; whereupon this self-described “disturbed and sometimes scattered” journey rolls to a stop. The ease and grace Ferrari brought to this agenda-free music was refreshing, sometimes revelatory.
Archives Sauvées des Eaux was a forty-five minute improvisation—Ferrari on dual CD-mixer, DJ Olive on turntables, William Winant on a large array of percussion (including tympani, vibes, gong rack, and drumkit), and Sue Costabile projecting live video manipulation. Ferrari’s current fascination is with DJs and live-mixing—his collaborations with DJ Olive go back a couple of years—and for this piece, he plundered his own 1974 archives for scratch-material. Reflecting on his peripatetic style, Ferrari said of this work, “The aim is precisely to use the concepts I experimented during my whole life as a composer and this in all possible directions.” It started quietly, a steady-state for about ten minutes; then a rude irruption from Ferrari blew craters in the scattering soundfield. The terrain stayed jiggety for a long time, uninterrupted by large landmarks. The trio eschewed any obvious digital manipulation throughout, and it wasn’t missed. Ferrari’s mastery over raw sound and improvised spot-structure were sufficient to lend overall shape to the music, while allowing plenty of high-energy jam session interplay between DJ Olive and Winant. Costabile’s visual empathy with the musicians was at times astonishing. Her raw materials—various painted, perforated sheets and screens—perhaps inevitably brought up associations of veils, Chadors, maps of lost deserts, sand, dry grass, burn marks, bullet holes, tank treads. When it was over, the politically charged audience defiantly shouted “Vive le France” amid the ovations. Plus ça change, plus ç’est la méme chose…Paris a Berkeley.
(For bagatellen, 2009)
Signifying Junkie: A non-believer’s appreciation of Bill Evans
After all these years, I find myself unable to avoid an unhappy conclusion: jazz criticism is a bad idea, poorly executed. – Orrin Keepnews, from The View From Within, 1987
It was a piano teacher at the Berklee School of Music who made me hate Bill Evans. I presented a singular problem to him: my overriding desire was to learn to play like Jelly Roll Morton and Fats Waller. I landed at the celebrated jazz school in 1974 from the hinterlands of northern New Mexico (where jazz piano teachers were as rare as… any kind of piano teacher), seventeen and cringingly naïve, scared of (and attracted to) the giant-afro’d hookers on Boylston and perplexed by my Canadian roommate’s re-enactments of Monty Python routines. And I was a serious moldy fig. My gospel was Alan Lomax’s Mr. Jelly Roll, and I was laboriously working out the harmonies and fingerings to Wolverine Blues via a battery-driven cassette player I perched amid the cigarette burns and coffee stains that decorated the practice pianos.
This teacher was a nice enough guy, but his cancer stick fell from his lips when I auditioned my stuff. His attempts to plumb my hippitude had little effect. “This is jazz, too, isn’t it?” I asked, pumping out some left hand oompah. “You wanna live out your life playing intermissions at pie-eating contests?” he sneered.
So, to the listening library I was dispatched with a check-out slip for Bill Evans’ Sunday At The Village Vanguard, with the admonishment that THIS was what I needed to hear, to understand what jazz piano was supposed to be. It felt like a punishment even before I clamped on those thumbscrews-for-the-ears that passed for “headphones.” Don’t you hate it when somebody gushes, “This is the awesomest, ever. You’ll love it.” Village Vanguard, I thought, what’s that, some medieval theatre-in-the-round? The way my teacher described it, the experience I was about to receive would be pianistic heaven on earth, Mount Olympus on the 88’s, and god himself would vibe me from those solid grooves. Bill Evans was at that time the summation of everything that was ever worthwhile doing with a piano or a piano trio. Forget Monk – not really a piano player; didn’t he write some quirky tunes? – forget Hines and Tatum – hopelessly old-fashioned, heavy-handed stuff – who? Cecil Taylor? Get out of my sight, infidel.
For some, the pedestal Bill Evans occupies is ever more lofty. For instance, the 2005 Riverside box release of (yet another “complete”) “Bill Evans: The Complete Village Vanguard Recordings 1961” reads on the back, in part: “This is it. The breakthrough. The pinnacle of spontaneous musical communication. Three men breathing as one on a tiny bandstand… The intimate, contrapuntal dialogues between Evans’ poetic piano and Lafaro’s bass, as swift as the wind. Motian’s sustained riveted ride cymbal providing a carpet of stars… the crowning glory of these performances, the last ever by this singular trio. This is it… The night of nights. No more rehearsing, and nursing of parts, they know every part by heart.”
Okay, I spliced those last couple of lines from the Bugs Bunny Show theme song, and that wasn’t nice. But as far as romance copy goes, I’m moved to utter, This is it. The height of heights. And it’s not a sticker you can peel off and be rid of, either: it’s printed in 12’ type on the back of the box. I don’t blame Riverside producer Orrin Keepnews, really. He’s appointed himself the keeper of a legacy, since Bill himself is no longer on the Earthly scene. Evans was a painfully introverted, self-effacing man; Keepnews probably felt it necessary to take on the role of pedestal fitter, not just to sell more product but to buttress the artist’s sand-castle of a psyche. Perhaps Keepnews feels the cruelties of this savage time we live in are pushing away Bill Evans and his heartbreaking poetics. One must SHOUT! that this latest repackaging contains the Holy Grail of piano trios, the ne plus ultra, never to be surpassed in its This-is-itness. It’s a good thing Evans is dead – if he were to read this goop, it’d probably finish him off. (Keepnews’ adoration gets personal in his booklet memoirs, and what a spectacle it is: “I guess I am entitled to say, with regard to this now-immortal series of ‘live’ recordings, that I was the very first one there…” [emphasis added])
I don’t pretend this is an academic paper, so I haven’t fully traced the arc of this hyperbolic elevation of Bill Evans’s work, and of the Village Vanguard sessions in particular, nor how it came to be received wisdom in the jazz world by the time Berklee accepted this doubting Thomas as a student. It might have had something to do with Gene Lees, who had an all-out epiphany when he first heard Evans, and went on to become not just a megaphone but a collaborator, friend, confidante, moneylender, and chronicler. (He wrote the lyrics to Waltz for Debby and Turn Out the Stars.) Lees was editor of Down Beat at the time he discovered Evans, and immediately featured the reluctant pianist on a cover. The year was 1959. He included a heartfelt tribute to Evans in his set of musician’s portraits Meet Me At Jim & Andy’s (published in 1990). Reading it, one realizes that part of the charm Bill Evans exerted – especially over those who saw him perform – was his personal vulnerability, something one did not see in men of that day and age. Evans was pale, thin and reedy – a regular pencil-neck geek, he looked ready to cave in at any moment. At the piano, he would hunch over until his forehead was nearly touching the keyboard, as if lost in prayer to the muse. He was soft-spoken (there are some unintentionally funny, mumbled announcements included in the VV set) and reluctant to record. In the rough-and-tumble jazz world, open displays of emotional fragility were as highly valued as leprosy. That is, until Evans came along and unveiled a vale of hidden, forbidden tears.
Lees writes of Evans, “His playing spoke to me in an intensely personal way.” And Lees quotes Martin Williams: “…some of the most private and emotionally naked music I have ever heard.” On the occasion of the 2001 re-reissue of this material, Adam Gopnik wrote in The New Yorker, “[Evans’s solos] are as close to pure emotion, produced without impediments – not at all the same thing as an entire self poured out without inhibitions, the bebop dream – as exists in music. His music hints at the secret truth that New York is sad before it is busy, and that it is a kind of inverted garden, with all the flowers blooming down in the basements.” Give Gopnik some credit for chutzpah: he penned that reverie just one paragraph after this caveat: “It is easy to cite worshipful jazz-critic passages about [this music]… though none of the writing itself has the least emotional force.”
Bill Evans was the kind of artist critics embrace because he did things in public they couldn’t do, and he seems particularly well-suited to writers, musicians, and others of solitary, melancholic pursuits. He was the Robert Bly of his times, bringing light to a previously unthinkable concept: complicated emotions in men, shared in a public sphere. Instead of drum circles in boardrooms, he applied the piano trio in smoke-filled dives. Every gig was a potential catharsis, a love-in/freak-out for the dry Martini set. His life had its share of pain and suffering; an unhappy coda to the Village Vanguard date was the unexpected death of Scott LaFaro, still in his early twenties, which by some accounts Evans never got over. Evans’s drug addictions were common knowledge in the jazz world, too. He once played an entire weeklong gig with just his left hand; he’d pranged a nerve in his right arm, while shooting up. Evans brought an intellectual’s understanding to heroin addiction: “It’s like death and transfiguration. Every day you wake in pain like death, and then go out and score, and that is transfiguration. Each day becomes all of life in microcosm.” (quoted by Lees)
Evans’s art has always had its doubters. Whitney Balliett of The New Yorker wrote in 1963: “When Evans formed a trio, late in 1959, with Scott LaFaro on bass and Paul Motian on drums, a peculiar thing happened: The burden of being the soloist instead of a soloist appeared too much for him, and he became increasingly ruminative and withdrawn. He experimented endlessly with slow, cloudy numbers, and the singing climaxes all but vanished.” Balliett goes on to praise Evans’s then-new trio, again with Motian and Gary Peacock on bass, extolling the virtues writ often in the canonical Evans texts: the contrapuntal interplay, the lack of a clearly-demarcated soloist/support structure, the sensitivity and freedom. By the late sixties, the critical clamor over Evans was such that Cecil Taylor was given to protest that, while Evans was “a competent cat,” surely were there a few other piano players on the scene who deserved some column inches too? John Litweiler looked back at Evans from the distance of the unromantic 1980s, and found his art wanting: “By far the most influential pianist of the 1960s was Bill Evans… Some of the spirit left his music by the 1960s, as he adopted a most distinctive touch, delicate as butterfly wings. This unique delicacy was excellent camouflage for Evans’s unremarkable melodic conception; his ingenious artifice extended to creating illusions of activity out of a limited dynamic range… the summary of all these qualities is an art of understatement and an emotionality that ranges from hip to pretty to wistful: modest good manners raised to a world view.” (from The Freedom Principle) Litweiler goes on to enumerate the manifold ways Evans’s closest disciples – Hancock, Corea, and Jarrett (he throws in vibist Gary Burton, too) – spread the Evansesque Romantic principle across the jazz sphere, laying waste via the scorched-earth firepower of jazz fusion.
Bassist Peacock tested the freedom principle by moonlighting with Albert Ayler at the time he was in Evans’s trio. Ayler and the forces of “The New Thing” were a big problem critics were having with jazz in the early sixties; Evans provided a soothing resting place. His music offered erudition, freedom and familiarity in a tie and jacket. It had none of the aggression of Coltrane and Dolphy, the caustic sarcasm of Mingus, or the brimstone of Ayler. (And, conveniently, he didn’t sport the, um, darker skin of those guys.) The music of the Evans trios was undeniably advanced in its harmonic and rhythmic sophistications, perhaps less so in the oft-mentioned contrapuntal conceits – but there are limits to what can be done in a three-way counterpoint, while keeping the sounds pleasant and polite. It was a small, well-tended basement garden Evans depicted in his emotive haiku.
When I strapped on those primitive Berklee headphones and started the tape of Sunday at the Village Vanguard, I panicked: Where’s the music? “Cloudy” would have been a word I would have proposed, too, like Balliett. Certainly, all the subtlety of the music slipped right past my young, stride-ent ears (the most modern jazz piano I’d heard up to then was Erroll Garner). As I listened, I found myself unable to locate anything to hold onto, not a single recognizable musical signpost (what, no dominant 7ths? No four-to-the-bar?). A piece would begin, float along for a while – lots of little birdies twittering in the bushes, but no great flocks bursting out – and then end. Then a new one would start. I wasn’t thrilled, as my teacher had hoped. (I got my thrill the next day, when I found some Donald Lambert recordings in a tiny downtown record shop.)
That was quite a while ago. Now I own the complete Complete Village Vanguard 1961, and in a righting-old-wrongs sort of way, I feel more complete. There is music here, after all. Just how much music is there, is the question.
I’ve been approaching Evans guardedly. I dig Everybody Digs and Portrait of Cannonball and Portrait in Jazz, but none of it has really knocked me out save Evans’s work with Miles Davis. I’m especially fond of Evans’s perverse couple of choruses in the midst of the Davis sextet’s run-through of Love for Sale, recorded nearly a year before Evans and Davis co-created Kind of Blue. In this – the only up-tempo kicker Evans and Miles recorded in the studio together – following an exultant, driving Adderley and a just-woke-up Coltrane, Evans starts off as if to provide an ongoing context for the tenor’s bemused wanderings, using a bite-sized phrase menu and pianistic dressings that don’t connect melodically. Evans does some things only he could do with a piano in 1958, for sure. In the first chorus, a bunch of Powellesque filigree flits by almost as asides rather than forthright statements. But as the pianist keeps going out, the composer in him is taking apart the song. His second chorus starts with a dissonant, teasing four-note phrase, extending it in two quick variants and ending the episode in the seventh bar with a Zen koan consisting of nothing more than a pair of octave A’s, ‘resolving’ on the seventh of the key, Bb minor. To start the second sixteen, Evans hits some open fourths in his right hand while filling the cracks with his left, rhythmically fracturing it, like a stuttering man trying desperately to get to the essence of what he’s trying to say. I should mention this bit is not only a kind of ‘inversion’ of that earlier four-noter, but it’s a restatement of the off-kilter introduction Evans hits as Davis snaps off the tempo. What’s compelling about Evans’s work throughout these two choruses is the sly, knowing humor of his playing right alongside some serious harmonic and rhythmic dislocation. Moreover, his variations stand up to repeated listenings not just as a collection of natty improvised phrases, but a distillation of a complex (yet simple-sounding) tune, and a recasting of it into sudden small revelations: the hesitations, the held notes, the chromatic cascades, and those stark open fourths – one of Evans’s favorite places of harmonic refuge. (The main melodic phrase of Love for Sale encompasses a perfect fourth.)
In between that session and the Vanguards sits the LaFaro-Motian-Evans trio’s first recording for Riverside, Portrait in Jazz. It’s an outstanding set, more coherent and close-to-the-bone than the Vanguard material. Another up-tempo Cole Porter number shows up, What Is This Thing Called Love? (a favorite of one of Evans’s teachers, Lennie Tristano). Evans’s intro is a kissing cousin to the Love for Sale intro he did with Miles. Motian drops out for 16 after the head is stated, and we get an all-too short piano-bass duo. In the last few bars of it, Evans plays way off the beat, but Motian comes back in on the dot. Those chattering fourths show up a little later, albeit with less force: Evans is already retreating from the harder touch he used in the Davis band. Evans applies those fourths and an unfolding series of zigzagging, multi-octave runs to build one of the singing climaxes Balliett mentions. A largo When I Fall In Love treats the listener to one of those musical-magical moments of time suspension, as Evans spins out an impossibly lacy necklace of notes, which, no matter how many times I hear it, I always think will end long before it does. It just keeps on going and unveiling new colors, like a magician’s chromatic scarf unfurling from the sleeve. Such impromptu eloquence does tempt one to utter superlatives like, “No other pianist could have played that.”
However. I come not to bury Evans in praise, but to de-hype him. Regarding the Village Vanguard music, I’m trying not to hear Whitney Balliett’s prim, nagging voice in my head as I struggle to enunciate what bugs me about these sessions. Something’s missing that was there in the earlier Bill Evans. Evans has gone so far down inside himself, boxed into a closed definition of his own pianistic brand if you will – BE, Inc. – that the lyricism never comes up for air, suffocated under the weight of its own complex conventions. Texture, or the lack of it, is my gripe with this music. It makes great background precisely because it is of one uninterrupted texture. Never once does it reach out. The listener must approach it and find a way to stay engaged without sliding off the exquisitely polished surface, a non-texture that is as reflective and murky as obsidian. (It’s dark like heroin, too.) I don’t hear the sense of adventure or humor that’s on display in Love for Sale, nor the melodic pithiness that graces Portrait in Jazz. I would guess that Evans, in the tight basement confines of the Village Vanguard and leading his own group, might have considered humor unseemly and adventure too risky. (Aside: In the same season as the Evans Vanguard sessions were recorded and released, Ahmad Jamal’s trio was recording his Alhambra and Blackhawk records for Argo. They offer warm and engaging lessons in humor, surprise, as well as contrasting textures and dynamics, in the context of a very different kind of piano trio where the musicians definitely “breathe as one.”)
To sum up: Bill Evans was a great pianist and brought some important new things to the music. He made some great records, too, but the Village Vanguard sessions aren’t among them. They’re unfocussed, insignificant, and boring. It’s a case of over-rating one day’s work – at the expense of a man’s entire career.
LaFaro’s bass is beautifully captured by the microphones, putting him on an even footing with the piano (some have muttered: larger than life). In fact, the sound of the strings on LaFaro’s fretboard, closely mic’ed with all the little buzzes and clicks peeping through, provides practically the sole textural relief in this music. (Maybe LaFaro is the problem. He threatens to take over sometimes, and it could be that Evans, never a strong or confident leader, felt intimidated by the baby-faced bassist’s brilliance. LaFaro certainly wasn’t shy to berate Evans, off the bandstand, about his needle habit.* And then LaFaro had to go and get himself killed ten days after the sessions, adding untold mojo to the legend.) Motian’s playing here isn’t as rhythmically ambiguous as it would get in later years. But it is heavy on the brushes and the ride cymbal, which is to say, not at all heavy. The drums are tasteful and discreet, dynamically and tonally flattened. The music shines and shimmers, reflecting like dancing sunlight on a pond, revealing nothing under the surface. (*About the heroin thing. Evans was arguably in the worst throes of his habit at the time he recorded at the Vanguard in 1961. Is it unrefined to mention this, in connection with the heavy-lidded aura of the music? Here’s Gopnik on that subject: “It is … sadly possible that the dreamy, otherworldly quality of Evans’s playing that day had something to do with what was flowing in his veins.”)
On the Vanguard sessions, Evans lost his melodic sensibility, drowning in that featherweight touch. He didn’t reconstitute the tunes or work with their structure, as he did on earlier recordings – in fact he barely acknowledged the melody on some takes. The diffusion that atomized Evans’s melodies at the Vanguard also infected the harmonic landscape. It’s those damn chords built on fourths – they can resolve in any direction, and usually do. So what? Blue in green? – How about some straight blue, or pure green, for once? Evans brought French Impressionism into jazz (he wasn’t the first, as partisans of Bix Beiderbecke would point out), but in doing so cast his music into a never-never land of floating, unresolved harmony where every color is equal and none stand out. But then, he was some kind of student of Lennie Tristano, whose harmony was Viennese (sort of) and therefore even further out on a limb than Evans’s. (Jamal knew: sometimes an unequivocal cadence is just what the music needs.)
About hyping the Vanguard, 2005 edition: The bloom is off the rose, as pianists high and low for the last forty years have taken up Bill Evans as their spiritual father, much as saxophonists in the sixties and seventies deified John Coltrane. Arguably, Evans’s influence has shown even more scope and persistence than that. The pan-chromatic stew that passes for jazz piano these days is part of his legacy. Even strong individualists like Bill Charlap and Vijay Iyer don’t fully escape the Evans halo. Sure, it’s illogical and unsporting, not to mention curmudgeonly, to blame departed masters for the pandemic of unfocussed logorrhea infecting jazz today. (Could it be the brand of jazz pedagogy peddled at places like Berklee has something to do with it?) Combine that with the execrable state of modern recording – where everything is brought to the foreground and compressed within an inch of its life – and the effect, for this listener, is not unlike hearing Bill Evans’s Vanguard trios: a smooth, uninterrupted, perfectly miniaturized flatland where everything is permitted – and nothing is unexpected.
Re: pianist I knew – I don’t know what became of my Berklee teacher. Don’t even remember his name. He was a good sport in the face of my unhippitude. He taught me chordal exercises through the circle of fifths and introduced me to a good Fats Waller song, Jitterbug Waltz. I didn’t fit in at Berklee, and never returned after that summer evaluation course. (Within a few years, I had picked up the trumpet and was blasting along with Albert Ayler records. Two years later I was at the Creative Music Studio, where I fit in a little better.) The irony is that Berklee’s blinkered approach to the jazz tradition – concentrating on the years 1955 to 1965 – was soon taken up with a vengeance by the neocon revolutionaries of the eighties. But at least Marsalis and his allies looked farther back in time, and now it’s expected that any real piano player be able to pull some Walleresque stride out of the pocket – just for fun, mind you (Dave Burrell, always his own man, is a happy exception).
Berklee graded me a B: “Shows some promise, but kind of a dim bulb.” I gave them a D – “This is it. The place to study for your jazz taxidermy credential.”
Jewish Community Center, San Francisco
Concert Two, Friday, March 4, 2011
There’s a shard of spotlight on my shoulder. A music stand hovers off the sphere of peripheral vision; under it, the shadow of fingers curl like the violin scroll toward which they crawl, spiderish. The fingers belong to a violinist of the Del Sol String Quartet; on both sides of the audience the quartet and the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble are arrayed up the steps toward the back of the hall. In forward vision is percussionist Andrew Schloss, standing behind a computer and percussion-controller on a table. Over these hover his wired drumsticks, sometimes striking the controller yet often just floating, stirring the atoms above it, sending flocks of musical messages to various slave percussives onstage, offstage, and hung from the ceiling above. The composer is David A. Jaffe, protegé of Henry Brant; the percussion-controller builder, German-born, Seattle-based Trimpin, master of MIDI and commander of solenoid soldiers.
The Space Between Us might be called a “cubistic” composition. The subject is suggested by the title, or “what can be communicated and what remains unsaid,” in the composer’s words, as, with sticks held aloft in a gentle but dramatic gesture, percussionist-conductor Schloss signals yet another beginning, another foray into the problem of separation and identity. Somewhat reminiscent of Ives’ The Unanswered Question, each new attempt answers nothing but only brings more questions to the surface, adding facets to the cubist puzzle in the hearer’s mind. Strings quiver in mournful, canonic dirges in one phase; other times they signal impatience in brusque, un-pretty gestures. Later on, massed plucking is attempted, to better match the percussive chatter. Desperate glissandi from the computer-driven piano onstage are gobbled and hurled back by cello and viola, all to no avail. The space remains and separation seems unbridgeable, yet the sonic discussion has pushed the gloom back for at least a few moments of transcendent, clouds-clearing beauty. The conversation is aptly dedicated to Henry Brant, an Other Minds spiritual father.
Next up was I Wayan Balawan, guitarist/composer of Bali. OM 16 marked the first appearance in the West of this gifted young man of Olympic technique and globe-trotting musical mind. He also possesses an awareness of stagecraft and audience engagement, reflected not only in his pleasing hybrid music but also humorous asides which broke the performer-audience barrier, and a precise approach to costuming. Onstage with him were, from left, Balinese compatriots I Nyoman Suwida and I Nyman Suarsana on gamelan instruments. They were clothed in traditional Balinese musician dress: Nehru-ish jackets, beaked fezzes, sari-like sashes and bare feet. Balawan himself kept the hat but otherwise he and the added rhythm section (Scott Amendola and Dylan Johnson on drums and bass) decked themselves casually. Sort of a stylistic continuum, with Balawan as the mid-point.
All the brilliance of Balinese music was in evidence as the trio launched into the first of three numbers (Amendola and Johnson laid out at first), with Balawan leading on double-neck electric guitar and voice, and xylophone doubling and drum accompanying. Balawan has all the chops and effects of any guitar god you can name, and his lightning-fast melodies were as often hammered out on the fretboards with one or both hands as they were plucked traditionally. Another electric guitar stood ready on a stand; both instruments were routed through various samplers and synths and footpedals. The tunes shone the happy sunlit sound of dissonance-free scales and world-pop beats. Balawan opened the final number with a demonstration of the hocketing melody as laid out by the Balinese players on each side of a metallophone; part by part, slowly, then briskly together, then doubling with guitar at warp speed in the tune’s performance, and the audience slurped it up like Singapore noodles. This kid is going places.
Agata Zubel of Poland opened night two’s second set with Parlando, voice + electronics in a rigorous yet easy-to-digest demonstration of vocal/computer self-accompaniment of the non-looping kind. One might have expected more integration of the hairier side of contemporary vocal extension (Diamanda Galas, Phil Minton, Shelley Hirsch), but Zubel’s range of techniques was focused, precise, and mostly omitted noises in favor of dramatic gestures. The sounds and ambiences immediately brought to mind Cathy Berberian (more on her, later), but then an outbreak of avant-beatboxing shocked one back to this century. Then, after just eight minutes, it was over. (Zubel was given more of a presence on Thursday night.)
Friday night’s ultimate act was the duo of Han Bennink (drums, Holland) and Fred Frith (guitar, devices, Oakland, by way of England). About esteemed Dutch drummer, improviser, and provocateur Han Bennink’s stage presence, one’s first impression is of a pair of malformed albino salami – wait, those are his legs? – revealed via Bennink’s now-patented stage getup of beachcomber’s shorts, teeshirt and headband. All that was missing was the metal detector, although had there been one available there’s no doubt Bennink would have beat some music out of it. As it was, everything within the man-child’s reach was fair game. That reach extended beyond the stage at times – backstage, an unguarded piano was hijacked for a short joyride; then he turned his back to us and set his bum on the drum and wailed away on the wooden stool; later, Bennink took to rattling his sticks on the railings flanking the audience, giving a fair approximation of gamelan, no doubt an intentional nod to the Balinese set that came before. And for a long while, Bennink simply sat spread-legged on the floor and ecstatically pounded it with his palms, generating an insistent beat in nearly every performing permutation. He also had a snare drum onstage for a few demonstrations of his peerless brush technique.
Bennink is one of the few improvisers around who can make Fred Frith look like the conservative guy onstage. Frith surely knew what he was in for, and kept his part well under control and always gorgeously musical. He even drew some laughs of his own, strumming the strings of his lap-held guitar with paint brushes. I’ve seen him drop rice grains on his strings a few times before, and this time the stunt made its beautiful, random plinks fit Bennink’s manic-percussive thrash just right, somehow. These two together, who can turn practically any liminal sound-construction into compelling music without ever suggesting a tune or idiom, could lay claim to being the world’s greatest bad buskers.
Concert Three, Saturday, March 5, 2011
The final program of Other Minds 16 had its first half given over to the Dutch composer Louis Andriessen, a big catch for the festival. With Mr. Andriessen, one expects the unexpected, and the ensuing three compositions did not disappoint, in instrumentation, structure, or performance. Monica Germino performed Xenia for voice and violin, informing us that it had something to do with chickens and that Charles Amirkhanian, OM’s Artistic Director, had offered a prize to anyone who could find the reference. As it happened, glissandi and telegraphic triplets were more in evidence. Germino’s work was characterized by grace, understatement and deliberate pacing. For Passeggiata in Tram in America e ritorno, she was joined by Eric Zivian on piano and Cristina Zavalloni, voice. The setting of the mad poet Dino Campana’s words was composed for Zavalloni, and she owned it completely. In fact she rather took over the stage from that point on, the high point following with Letter from Cathy. ‘Cathy’ being Berberian, wife of Andriessen’s teacher Luciano Berio and one of the great new music vocal interpreters of the previous century. A harp, contrabass, and percussion were added for this dynamic and humorous run-through. Andrieesen’s setting followed the light, chatty tone of the letter, emphasizing the idiomatic passages “working like a beaver,” “cut my legs short,” and “Not bad, huh!” – this last declaimed by Zavalloni, her raptor’s eyes staring down the room, daring us to giggle.
Andrieesen clearly has a soft spot for Zavalloni – “the first singer I’ve met since Cathy Berberian who has the same musicality and flexibility,” he says in the program notes – and the two of them cavorted their way through an improvisation for piano and voice that showed Andrieesen’s skill at grafting diverse styles together on the fly. Having experienced such a rare treat – a major composer creating new music in real-time – one forgave the somewhat overextended length of the result.
Kyle Gann’s Time Does Not Exist, for piano, was a straightforward composition of music for which one needed no reference to its programmatic underpinnings to enjoy (it’s about the spiralling, looping journey of psychological therapy). Pianist Sarah Cahill, well-known to Bay Area and OM audiences, gave it a fine, graceful touch and flawless execution. The little pearls of sound that floated from the keyboard were atonal and non-resolving in a Feldmanesque way. That’s fitting, as Feldman’s late music was all about erasing the perception of time. One could have sat, bathed in these exquisite sounds all night. (Gann had more music presented in the Thursday night program.)
The final set of OM 16 brought us to the problem of Jazz, a genre and culture that’s today locked in the incubation ward of its past. Jazz struggles not just with the contortions of an ingrown musical language and assaults on its identity, but the cloud of vernacular speech that surrounds it, packages it, mocks it, and delivers it to Starbucks loudspeakers. Hence, Jason Moran’s Slang. Moran, a certified genius (MacArthur) and composer of studied eclecticism, as well as a fleet and well-versed pianist who refers to Cecil Taylor like candied ginger refers to the blood-stirring bite of the primal root, gave us a study in Jazz culture/practice that drew a line from every book in the canon. Words, words, words, somebody or other once quipped. That’s where Moran’s Slang starts and ends, with the jam-session argot of cool cats. Boldly declaimed (by Alicia Hall Moran) or playfully babbled by children (on tape), we were presented this litany of jive in numerous incantations and incarnations that wove in and out of the sounds from the assembled quintet of piano, guitar, voice, bass, and percussion. Actually, it started with clapping music, as the five players made their way to their stations from backstage, smacking hands in syncopation, while canned instructional recordings of extremely White Male voices provided an ironic frame. Interestingly, another Steve Reich reference came out later on, when the recorded voices were electronically clipped to just their sibilant sounds, building via phasing loops into a freight-train rhythm, thereafter segueing into a drum solo by Nasheet Waits. Subsequently, Moran proved he’s checked out Anthony Braxton, as a multilayered stack of ‘pulse tracks’ clicked into place before Tarus Mateen gave us a lively update on Slam Stewart’s bass/vocal doubling routine. Mary Halvorson (a mainstay of recent Braxton groupings), applied a wobbly effect to her guitar, sounding like an anti-autotune feature, which lent her contributions an endearingly goofy quality. Probably the strongest quality of this music, aside from the high caliber of performance, was its revelry in a complexity-generating multiplicity – of voices, styles, rhythms, textures, and cultural commentary – offering not just a lot to listen to at one time but generating a conversational chorus, as befitting the subject: Many voices pursuing many agendas, providing a raucous update of the old psalm, “Make a joyous noise unto the Lord.”
After sixteen years, the Other Minds Festival occupies a comfortable place in the San Francisco cultural landscape, with expanding programs dedicated to young composers, fostering new works, and, now, travel (a trip to Iceland is planned for next October – see otherminds.org for more info). We congratulate the OM staff and artists for a job well done and look forward to next year’s concerts.
(Signal to Noise, 2011)
He Contains Multitudes
The prolific pianist-composer-improviser Thollem McDonas claws at musical and sociopolitical borders with all 88 fingers.
The sweat — great slithering streams of it — pours down you. It runs down your legs, down the leg that is pedaling the sostenuto pedal, down the other leg. It oozes out all over your chest, flows down the binding around your middle where your full-dress pants soak it up. It flows everywhere, down your arms, down your hands.
You become afraid lest too much perspiration will wet your hands too much, make them slide on the black keys, which are too narrow; you are playing at about a hundred miles a minute. But somehow they don’t. As long as they don’t you know you’re all right. You’re doing good, well oiled like an engine. Not too much sweat, not too little.
Those words, written during World War II, break the ground in George Antheil’s Bad Boy of Music, his steamy self-portrait of a brash, precocious wunderkind pianist who toured the continent after the First World War, learned a thing or two the hard-knocks way, then took on the likes of Stravinsky and his salon circle and beat them at their own game. He would surpass them in controversy, avant-gardism, and sheer decibels. Most memorably, the opening pages describe the life of a modernist performer in muscular, pulpy prose.
I sometimes think of George Antheil when I’m watching Thollem McDonas at work. In fact, my first time, at a festival in Olympia, Washington in June 2003 — more or less his debut in improvised music circles — McDonas took the audience for such an exhilarating ride, leaving us gasping to keep up, the words rang out in my brain: “What precision! What precision!” (Erik Satie’s splutter on witnessing Antheil pound out his Sonata Sauvage). It had been some time since I’d heard piano playing so nonstop intense that wasn’t done by a dude named Cecil Taylor. Thollem’s hands were like ten pounding steam-pistons, his urgent ostinati and wildly careening rouládes ringing out clearly, starkly; brilliant, bursting pearls in the astonished air. He’d pull together improvised song structures of transparency and intelligence in a flash — equal parts Prokofiev and PiL — then dive back into the bass-register maelstrom, trailing a splintered polychromatic wake.
Thollem’s new solo work, Gone Beyond Reason To Find One (Edgetone Records), recorded in Italy and California, takes the taut, swirling trills of de Falla and flaming chords of Scriabin and multiplies them into a supercollider centrifuge of innumerable disasters, a churning black caldera bespattered with beautiful madness. It seems beyond the capacity of one human being to contain so much densely-packed creative energy — putting aside for the moment the perplexing question of how Thollem manages to put out all that donner und blitzen on the keyboard without smashing himself and/or the instrument to bits. Oh — and it’s all improvised. The longest piece on the album, recorded in San Francisco, was originally set to filmmaker Martha Colburn’s short works — a mordant procession of animated collages sometimes recalling Native American ledger drawings, sometimes Sue Coe’s despairing agitprop, often Terry Gilliam’s jittery tableaux. But one doesn’t need the visuals to be completely transported by McDonas’ ecstatic sounds on Gone Beyond… He gets you beyond, with pure sound.
Thollem’s on a roll these days that’s taken him from New and Old Mexico, Detroit and New York, to Western and Eastern Europe. New and old Europe: his press kit touts his duo recording with bassist Stefano Scodanibbio as “the first published recording of Claude Debussy’s only piano he owned the last 14 years of his life.” In addition, he’s on board a couple of punky quartets, The Hand To Man Band with John Dieterich, Tim Barnes, and Mike Watt (Post-Consumer Records, a new imprint), and the other based in Italy, called Tsigoti. He’s recorded duos with Dieterich, Scodanibbio, Arrington de Dionyso, Jacopo Andreini, drummer Rick Rivera, pianist Nicola Guazzaloca, saxist Dado Ricci, and maintains a longstanding performing partnership with saxist/organizer Rent Romus called The Bloom Project. He’s performed in New York and San Francisco on the Colburn project, and will appear in Matthew Barney’s next film. Someday soon, says Thollem, he’ll re-create Victor Borge’s comedy-piano act for Off Broadway, and put together a punk-rock version of The Sound of Music for good measure. And when he’s not beating up concert pianos, he likes to rescue old, battered pianos and nurse tender, wounded tunes out of them.
He says: “I grew up being forced to rigorously study the piano, and when I was thirteen, I woke to the fact that I had skills to express ideas and was very glad my mother had forced me to keep practicing. I studied the full history of keyboard musics from the Renaissance through the 20th century. I underwent the classic training for classical music, which is to have a well-rounded education. So I played in early-music ensembles and Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire and everything in between, plus Antheil, Cowell, Cage, Prokofiev, Crumb and so on. I can easily say I enjoyed playing Scarlatti and Prokofiev the most of all the composers. There’s something about the sound and intellect of the compositions, of course, but also the way they feel to play! I’m very thankful for all the experience I’ve had playing all this incredible music that spanned over 400 years. Ultimately that rich education taught me to make my own music, and now that’s pretty much all I do. My mother, the classical piano teacher and my dad, a barroom pianist — I ended up taking a completely different musical path than either of them.
“When I was twenty-two I dropped out of everything to protest the Persian Gulf War. Up to that point I was composing and improvising and playing solo piano recitals and concertos and string trios and quartets and what have you. I broke completely from everything and lived out of a backpack for three years, mostly protesting and organizing against the war and for eco and animal rights causes. Then I worked for a while doing just ecological rehabilitation and guerilla farming. It was about five years before I came back to playing regularly again. I think it was necessary for me musically and philosophically to make this break from that earlier part of my life. I still regard myself as a political activist, though now I channel this energy primarily through my music. I also believe it’s important, politically, for artists to travel as much as possible for the interchange of ideas on personal/physical levels, and for artists to be involved politically in whatever way makes sense to them.
“I did have one musical project during my activist days, a trio I had called the Hundredth Monkey Generation The Difference Between Everything Anarchist Can-Do Whether Or Not The Cops Will Let Us Bicycle Band. (Our name got longer with more and more experiences). It was David Duret on double bass, John Press on drums, and myself on a keyboard. We refused to play for money — not necessarily something I condone for all musicians — and played demonstrations, riots, benefits, and actions. We were the house band for a three-day walk and action at the Nevada Nuclear test site on Shoshone land in 1991. (My maternal grandmother was Cherokee, from Oklahoma. I identify with this part of my heritage in a personal/artistic way and sometimes through rituals. For years I have participated in the Alcatraz sunrise ceremony held on the morning of Thanksgiving. That experience puts the rest of your day in an interesting perspective!)
“Anyway, back to the Nevada test site protest. It was a walk through the desert from Red Rock outside Vegas where we held a two-day concert. We opened for Richie Havens. Our equipment was carried by a support vehicle and each night on along the walk we were the dinner band. Then we arrived at the site and carried out some actions over the course of a few days. We opened for Henry Rollins at the People’s Park demonstrations/riots in Berkeley, also in 1991, and at Earth First! rendezvous and Rainbow Gatherings. The ‘experimental protest music’ we did was also completely bike portable. That band lasted for about a year and a half, before imploding on its own.”
Extending the noble American tradition of the idealistic drifter on the road, moving from town to town waking people to their better selves, Thollem morphed identities with the changes of locales. “The name ‘Thollem McDonas’ is an anagram of my birth name,” he reveals. “It was created through a game and, well, stuck. I had gone by several different names before that. There are definitely people from different eras of my life that would not recognize me by either this name or my birth name.”
Thollem’s solo music is as yet unfettered by a name or label. It’s a fabulous anomaly, the love-child of traditions that were supposed to oppose one another, Romanticism and Modernism. In him, the competing narratives of musical history mingle and mix to the point where the combined choir doesn’t care what ism, genre or name it fits under. (It resides comfortably outside the jazz continuum.) But coherence is still there. The miracle of this dense, multivalent music is that it isn’t a mess. Perhaps we’ve just arrived at the perfect time for it: without Scriabin, Schoenberg, Antheil, Ives, Young, Crispell, Schlippenbach, Gräwe, or Taylor paving the way, Thollem’s keyboard multitudes might sound like mud.
Higher voices guide him, yet he remains always in control of his resources and emotions no matter how ecstatic the going. “I am thinking technically, but in tiny tiny split seconds which help me get lost [emphasis added]. I love to think about the body and all the things that are happening in the moment to make music, from my brain through my fingertips to air molecules through my eardrums and to my brain again, all practically simultaneously. I am also working to return to this place where I hear people screaming. Not good or bad screaming — it’s kind of a rapturous state. I am also thinking in many other ways, tiny thoughts that are constantly rapidly changing. I’m also trying not to sweat on the keyboard too much, so I have practical things to consider as well. And I’m trying to tap into a universal consciousness, emotional consciousness — often I see colors and shapes, and have physical reactions to the sound. I hear people say: When they are improvising, they are trying not to think. Well, maybe I can think too much about some things, which might get in the way, but I am always thinking when I am playing. And sometimes thinking about thinking.
“When I play solo I love to play really densely, both for the music and the physicality of it. When I am playing in a duo, I enjoy it as conversation — it’s a dance with another person where each is leader and follower. And neither. When I played Debussy’s piano, I felt as though I was in a kind of duo with him. Of course, Stefano was the guy I was listening to! He’s such an incredible bassist, one of the best in the world today.”
On the album On Debussy’s Piano and… (Die Schachtel), Thollem and bassist Stefano Scodanibbio start with a mysterious plucked or bonged sound that could come from either instrument, and this gambit proves to be just one touchpoint during the sixteen duos that unfold. The two instruments dance and intertwine, but just as often keep their identities well separated, creating music that’s multilayered and open to multitudes of interpretation. Thollem shows no fear when it comes to improvising, especially when it may concern chordal development or sounding “idiomatic.” He brings it all off with the conviction of someone who’s highly trained and not afraid to show it, or just as easily leave it all behind. The interplay between the two is marked by intelligence and control — the perfectly sustained trills throughout most of They’re Seen From Other Places, (the comma is part of the title) would make many a piano plunker slackjawed in awe. Scodanibbio refuses any part in conversant ‘gotcha’ improv tropes of imitation, making the duo proliferate in richness and reward. Check out A Pause Before the Rest, where the two start pensively, haltingly with gentle dissonances; toward the middle Scodanibbio plucks some floating harmonics while Thollem paints soft, velvety chords underneath, an ultraviolet river delta diffusing into a Turner sunset.
Thollem describes the unique keyboard on the recording: “Debussy’s piano is housed in the Musée LaBenche in the city of Brive-la-Gaillarde, sharing a room with 19th century furniture and tapestries. It’s still in pretty good shape and has been restored and tuned by Maurice Rousteau, a specialist in ancient keyboard instruments. It’s a Bluethner piano with the Aliquot system, which adds a set of sympathetic strings above the normal strings. This gives the overall sound a shimmering effect appropriate to Debussy’s music. The most interesting metaphysical aspect of course is that it was the only piano owned by Debussy the last fourteen years of his life. He spent a lot of time sitting in front of this piano, improvising on it, composing with it and listening to it. I definitely felt a strong connection to him while playing the instrument, and still get adrenaline rushes when I think about it! Since I left the classical world, the only time I’ve played an old composer’s music was when I played Debussy’s compositions on that piano.
“Concerning the ways I approach music or my instrument, I honestly can’t say I am influenced by anyone in particular. I truly feel I am mostly influenced by the birth canal first and foremost, and death secondly, then everything in between. Of course, there have been so many musicians I have learned from musically, philosophically, and motivationally; I don’t intend to belittle the work of my predecessors or my contemporaries, but as soon as I start to list ‘influences,’ my head generates an endless list and I can never settle on prominence of position.”
On Thollem’s numerous recordings (he’s published at least twenty since 2005) one hears in the pianist an urge to create, and then stay in, hugely resonant spaces. His sound ecosystem is wet, like a rain forest dripping with life and death: shadowed in darkness but nourished by hot sunlight, teeming with crouching predators and bright birds exploding from the trees, their raucous bellows resonating and echoing through hollow canyons and caverns choked with chordal undergrowth. It’s a crowded place. “I make music that I hope stimulates the mind and the body, that’s intellectual and sexy and meditative and ferocious and poetic and athletic and revolutionary and spiritual and political and loving and that will shake people awake, starting with me first,” declares his website manifesto. He elaborates: “I do have a fascination with resonance, and also an envy for instrumentalists who can sustain a sound. I’m going for both, in my own way. I feel that if I can play fast enough it gives the illusion that I am not only sustaining one sound but also manipulating the volume. Then when I really get the piano resonating I hear spikes of sound jumping out and around all over the place. It’s like painting with a really big brush.”
In 2009 McDonas was awarded a USArtists International Award from the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation plus a CAP grant from the American Music Center to put together the Estamos Ensemble, a pan-American phalanx of composer/player/improvisers including Theresa Wong (‘cello, voice), Emilio Tamez (percussion), Marko Novachcoff (winds), Alexander Bruck (viola), Ava Mendoza (guitar), Julián Martínez Vásquez (violin), Vinny Golia (winds), Carmina Escobar (electronics, voice) and McDonas (piano). Extreme sensitivity and a huge range of colors and extended techniques characterize the group dynamic.
Last August, they were in San Francisco for three performances: the first, all improvised; another in collaboration with ROVA Saxophone Quartet; and the third, premiering compositions written for the group by Pauline Oliveros, William Parker, Joan Jeanrenaud, and Nels Cline, Mexican composers Juan Felipe Waller, Ana Lara and Jorge Torres Saenz, with two of the ensemble members contributing pieces as well. The improvised sets took place under the roof of Rent Romus’ SIMM Series, one of the longest-lived Bay Area out-music ventures still running. Estamos took advantage of the dry yet intimate room to construct spidery music invigorated by subtropical breezes. Standouts were Wong’s vocalizations, not unlike Christine Jeffrey in their unearthliness; percussionist Tamez’s extreme texture shifts and hyper-light touch; and Mendoza’s chameleonic blendings, all evaporating in the air. That is, when McDonas wasn’t shocking the room to attention with double-elbow thunderclaps on the keyboard.
Those weren’t much in evidence at the third concert, at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, a modern, wide-open space with a stage large enough to fit all the performers easily (including Golia and his wall of winds, and Kjell Nordeson on vibraphone, supplementing a couple of numbers). Cline’s Dead Angels opened with gentle loveliness — Novachcoff’s clarinet and Golia’s breathy flute buoyed by mallets, guitar and recitation (by Escobar) of the eponymous poem by Rafael Alberti. A tumultuous middle section, driven by McDonas’ cymbal-laden piano, emptied into a mutated rock-band finale carried off nobly by Mendoza’s mournful drones and Santos and Vásquez’ preaching strings. After a few sighs and guitar echoes, the angels, having lived for nine or so minutes, died away again. 180 Points of Light, by William Parker, also featured recitation, Wong joining Escobar: “Stop waving those flags,” they urged over and over, “Blood — blood — blood…” The ensemble added instrumental voices singly, weaving a nine-part backdrop by turns counterpoint, conversation, and firefight. Thollem kept a guiding hand in it, never letting the assembly run off with itself. In this setting, he employed his lightest touch, allowing the most wide-open music in his oeuvre.
Thollem’s not done with this concept yet; or maybe it’s not done with him. “I’ve applied for a Guggenheim to continue work on bringing together musicians from across borders. I’m developing a long series of structured improvisations all based on the social/political dynamics created by the various situations of geo-political borders. These are musical meditations on real-life situations that are constantly affecting the way we perceive and interact with our fellow human beings within and across the borders of the world. It is the goal of this Fronteras Assembled group to participate in the further development of improvisation as a true universal musical language, with this work becoming another offering for musicians to use around the world to share a common experience across their respective borders. Particularly I want to develop over six years a project that will bring together one musical representative from each of the forty-seven countries and territories of The Americas, then go on from there.”
On the other end of the sensitivity spectrum (and on the other side of the Atlantic) stands another of Thollem’s group projects, Tsigoti, an Italian-American hardcore cooperative. “Tsigoti started when I was in Nipozzano, Italy, in the hills above Florence, at an old stone house where Jacopo Andreini and Andrea Caprara live. I recorded my duo with saxophonist Eduardo Ricci there (SONOCONTENTODISTAREQUA, Edgetone) that uses an old, neglected piano in the house. Andrea and I were having breakfast one morning, the last week I was there, and we decided we’d make a punk album. I had a bunch of words about war that I had written in Prague and I used those to make some songs. We literally made the album (The Brutal Reality Of Modern Brutality, Edgetone) from zero to mastering in three days, feeling this was truly in the original punk spirit, not concerning ourselves with polished performances and using what we had available to us already. It was mostly for ourselves, to try a different approach to making music than any of us had done for awhile, and to get out some of our frustrations about war, totalitarian political regimes, and religious extremes.”
The clanging riffs of Tsigoti music propel lyrics that might, in other hands, come off as naïve or earnest. But Thollem’s years on the actual front lines of social consciousness-raising, doing the real work of artists, ward off any whiff of jejuneness. And, there’s too much smart and too much hella fun in this group to be a drag:
“It’s one of those bands where everyone is on instruments they don’t normally play, but not for any esthetic reason — at the start we were just doing what we could with what we had. Andrea (who is mostly a saxophonist and guitarist) played drums because Jacopo, who is a great drummer, was away on tour. Matteo played electric bass (he’s mostly double bass and cello), and I sang all the songs. When Jacopo returned he switched to guitar because Andrea was already playing drums. I also played the broken-down house piano. The next time I returned to Italy for a Tsigoti tour, the group spent a few days making a second album (Private Poverty Speaks To The People Of The Party), released by ESP-disk. We all contribute to Tsigoti music in different ways. It’s a collaborative approach and a band that came about because of the chemistry of the four of us and our friendship and Nipozzano. Now we’ve got a third album, The Imagination Liberation Front Thinks Again [which should be on the street by the time you read this]. We did a six-week tour across the States this past spring of 2010, and we’re gearing up to tour Italy again in April/May 2011.
“Most of the Tsigoti reviews mention the sound or state of the piano, either plus or minus, depending on their take of what the music’s supposed to be. We felt this ‘wild’ piano was perfect because it is distorted in so many ways. Of course it’s way out of tune, but it makes lots of other noises — groans and clicks of all sorts. I really love old rickety beat-up pianos because they are real individuals, with lots of surprises and interesting challenges, and also because I love to witness the decay of this industrial wonder, its slow dissolve back into the elemental earth. It’s too bad more improv/experimental music venues don’t supply pianos, even old beat-up pianos that you could easily find for free anywhere. I would love to do a tour just of crappy pianos, but there just aren’t enough venues that have them. It’s really too bad!
“One of the reasons I like old abused and/or neglected pianos is because they each have a unique wild intonation. I’m very interested in alternate tunings. I’m planning a collaboration in Detroit with Clem Fortuna, an incredibly knowledgeable instrument technician/tuner and a fine musician in his own right. The idea involves spending a few days locked in a room together with three pianos, working the ideas out, then performing on these differently tuned instruments. I’m really excited about this kind of collaboration — with a piano tuner! Also when I’m in Detroit I work with Joel Peterson, a good friend, collaborator and organizer there with Box Deserter Ensemble and Box Deserter Ensemble Trio. The trio did a tour in the spring of 2009 starting and ending in Detroit and taking in midwestern Rust Belt cities. Our third member is saxophonist Skeeter Shelton, the son of Ajaramu (one of the original AACM members).
“When I was in Detroit last fall I had an amazing experience participating in the filming of Matthew Barney’s newest performance-film. I played loooooooooooong strings that were suspended from old defunct ovens for melting steel, 120 feet tall, diagonally to the ground. These were piano strings and cables that I plucked and bowed and struck with my hands and a variety of objects. Simultaneously there was a full choir and an orchestra comprised of traditional Western instruments and invented instruments, and several lead vocalists. This was going on above and around molten iron ore pouring into a mold that was constructed previously to the shoot, all in front of a live audience. The score was written and organized by Jonathan Bepler. A huge cross-disciplinary production!
“Speaking of film, Martha Colburn’s stop-motion animation Triumph Of The Wild, with my soundtrack, was shown in this year’s Sundance Festival, and was awarded the Grand Prize for Short Film at the L’Alternativa-Festival de Cinema Independent in Barcelona last November (2010). Besides my work with Martha, I collaborate with Tuia Cherici who does hand manipulated live film (Manu Cinema)… Some of my first collaborations were in the dance world. I worked with the San Jose Cleveland Ballet many years ago, and as an accompanist at SJSU. I was then commissioned by the José Limón Dance Company for a piece to commemorate their 50th anniversary, and shortly after that started a music and dance company with a former dancer with Limón that did several performances over a year’s time. Germaul Barnes and I have a duo called Bitahkiz Ayeli, which toured Europe in 2008, and Peter Sparling has recently been choreographing pieces to my recordings.”
What’s with all those long, enigmatic titles? “I always write my track and album titles after the music’s made. I make many of the titles of my tracks into poems, if read from top to bottom. It’s a real puzzle to make everything work both in this way and also as a single title. For me — Racingthesun Chasingthesun, Poor Stop Killing Poor, and On Debussy’s Piano And… — the titles themselves are strong works on their own. The titles and song lyrics are interwoven, and refer to each other, throughout all of my recordings. I don’t want to superimpose images or stories through my titles, as most of my music is abstract and non-programmatic. There’s kind of a code I am forming, but I can say no more than that. Maybe someday someone will want to decipher it all! Through my music and the titles I am slowly developing a new mythology of sorts. I think it’s important for each generation — maybe each individual — to create new mythologies that pertain to the times we live in. My mythology is being slowly revealed through each subsequent album.
“I’m particularly proud of the Tsigoti titles. On our first record, tracks 7-11 read from top to bottom:
(Yes) The Border Crossed Us
(We) Would You If You Could?
(Can) Don’t Sleep Through This
(We?) This Is The Days Of Your Life
I May Not Get There With You.
I was working out these titles not long after Obama was inaugurated and, like a lot of folks, was wondering if ‘Yes We Can’ was just another empty political slogan. Right now I’m not sure what ‘We Can’ is, or ever was referring to, anyway. Certainly I’m more confused now than before! … But I like this set a lot even just for the puzzle aspect of it, a lot of different woven words together in these titles. Track 11 is a song that we recorded on each of our three albums, but with different lyrics and arrangements on each album. (It’s a quote from Martin Luther King’s last speech.) The version on this album deals with MLK being assassinated then the statues made of him — and then what? Where do we go from there? Certainly, electing a black president is hugely significant. But it is not the complete accomplishment of ‘the dream’…
“To All Those Who’ve Come Before is the title of a piece from my solo piano album Gone Beyond Reason To Find One (Edgetone). The idea for the track titles came from the performance at Mills, which took place on Dia de los Muertos, 2010. The first track was recorded live while accompanying Colburn’s films at the Outsound Summit in San Francisco. I really feel Martha’s work is for the living, so that made sense to me, and the third track was For All Those Who Are Yet To Come. The titles to the Thollem-Dieterich album were all taken from e-mails Martha had sent to John and me over the years. She brought us together to accompany her films at SF MOMA, and we enjoyed playing together so much that we thought to make an album. So it made sense to weave as much of Martha as we could into the project. She’s one of my favorite artists — such an original vision.
“I think we are surrounded by amazing people in the improv community, and I feel incredibly fortunate! I want to mention just three who’ve made a difference in my life. Arrington de Dionyso and I have become close friends since the Olympia Experimental Music Festival in 2002 and have collaborated on several albums including The Naked Future – Gigantomachia (ESP-disk) and Intuition, Science and Sex (Edgetone) and several on his Pine Cone Alley label. I met Jacopo Andreini through Arrington. I love Jacopo and his music and the way he approaches living — real living! Jacopo introduced me for the first time in Europe via a bunch of concerts he helped arrange in northern Italy. Since then he and I have done a lot of playing together including the bands Tsigoti, Lubuaku, Squarcicatrici, and a duo album which will be coming out sometime in the near future. Because of Arrington and Jacopo, I now travel back and forth between North America and Europe, appearing regularly in Italy, France, Portugal, Ireland, Holland, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Greece, Slovenia, and Sweden. Rent Romus is my hero when it comes to non-stop energy. I must say that there is no one I’ve met who stands up to Rent’s integrity and dedication — in every way. He runs two Bay Area music series, the Outsound New Music Summit, Outsound Presents and Edgetone Records, makes his own music and albums, and is married with a full time day job — holy moly!”
Coming from a guy whose slate is perpetually crammed with activity, that’s lofty praise indeed. But it fits. Thollem’s inner chorus of generosity and humility, virtuosity and chance taking, tradition and transfiguration, is not automatically the stuff of success in the music world. But it spells out a successful life, overbrimming with good people, great art and ideas, and meaning. He refuses to ignore the world’s injustices or forget all those who’ve suffered and struggled before. We should all listen, not just to Thollem, but with Thollem.
(WFMU’s Beware of the Blog, 2010)
On a summer day in 1979, Anthony Braxton walked into a banquet room in the Oehler Mountain Lodge, set up some hot lights and videotape cameras, and launched a big band of music students into motion. Literally. We were supposed to not just play the squiggles on the diagrams before us; we were to move them — to translate the lines into physical gestures. Ducking and weaving and writhing, the horn and string players traced arcs and wiggles in a spaghetti-bowl of musical stew. Drummers jumped and bull fiddlers twirled. While the cameras rolled, he shouted, “Piano players, you too! I’ve seen Keith Jarrett — I know you guys can dance while you play!” When the tapes were filled, he gushed, “I gotta take you guys to Europe with me! This band is the greatest! We’re gonna blow those European cats away! They won’t know what hit ‘em! Call me next Sunday!” How could you not idolize this lovable lunatic?
The band: twenty-three or so young done-with-jazz-as-usual kids, full of the devil and coffee. The room: a former dining hall in a faded Catskill resort. The setting was the Creative Music Studio, a loose, swinging, New Music music school set up by Ornette Coleman, Karl Berger and others, and run by Berger, his wife Ingrid, and some grant-honeyed worker bees. Braxton was leading a weeklong composition workshop under the curation of Roscoe Mitchell, fellow AACM’er to Braxton and, like him, thorny reed master and composer from Chicago. The school was a threadbare, do-it-yourself improvisation of cabins, cats, composers and granola-chomping hippie kids, thrown over a patch of isolated Catskill forest near Woodstock, New York. A sign on the wall read, “Absolutely No Horseplay.” CMS got its mojo from Zen, enthusiasm, sweat, and the occasional slash of messianic ruthlessness (not to mention a felicitous proximity to the center of the universe, New York City). Right then, it was the best place in the world you could possibly be.
The CMS experience depended on when you were there. Many remember it as primarily a “world music” village populated by the likes of Nana Vasconcelos, Trilok Gurtu and Collin Walcott; for me, it was all about the AACM proposition of new creative music that envisioned an far wider horizon of sounds and structures than jazz had theretofore allowed. The Art Ensemble New Years’ Intensives and Mitchell’s Composer’s Intensive in July-August of 1979 put this vision forth. Some grumbled about the lack of structure and protocol, but if you put a lot into it, you got a lot more back. Bob Sweet’s book Music Universe/Music Mind reflects his particular encounters with the ever-evolving CMS ethos. Although it seems far too coincidental, I remember Bob as one of my two roommates at the 1978-9 New Year’s Intensive led by the Art Ensemble of Chicago (the second of two such events). The third inmate of our bunker was Hugh Ragin, from Colorado like me (he was fond of invoking “the Colorado connection.”), but soon to be a musical citizen of the world, through his connection to the AACM bandleaders who taught at Woodstock (also due to his incredible talent and chops). It was a good place to meet such people.
Besides the Art Ensemble and Braxton, others we studied under were Leo Smith, George Lewis, Spencer Barefield, Olu Dara, Oliver Lake, Ursula Oppens and Garrett List. For a day each, Richard Teitelbaum, Fred Frith, Becky Friend, Steve Reich, Ronald Shannon Jackson, and Byard Lancaster stopped in. Throughout the fall semester, Ingrid and Karl would lead daily singing and rhythm classes using a sruti box and hand percussion. Every weekend, there’d be a concert. Students would play under the baton of a workshop leader, or there’d be all-student concerts. Often the workshop leaders would play a set or two. Less frequently, there’d be an all-night party where the beer, wine, ganja, patchouli, and replays of Dancing In Your Head never seemed to end.
Buddhism and vegetarianism guided our young, hairy bodies and spirits. The former was the life philosophy of Karl and Ingrid, and was transmitted subtly, through ways of being rather than meditation or sutra chanting. The classes they led were usually outdoors on the grass, and possessed of a gentle yet insistent push into deeper levels of not just music-making but life-living. Every day at 5 p.m., there was an hour of no music — neither playing nor listening. Although it was a drag if you were really into something when the daily quiet time came around, the peace routine probably kept some of us from murdering each other. The vegetarianism was enforced by staff cook Ted Orr, who decided unilaterally one day that he was done with the American Flesh-Industrial Complex; there didn’t seem to be much organized resistance to the new regime, so the rest of the fall 1979 session was cruelty-free. Ted was my roommate that season. We shared one of the cabins on the hill above the main building. Some of the other cabins served as practice rooms. There were assorted dogs and cats bunking in some of these rooms, breeding bristling clouds of fleas that swarmed your legs while you were trying to run down a chart. The antidote was to run screaming down the hill and jump in the pool.
There was one room inhabited by a hermit student who never emerged but once in the time I was there. Evidently his family had the money to keep him up, and the school was reluctant to divest of the precious funds his invisible presence provided. Hermit didn’t attend classes, practice, or bathe. He took his meals in his room. The one day he came out, I met him sitting on a picnic bench chatting with a couple other students, his raggy pants completely ripped out at the crotch so that his balls were resting comfortably on the wooden planks. He was bearded and smelly, but seemed intelligently sociable, talking quietly but easily of this and that, just as if he were a full member of the human community. He must’ve seen his shadow, though, for Hermit went back into his hole and we never saw him again. I heard later that, after Hermit was finally evicted, his warren was pretty much permanently uninhabitable – knee-deep in trash, and featuring a mysterious giant lump on one side of the bed, a kind of Burroughsian domicilic canker sore swimming with a pus of discarded pizza crusts, moldy baked beans, candy wrappers, grimy chips, lint, hair, and unsavory matter of excretory origin.
CMS was a setup that’s impossible to conceive of now — a precarious, government-entitlement non-academic playpen of kids and outside musicians that even managed to hand out college credits, too. It came to an end practically overnight with the (s)election of Ronald Reagan and his intrepid politburo of free-marketeers, who yanked the CETA grants that funded a lot of CMS activity. To a self-involved twenty-two-year-old music nerd from the Rockies, the political underpinnings were invisible until the accompli had been fait. Tom Cora made an entrance into the scullery one day and announced dramatically, “It’s all over.” Actually, it wasn’t — CMS kept going in other manifestations and venues, but the Oehler’s Mountain Lodge glory days were numbered. Yours truly had already moved on, to the dubiously greener plateaus of freelance copying for the aforementioned Mr. Braxton. In doing so, I joined a long, motley queue of Catskill copyists and functionaries who supported the galactic imaginings of that singular American metamusician.
During Braxton’s week at the intensive, the CMS student band swooped and squiggled and squawked and stomped. Braxton was engaging and accommodating, but demanding too. When most of the band couldn’t sight-read Composition 40 (Q) — his zigzaggy atonal march studded with major sevenths and ninths — he let us know that wasn’t what he expected of students “at this level.” Improvisation was of course heavily emphasized; listening even more so. One reading of his student-study chart (a big cardboard diagram with colored notes hanging off sometimes imaginary staves, connected with dashed lines and other notatey paraphernalia) started very quietly, and he motioned in an alto clarinetist for a solo, who maintained this peaceable mood. Next he cued in a trombonist, a big, puffing fullback who proceeded to lay waste to the soundscape with a jazzy blat-fest. “Hold it, hold it, hold it,” waved Braxton, stopping the music. He thought for a moment, then started, “Now, I’m gonna say this, and I don’t mean a word of it…We had a nice thing going there.” He pointed to the ‘bone dude. “But you came in,” making a Mussolini fist here, “and it was like, RRRRRGGGHH!!!”
Dan Plonsey was part of the CMS student sax section that summer of ‘79 (Mars Williams and Fred Hess were in there, too.). Plonsey recalls, “Braxton had us reading his graphic scores, the ones that are just a rising and falling line, like the stock market. He first had us use the graph to indicate pitch, then perhaps volume, and then he had us gradually turn from left to right, leaning forward and back, along with the graph. He was so pleased with this effect that he went running to get Roscoe [Mitchell] to see it. Roscoe came in, and I remember him watching us with arms folded, utterly impassive.”
Roscoe’s method was two-pronged. Every other day, the orchestra would work through the score of his four-‘cello version of Nonaah, as parts were assigned and read through. Alternate days were given over to free improvisation. Those sessions were the best training I ever received in a week’s time. He’d sit at a little red table with naught but a stopwatch, cueing the orchestra in and out — nothing more. The hand would go up, then down. We’d launch, a room full of late-teens and early-twenties hotshots all out to prove just how hot our licks were. The hand would go right down again. There was a stillness, a Terminator-like sense of purpose around the man, that made us shut up instantly. Roscoe would patiently explain that You don’t all have to start playing when the sound space is opened. Listen first. And if you don’t have anything to add to what’s happening, Lay out.
It took a couple of days for these very simple lessons to sink in. When something good happened, he’d ask afterward why a student made a particular sound or phrase. Having to justify your musical sense, on the spot, was incredibly challenging, like making sense out of a dream, but the resulting self-examination stayed with you a long time. That skill of dispassionate evaluation of your music and your mind is essential to being a composer. Another Roscoe lesson comes from Dan Plonsey: “Roscoe told us to wake up early, like 6 a.m., and practice. When someone suggested that it might bother his roommate, Roscoe said, ‘If you practice RIGHT, it won’t bother ANYONE!’”
Mitchell was fearsome in his discipline and concentration. He brooked no nonsense or flakiness. If you were late to his class, you could expect a proper dressing-down. But it wasn’t about respecting him as a teacher — for Roscoe, it was about respecting your fellow musicians. The community was what mattered. (Memory is selective. Plonsey remembers “Roscoe teaching us, and out of the corner of his eye sees someone smoking a joint out the doorway, excuses himself for a moment, then returns.”)
When the Braxton-led week was over I asked Anthony if he’d be interested in having his bedraggled workshop diagram/scores re-made, by not only someone who pretended to understand his music but also could fake it as a graphic artist. He expressed some interest while shunting my question’s answer over to a different job he needed doing, a copyist slot on his “new symphony.” I said that sounded cool, too.
It was a guy from Alaska named Chris who played fucked-up punk drums and spoke in ellipses who got me directly into the Braxton-copyist pool (this would be September, a few weeks after my proposition to Braxton). Chris drove us to an old house in the woods where we had a meeting with Ralph Carney and Mars Williams, the capos of the operation. There was nothing in terms of vetting or auditions — we were handed some green lead sheets and an interval chart and set right to work at drawing tables out in the barn. And that was pretty much the end of my student days at CMS.
The barn was fully repurposed as a studio, with bright white walls inside and indispensable space heaters and an even more indispensable stereo system. We’d start at around 11 a.m. and go straight through until dinnertime. Dinner was usually out somewhere in the Woodstock/Mount Tremper area. Then we’d come back and hit it again until 3 in the morning. Upstairs in the Carney compound were spare bedrooms where we’d crash under a mound of blankets. Heading up into November, the cold would hammer its way into your bones and lodge there like ice picks. The 150-year-old walls had long ago given up trying to stop it. Fueling our campaign were cups of hot Morning Thunder tea, which bragged “57% more caffeine than a cup of coffee.” While we copied, a typical day’s jukebox selection offered Stockhausen’s Aus Den Sieben Tagen LPs, Company 3 and 4, a small constellation of Sun Ra albums, Captain Beefheart’s Shiny Beast, the hipper ECM offerings of the day such as DeJohnette’s Directions or Dave Holland’s Conference of the Birds, Miles Davis’ Agharta and Pangaea, Braxton (of course), Reich and Glass, and — a frequent spin — Eno’s No New York album, introducing DNA, Mars, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, and James Chance and the Contortions. (This document helped chart the immediate direction toward which a lot of the CMS students were heading in their own music: so-called “punk jazz.”)
Chris was wont to break into muttering song. His favorite was “Whoever you are, you pushed me too far, now I’m gonna break your face,” by Dan Hicks. (Yes, I know, it’s misquoted; that’s how Chris crooned it.) He was a quiet guy who kept his thoughts to himself and was experimenting with taping up his drums and cymbals to mute the sounds. It helped keep his ramshackle kit from falling down, too. I liked him a lot. Mars was short, scrappy and crazily intense; he dropped the c-word liberally whenever the subject of women came up, a bitter topic he initiated often. Mars would sometimes place one of Braxton’s leads on a stand and sight-read it, ripping the lines off his soprano sax like they were rudiments he’d played since he was a toddler. This was godlike behavior to me. Ralph wasn’t around that much. Maybe he was off touring with Tin Huey. But he did let me blow on his bass saxophone one time.
We were taking over for a washout crew, and much of the time our work was proofing and correcting mistakes. Nickie Braxton bought us a whole boxful of graphic artist’s tools, including a righteous electric eraser that would eat through a sheet of manuscript before you knew what the fuck. Anthony would have us over to his house once a week or so to check our progress, unless he was on the road. He and his family lived in a rustic A-frame in the woods with a sad AMC Pacer parked out front and a pile of forest wood stacked by a wall. His living room was couches and a playpen (Tyondai’s — his dad had placed an old alto in there for him to play with, sans mouthpiece), a wall of records, and the TV. If we were there on a Sunday, that meant football, and football meant halftime marching bands. He’d channel-surf from one to the next and jump with excitement when he landed on a good show. He’d coo and dandle his boy, Nickie would set out some fresh brownies — a regular Ozzie and Harriet scene. Except, not.
In those days Braxton inhabited a weird, ambivalent mass-media bubble. He may not have foreseen all the repercussions of his 1974 Arista signing, but when they landed on him, he didn’t waste time fussing over fickle fame. “Two Free Spirits” was the title of the sidebar in a big Newsweek splash on the resurgence of jazz from August 1977 (his fellow ‘free spirit’ was Keith Jarrett). By 1978, he’d landed an album in the People Picks review section of People Magazine (believe it or not, there was such a time when an American pop culture magazine covered actual culture.). Then when he kept going his own way and diverged from the finger-snapping tunes, of course the inevitable protests erupted from jazz fans. When I mentioned to Braxton that I thought For Trio one of his best records, he started faux-whining that it had been thrown into People Pans, that “they don’t love me over at People anymore! Does that mean I’m not a People Pick?”
The telephone rang often, so Braxton screened calls using the answering machine. If it was somebody Braxton wanted to talk to, he’d take it in the bedroom and we’d wait a long time. If it was somebody he didn’t want to talk to, the voice on the speaker was ignored while we went on with our business. Once Anthony picked it up in the middle of a message and started in to shouting (to an Italian promoter who’s name I’ve forgotten, so I’ll just call him…), “Landrini! Landrini! I hear you, baby, I hear you! Don’t worry; we’ll work it all out! I’ll be with you soon! I love you, Landrini!” etc. — and then hung up without letting Landrini or whoever it was get a word in. After a beat, he burst out laughing maniacally.
We’d pick up the new lead sheets and let him admire our work. We were dedicated, and proud to have the pages looking neat and professional. One day, Braxton brought out his newly purchased score to Stockhausen’s Trans for us to goggle over. It reportedly cost several hundred dollars – no surprise – for within its glossy, rose-tinted covers were a couple hundred pages of meticulously diagrammed and printed musical instruction, with every possible parameter mapped out, down to orchestral lighting and seating. The piece incorporated long intervals of slow, steady bowing from the string players, and a great deal of instruction was devoted to maintaining the proper bow angle, tone and volume, as well as some pointers on avoiding fatigue. We were allowed to keep this Rosetta Stone for a while to keep inspiration high. Only later, upon hearing both works, did I realize how much the notes and structure of Trans had guided Braxton’s Composition 96.
Braxton’s Composition 96 for Orchestra and Slide Projectors breaks up a large standard European orchestra into sections that move en masse. The lead sheets gave us copyists the top line of each section — say, woodwinds, in which case the highest-scored instrument was first flute — and all the other instruments stack underneath the flute notes in a giant, 11-voice chord spaced in diatonic seconds and thirds. The melodic lines are typical asymmetrical, jumping Braxtonian gestures, so — if you haven’t heard the piece — imagine the sound a rainbow-colored wall would make, meandering over a jagged, sometimes rolling, sometimes broken landscape, every band of color remaining in perfect harmonic step with the others. Then picture in your ear three of these rainbows (woodwinds, brass, strings) carrying on at the same time, over different landscapes, with bits of vegetation dotting the territory (harp, piano, and percussion parts). A similar kind of massed orchestration is a central characteristic of Trans.
That’s the ideal, anyway — the one recording of #96 we have is another experience than what’s laid out in the score. The unison lines are not rendered in anything close to perfect unison, they’re more like flocks of birds all more or less moving in something like the same direction at nearly the same time. It’s quasi-dodecaphonic mob behavior, the wisdom of the crowd, cloud computing, fuzzy logic. Where Trans is interrupted by the recorded sound of a loom shuttle whooshing back and forth, #96 gives respite from the swarms of notes in long passages of softly murmuring long tones.
Nearing the end of November, I recall there were only three of us left — Mars, Chris, and I. Seems Braxton had exhausted the student-copyist resources in the greater Woodstock-Kingston area with Composition #82 (For Four Orchestras). Nobody wanted to repeat that epic experience, the torment of which I could only glean from dark looks and shudders. The veterans — the quitters, I thought — would look down on us with silent sympathy. My feelings were not so kind, as I knew it was these people’s goofs I was now erasing and re-copying, all the while hoping the pages wouldn’t disintegrate. Composition #96 was commissioned by the Danish Radio Orchestra, but they never played it. Braxton was so late turning it in that it was refused. “Candy-asses,” said Braxton. “They just can’t cut the parts.” (It wasn’t performed until 1981.) And it wasn’t until two months later, unemployed and unfed and unheated in the snowy Colorado winter, that I got paid my last installment for the copying work. I had called once or twice in the intervening time, trepidatious that I was intruding upon the Master. And it was hard to reach him. Nickie told me that Anthony hadn’t been paid for an entire European tour he just completed, so the copyists couldn’t be paid. The payoff came only after I told of my desperate circs, and Braxton himself took the phone, crying, “Why didn’t you tell me before? Oh man, if I had only known! Tom, I’m so sorry! I’ll cut you a check today!” And so forth. For a second, I thought my name was Landrini.
I never could get Braxton out of my system. Although Roscoe Mitchell was my favorite teacher at CMS, and Karl and Ingrid were more openhearted, and Richard Teitelbaum led one unforgettable, life-changing workshop during an afternoon cloudburst, there was nothing to match the joyously crazed excitement Braxton could summon. The CMS student orchestra was convinced we would be part of his next trip to Europe. “Call me next Sunday,” he said. “You cats are baad!” Sunday came around; we called, and were informed that Anthony was out of the country. He was touring.
I didn’t hold a grudge nor was I surprised. Braxton wasn’t being insincere, he’d just… moved on. (I don’t think he even knows when he’s being insincere.) More power to him. Anybody who can get people excited about doing art is on the right track. Doesn’t matter a heluvalot if sometimes the promises are empty and the organization is hand-to-mouth and the results don’t reach as high as the vision (“Composition For Ten Galaxies.”). As long as the work gets done and is put out there — that’s what matters.
Many years later I was part of the ecstatic audience witnessing the feet-off-the-ground performance the Braxton Quartet gave in Santa Cruz (released in 1997 on Hat Art). My mates and I went backstage after to hang out, and I was in such a transported state I gave Braxton a brand-new Odwalla C Monster sweatshirt. “I just want you to have this,” I blubbered. He was as sweet as you please in accepting it — a man supremely aware of irony, who rarely resorts to it.
The damned thing about Braxton is that he’s still able to get people to do his interplanetary schlepping for him. More power to him. Quite possibly the world would be a better place with more Anthony Braxtons, ordering up impossible, heroic (but ultimately meaningless) tasks, duly agonized over by legions of obedient acolytes. In this role he brings forward the imperatives of not just some obvious musical models (Stockhausen, Sun Ra, Ellington) but of a time-tested mode of art making: apprenticeship. Or perhaps such a system might devolve back into the kind of stateless medieval fiefdom under which artisan’s guilds and apprenticeship thrived. Braxtonville. Oliverosia. Reichenland. Zornobia. Each inhabiting its own little circle, competing for money and prestige and peasant workers. Well, hell… something like that could never happen!
Unless it already has.
(The Wire, 2010)
Anthony Braxton: Trance-ing In His Head
Anthony Braxton’s music has always shown a fixation on transcendence, carried forward from the Coltrane/Ayler ecstatic jazz model, with some borrowing from Ives, Cage and Stockhausen as well. The Ghost Trance Music (GTM) is a result of trance or trance-like processes under which the music is composed, and which the scores and instructions seek to bring out in the players. Braxton has said he tries to write the GTM scores in a trance state, letting the dots flow freely from his pen, allowing his personal melodic language to emerge in a “stream of consciousness.” His models include African, Native American, and Indonesian rituals. Braxton hears in these long-form musics a way out of temporally limiting European structures: “Identity is maintained not from a baroque motivic use of formal ingredients but rather from extended time-space logic strategies.”
Braxton’s use of the term baroque is characteristically idiomatic, multi-referencing, and mysterious, touching on the pejorative use of “baroque,” or bizarre and/or grotesquely ornamented (the original meaning of baroque is: something that’s made out of scrips and scraps of other things); furthermore, “Baroque” as it describes European music of the 1600 – 1750 era; and (one infers) the Western canon that descends from that era—since the vast majority of it is, indeed, obsessed with the “motivic use of formal ingredients.” In that particular context, Braxton doesn’t actually define that phrase, leaving interpretation open—much like the approach he takes to his scores. (Most of the entries in his personal neolexicon appear in shifting contexts, partly due to his fondness for, on the one hand, multi-contextualizing, and on the other hand, leaving open the possibility for mystery. It hands the serious student of Braxton a serious problem — deep understanding of Braxton’s language-world seems impossible without some surrender to a dialectical trance or mystical state wherein his idiomatic phraseology and border-crossing contexts become, for the perceiver, intuitively grasped and accepted, rather than rigorously analyzed and consistently applied throughout the composer’s writings. In any given phrase, it’s not often possible to empirically determine, from context and prior use, how exactly Braxton means a term like “logics” to be taken. He’s a man who never wants to be pinned down; he never wants to hear the words “In the final analysis…” There’s always some new plateau to reach, by another transcen-dance. Trance ‘n’ dance?)
As Ronald Radano observes, Braxton’s entire oeuvre is a “cultural critique.” For Braxton, the inevitable outcome of commercialization is the death of traditional communally-created culture, removing the audient from the shared music-making place and replacing that space with the cold, binary exchanges of the marketplace. His quest is to find his own way out of the suffocating forces of Westernization, into a pan-global futurist culture. By his lifelong pursuit of a community-based, community-expressing musical world, Braxton shows us another way, Ancient to the Future.
In the matter of influences, AB has done a very good job of separating himself out of any streams or canons, essentially standing alone on his island of Tri-Axium. It’s not such an easy matter to zero in on the composer-maps and say, “Aha, this is where Braxton got his multi-orchestra idea,” and so forth. Due to his multi-valent language and neologisms (cf. “axium”: “Trillium,” “Tri-Centric,” etc), he’s also displaced his writing outside the dominant Euro-centric streams. Linearity is to be avoided. Braxton himself says he’s inviting the reader to define things for themselves as they go along (a good definition of improvisation, by the way, and quite like the process by which musicians are brought in to play in Braxton’s GTM band). “I am saying, ‘this is my viewpoint in this context and these are my terms, but what do you think?…”[Lock, Blutopia, p. 169-70] Well, what I think sometimes, is I’m in the thrall of an elegant, intelligent conjure-man. Sleight-of-hand is a big component to many a great musician. Nothin’ up m’ sleeve, Presto allegretto!
Braxton invites dialogue, but it’s still on his terms, which is to say, terms whose meanings are context-specific, and the contexts themselves are always crossing borders or jumping levels, from discourse to debate to diatribe to discussion to a kind of street-smart glossolalia.
The first generation of GTM pieces, from the mid-nineties, follow a rigid, metronomic meter, much bemoaned by some critics and listeners for its unrelenting march of pitches. The Six Compositions (GTM) 2001 on Rastascan (with many of the same players as appeared at the Victoria Theatre concert) features the ninety-two minute Composition No. 286 (plus numerous inserted pieces from Braxton’s catalogue). This performance seems to get closer to Braxton’s intentions of an extended form where the perspective is ever-dancing, layers are piled upon layers, and surprise elements may enter at any time—in short, a music where anything is possible, and, within the spiritual parameters of the ad-hoc community that’s assembled to conjure up the music, a place where virtually anything is allowed. It may be an intended irony on the composer’s part that the results are ofttimes very much a baroquollage. But is Braxton really interested in fixed results, such as recordings, other than their documentary function? Where the spirit enters, is in live performance.
Since the 2001 recordings, Braxton’s interpretive model has loosened up hugely, incorporating everything and everybody at any time. The dodecatet performance at the Victoria Theatre, documented on the Rastascan DVD Nine Compositions 2003 shows Braxton’s universalist, inclusive side as it marches in step, splits into noise fragments, veers off into silliness or stunning brilliance or soloist sideshows, re-groups, tiptoes, stompes, blares—in short, does just about everything music can do in the space of two hours. It’s a musical Finnegans Wake; it’s twelve ColtraneAylers onstage; it’s a lost symphony by Ives, reconstructed by Ferneyhough; it’s Zappa, upside-down, on horns, sans attitude; it’s Bali mixed with Arapahoe stirred with Yoruba. And whatever it was just a minute ago, you can bet it’s since moved on to something else.
Because Braxton sets such high standards, it’s reasonable to judge his music against his stated goals. Does GTM bring about a trance state in the listener? Is the listener fully included in Braxton’s world? Does the music go the distance to invite the audience to participate in as full and multi-contextual a manner as the musicians are given?
Braxton wants his music to be Everyperson’s, expressing universal truths from the wellspring of his humanity, but, despite the man’s overflowing personal warmth and charm, the actual notes that flow from his pen doesn’t escape the gravitational pull of his own intensely inward-looking, eccentric orbit. At the same time, his vision is of universal expansion and an idiosyncratic conception of the beyond, not so much rooted in the here-and-now. His melodic sense, stubbornly atonal and indexed to infinity with its myriad “language-music” classifications etc., makes sense to only Anthony Braxton. Despite his gestures of inclusion, once you’re in his orbit, you have to give over more than you get back. Granted, he’s a much more lovable megalomaniac than Karlheinz Stockhausen (he of the Sirius star-system—or is it The Serious Star System?). Neither does Braxton have gathered about him the kind of blood-bound tribe that insulated Sun Ra from planet Earth’s foibles and follies. He’s not scary-evangelical like Albert Ayler, nor ruled by a self-immolating liver like Coltrane. (Thank the stars for that—Braxton’s already outlasted Coltrane’s lifespan by a quarter-century. His compositions number, at this writing, in the mid-300s.)
He’s tried to connect. The narratives that thread through the Trillium opera cycle are often graced with wonderfully humane touches and scenarios taken right off the street (see Lock’s helpful descriptions in Blutopia, for some examples). But, like an underground railroad, the lines of flight these stories trace are furtive, zigzaggy, and often masked by Braxton’s perverse perspective shifts. Do they ever “arrive” anywhere? Does anything ever come to ground? Most often, Braxton’s vanishing-point is aimed at some other galaxy. Resolution is abhorrent to Mr. Braxton. Once the territory is discovered, he’s happy just to inhabit it. Forget quests, plotlines or endings. If there’s anything he doesn’t want, it’s to be put in perspective (especially by critics). Like his music, the man inhabits a mental landscape that’s peppered with innumerable vanishing-points that intersect, cross, and multiply each other: a 3-D chessboard (Braxton, in his twenties and scraping by in New York, used to hustle at chess for room & board). Braxton basically has decided that present-world living is for the birds: He’s going to posit himself in his own futurist artistic dream-time.
This is not to say Braxton’s music is not worth the listener’s effort. His vision is generous, inclusive, and profoundly optimistic. It’s also geeky and wacked. In person, he’s warm, funny, and boundlessly enthusiastic, inspiring all but the crankiest within his glow. You feel anything’s possible in Braxton’s presence, and some of the loonier tangents of his personal cosmogony are forgiven and forgotten (you can’t understand them in conversation, anyway, and if you stop to untangle something, he’s already moved on). But the notes he puts on the ledger lines, and the words he strings together, are inescapably personal and idiomatic, to put it mildly. At a Braxton show, one stays firmly—and pleasantly—in Braxton-land. Perhaps AB can crank this stuff out in a trance state, but neither the music nor composition notes deliver the same effect to the audience. (There was one confused fellow at the Victoria Theatre show who kept clapping, fitfully, anytime the star of the show played a few notes, but I believe the man transcended via the vessel of fluid intoxicants.) Of course, if Braxton transcended himself and stopped sounding like Braxton, it wouldn’t be Braxton, and what fun would that be? So in a sense the problem for AB is similar to that of his musicians: how to transcend, and still remain integral? Is it merely a question of definitions? What about Miles Davis or Ornette Coleman or Stockhausen, who crossed numerous stylistic (and social) boundaries in their career trajectories, yet always sounded like themselves?
Some thirty years after Anthony Braxton started to show up in America’s media landscape, his music has evolved in ways not entirely unpredictable. A comparative retrospective might suggest that where he’s got to today—in terms of sonic results—is not remarkably different than what’s to be found on Three Compositions of New Jazz, his debut recording from 1968, or For Trio, from 1979, or Quartet (Santa Cruz) 1993. In pure musical-performance terms, he’s taught himself how to teach other musicians ways to inhabit his world while remaining themselves—to be sure, not a simple task, and one that takes time. The Crispell-Hemingway-Dresser quartet, one of the landmark small groups of the twentieth century, took eight or so years to deliver the ecstatic performance on the Santa Cruz recording (I was present, and I can say without hesitation that it swept the entire audience away: that was transcendental music).
TWENTY YEARS TO LIFE ON THE ROAD
Being the diary of a short music tour around the East Coast in September 2002; containing also various and sundry reflections on music, culture, evolution, psychology, gastronomy, and architecture; starring Jack Wright and the author.
9.2.02 BROOKLYN, NY
Eight hours ago I was in Oakland, on the other edge of the continent. Now it’s 12:30 am local time. Tired but not tired. I’m feeling very strange, and it’s not jetlag. Where the hell am I? And “bed” is too civilized, too uncomplicated a word for this shifting strata of bed-like and non-bed things I’m lying on. I shouldn’t think about it too much. I’m listening to the city. Just heard a stove-top sparker clicking in the airshaft. At the same time, some booming pump ‘n’ bass started up. They’ve since turned it down. A beeping timer, Jamaican-inflected voices, a man and a woman. Strange smells and sticky humidity, the first really damp air I’ve felt in maybe ten years. This apartment smells like pee. Human pee, partially masking cat pee; maybe the building itself pees, too. And it looks like a disaster. The cats are tidier than the people. Young-artist-in-the-city detritus piled everywhere: stained pizza boxes, curling phone bills, a sad sock here, tangled briefs there, bits of food — but mostly, books. I can see Nietzsche, Bataille, Debord, Dorothy Parker: a casual cross-section of post-college liberal-humanist thought. Oh, and CDs, the home-burnt kind. Seems like Jack always snags the crash-pads that tell of lives scrabbling and chaotic.
Exotic metropolis zooms in. All the details at the very close-in ranges are strange, yet identifiable. Zoom out a level and the puzzle pieces fit together into something you recognize: a neighborhood with all the social features of home, but without the comfort or ease. Things are not where they should be. The smells are wrong. You hear birdsongs, but they’re unfamiliar. You know they’re birds, but they’re not the right kind of birds. They might be…bad birds. You feel no deep comfort, no safe place to retreat and relax. You don’t have your corner, your favorite block, your café, that certain house you like to check while you walk by to see if the cat is watching you from the window. Zoom out further and you’re just in a city like all the others; as with airports, modern cities have become, efficient, interchangeable, and franchised. What’s the difference, anyway, between Berkeley or Brooklyn or Brussels or Bangkok?
The weather is cooperating; it’s very pleasant here in Flatbush. We’re just a block from Flatbush Avenue, but the neighborhood is actually called something else; I can’t remember. Going out for breakfast, I passed over a subway grate with a train whooshing through somewhere deep below. That smell brought back years and years; summers in New York and Boston. I first visited New York when I was ten. That NY subway-grime smell is unmistakable, sooty and grey, with just a hint of mint. You can almost get nostalgic over it. The Greek-owned café seems exotic, with its polyglot clientele — Haitians, Phillipinos, Greeks and blacks and this here white boy. First real vacation since — uh, 1993? I feel OK with the tourist bit. God damn, I’m excited.
After breakfast, Jack rounded up the troops and we headed over to Mike Pride’s place nearby, I think on 5th Avenue. A smallish, very white apartment, all new paint and appliances, and, again, stuff all over the floor; indeed, on every flat surface. (Mike said he and his girlfriend had just moved in.) Their place sits atop a pizza parlor with the crazy, busy street pouring in through the windows. Mike’s a drummer and his kit took up the entire “dining room.” He has lots of toys and little things in his arsenal, too, but his sound is anything but little. Jack sat in the kitchen and set up his recording equipment. I warmed up in the bathroom, the door of which was right by the front door which was right next to the playing room which adjoined the “kitchen.” You could tour the whole place with a spin on your heel. A black cat skittered by as we were setting up. Then the bassist, a young kid whose name — Nat — I just remembered, brought his bass in, and we re-staged the stateroom scene from A Night at the Opera. No hardboiled eggs; after introductions and tuning and mic-checking, we launched the ship Too Loud For Comfort and held on for dear life as it pitched and rocked, huffed and puffed and blew our eardrums in. During the break we amused ourselves with getting the cat to chase its tail. The pizza fumes settled thickly. We drank gallons of cool water and re-opened all the windows.
Jack and I made good our escape from the city by 3pm and got to Kingston with lots of time to spare, and spent altogether too much money on dinner in a nearby “café,” the kind with $9 salads and $22 pasta plates. So much for the budget and “breaking even!” But it was a beautiful late-summer evening, down by the water in the Rondout part of town. Smoldering humidity, young women in tank tops, narrow, worn-down sidewalks, brick buildings with those tall, skinny windows, too many antique shops laying on the fake charm, and bridges flying high overhead.
I’ve been spaced out all night, after playing at the Deep Listening Space, 75 Broadway in old-town Kingston. A nice gallery type, whitewalled, highceilinged room in an old brick building that the Pauline Oliveros Foundation now owns. Biggest surprise of the evening: Pauline showed up. I was thrown off-balance and got quite nervous. Jack said, “Why shouldn’t you be nervous?” He said he was feeling it, too.
Scott Smallwood and his partner, Stephan Moore, played a short, respectable (and respectful) set, slowly evolving and gentle on the ear, using PowerBook electronics and an amplified steel drum. Shiniest damn steel pan I ever saw. Looked good next to that Titanium laptop. The music was shimmering, too, relaxing me… I actually began to doze off a bit. But suddenly the piece ended, after only twelve minutes. And they stood up, set over: We’d like to welcome Jack Wright and Tom Djll to the stand.
Two very intense, highly detailed duos followed in short order. The first had a long arc, slowly, quietly building, then subsiding. I don’t remember too much after that, nor do I recall the second piece. (After the show, Jack was sure that they were “the best we’d ever done.”) Jack soloed on tenor, standing up with his foot on his chair, using his battery of techniques in discursive style—declaiming at the audience in clicks, pops and sputters—but with more precision and focussed restraint than I’d ever heard him muster. Then I played a solo, basing the thing on an idea I remembered from the morning. Nothing fancy, just working with Ab – Bb and tuning/detuning at the softest volume levels, listening to the room and its lively sonic artifacts dancing about in the air. I took out the Harmon mute, signaling the new ‘section,’ and started slurring way down low. Then eventually added voice to it, making huge beating tones, and worked myself into a frenzy. I stopped, we played a notey kind of piece, and that was it. Jack’s taping system failed, and DL’s engineer only grabbed one channel, with added 60kHz buzz. Damn, no nice audio artifact, the ‘reward’ I always like to get for musical efforts.
After the show, Pauline showed us around the new recording studio, then the back end of the building, looking like an ancient carriage-house, with that dusty, dry pigeonshit reek. We were led up and down levels and in and out labyrinthine stairways, doors, and passageways. PO hung out and talked with Jack and me for an hour on the sidewalk in the cool, rich night air, as the cicadas and crickets sang. She assured us that she loved the music, it was beautiful and a forthright offering. It’s not that I think she’s an Evolved Master and therefore her opinion is supremely important to me (and her approval); no, it’s just that she’s seventy years old and has heard everything and if she can still get enjoyment out of what we do, then, fantastic, we’re on the right track.
During a walk around old Kingston, I could almost hear Ives’ music as the soundtrack to my ramble past brick and ivy and over intermittent blue slate sidewalks. Somebody’s snatching the slate: flyers on telephone poles alert residents to the “Blue stone thief.” But, up by the old bridge, in the narrow, segmented backstreets, the dark underbelly of poverty shows through the cracks: overgrown houses, boarded-up windows, a front yard full of discarded furniture — a boxy television, gutted cushions, and many children’s toys, all sad and broken and mildewed. A seedy bar squats across from the tire-repair place. Then, over on the old bridge, I found myself getting vertigo, and detected in me a decidedly unhealthy urge to jump, as if an extreme measure would be the only way to quell the quease.
Jack’s legs are putting our day-hike in jeopardy. He’s slowing down, no question (so am I!). Napping twice a day, sometimes (so am I!). It’s oppressively hot and sticky here, and it feels like fighting molasses to move across the room. Didn’t sleep so well, either. I bunked in the front room of the artist-in-resident’s quarters we were granted by the DL folks, and I spent much of the night listening to cicadas and crickets as well as teenage rubber-peelers in the street, watching bugs swirl around streetlamps, staring at the bare walls, getting intoxicated by the sweet river-bottom perfume. The apartment’s nearly empty; it’s a music monk’s retreat. One couch, one coffee table, two mattresses (reminds me of the Almiropotamos apartment the ex-wife and I used for one hot Greek month of bohemian living, back in ‘87). Jack took the smaller bedroom, which had a weight-lifting station set up in it, prompting iron-pumper spoofing. We’re both bored, unmotivated. Had a desultory breakfast at a mirror-festooned retro-50’s café up the hill in ‘new town.’ We ended up taking the postponed hike, retracing my early morning route and adding to it, veering off towards, and then away from, the sewage-treatment plant, and spending a long, lazy interval on a floating dock on the river inlet, where I cooled my feet in the slowly moving water and we talked about death and the ineluctable march of age. No mosquitoes, thankfully (it’s West Nile virus season). Drought has its upsides.
9.4.02 EASTHAMPTON, MA (recalled 9/20/02)
An uneventful drive through the Adirondacks. Nothing but trees, trees, trees. They call this a drought, this endless deep green carpet. In California, everything turns brown. That’s a drought. At the crest of one hill, a vista worthy of Emerson — rolling forested hills marching on to Canada. Landscape to listen to Ruggles by. Quite a different brand of Purple Mountains’ Majesty than, say, the Rockies or the Sierra Nevada. Where do they hide the houses, here? In California, you see some tinhorn dot-com conman’s monument to bad taste on every fucking hilltop.
FLYWHEEL. I met our drummer for the evening, Eric Rosenthal, very nice family-man-two-klezmer-band-drummer-improvisor, over a glass of red wine and linguine ‘n’ clams. The playing room at Flywheel is wide, with a low ceiling and a one-step-up stage, so everything seemed very…horizontal. Gust Burns and his duo partner Gregory Reynolds were there, ready for the first set, but no piano or keyboard was available for Gust, who didn’t seem all that unhappy about it, so it became a solo set for Gregory and his alto sax. I listened from the front room and browsed the subversive literature and underground comix racks. Gregory Reynolds has this schtick of circular-breathing a very loud, distorted one-tone piece as his opener. (He did the same thing in Seattle last winter, and it’s on the CD Gust gave me, too.) Ha, for me, play anything the same way more than once and it becomes “schtick.” Gregory and Jack closed the set with a short duo. Then came a long, boring set by a guitarist who had folk-music as well as tape-music aspirations — I left after he announced “just one more short piece,” and took a walk to try to settle my stomach. I was in an angry mood by the time we went on, my belly boiling hot. Jack had invited the bassist from the Brooklyn session, who was young and didn’t have a helluva lot of chops, saying, “He can’t get in the way.” But his sound, amplified, did get in the way. It filled up the whole floor, carpeting over many of Eric’s punctuations. The set started off free-jazzy, which I wasn’t in the mood for, either. And it was pretty loud, for the first twenty minutes. Eventually, some music got made, but there’s no tape to prove it. Rosenthal’s work on the kit is kind of slippery-slidey, he’s not one of those real crisp rickety-tickers like Bryerton or Gino. All in all, I was let down by the evening. Jack got a lot more out of it than I. But I did sell two CD’s! I remembered to announce my “buy one, get a Mutootator FREE!” offer and it worked. There’s a sucker for weird sounds born every… well, surely not every minute.
Stayed the night in North Hampton, in a house set in a wrecking yard wedged between a stagnant slough and some railroad tracks. Jack, Gust, Greg and I, all refugee-clustered on the floor. The house was a weird little dump, all 50’s-style paneling inside (and the most amazing collection of ‘Simpsons’ tchochkes). I woke before sunrise and took a bit of a walk, who knows where I went, hidden freeways roaring all around me, cop cars driving this way and that. I was glad we left early, around 8am.
Our next stop was Hamilton Beach, on Swift’s Neck, which is near Marion, MA, basically the armpit of Cape Cod, if you envision the cape as a defiantly upraised fist. We were guests of violist Jonathan Fretheim, immigrant from Iowa, another one of Jack’s kiddies from all across this far-flung land of ours. I made a huge breakfast for everybody, with eggs and cheese and zucchini and all that hippie-scramble action. We went out to the beach and kicked around some clam shells and waded out into the bay. I was feeling stiff, cold and unadventurous. Muddy bottom and strange-feeling things touching my feet. Choppy little wavelets slapping at the belly and potatoey clouds going overhead. Cape Cod houses and yachts and retirees on the lawn in their dorky pastel leisure attire. Went back to the house and napped and played some perfunctory music, before taking off for Boston, bringing young master Fretheim with us. Much hilarity ensued inside the tiny shell of the car as it rattled along.
It was nearing sundown by the time we got to Mike Bullock’s, in Somerville, which is part of Cambridge, bringing instruments and Thai take-out with us up the stairs to his third-floor flat. Bullock is probably the most “puckish” person I’ve ever met — he makes that word sing. We spread food cartons and beer bottles and horns and strings all over the place. Greg Kelly showed up just as it was time to play. That was one fine quintet session; a shame it wasn’t captured. We kept playing, on and on, getting more and more out of each other. Bullock is such a raconteur, it took ages to get around to the next piece after a break. Kelly was quiet; mourning in the wake of a breakup a couple of weeks before, so I was later informed. We ended the session around nine and headed over to Bhob Rainey’s to crash out.
The weather just got better and better. In Boston it was a little chilly in the mornings — Fretheim and I went out for breakfast and then walked around campus (Bhob lives a block from Tufts). Spent a long down-day baking in Bhob’s apartment, doing as little as possible. Looked over Rainey’s collection of French philosophy and picture-books, sampled Greg Kelly’s latest solo disk (electronic music made out of trumpet recordings, disingenuously labeled “solo trumpet.”), napped on the couch. I guess we played another session — I’m losing count — up in the attic room where we were staying. Jonathan’s playing improved over the time we were together, or maybe my hearing of it improved. He’s another young, unformed guy with not a heluva lot of direction to his life yet, and that’s ok. He went back to Swift’s Neck on the three o’clock train, and Jack and I drove down to Mass Ave and got good and lost, fucked up and crossed the bridge over to Boston town, got lost some more, circling around with traffic, finally arriving back to where Bhob was just stepping out the door of his work, ready for our pickup.
BOSTON DANCE COMPANY
The gig was on the third floor of an old office building in a busy part of town, near MIT, in a cleared-out room with mirrored walls and a weird, black plastic floor that had strange, rubbery undulations that made you not want to walk on them. Vic Rawlings opened with scratch electronics — disassembled guitar-boxes — and did fine, until late in the set, when he picked up a modified ‘cello, and my interest faded (Jack later said he had a similar experience.). Rawlings’ electronic style is pitched somewhere between Thomas Lehn and — who, I don’t know, one of those “reductionist” guys, maybe Keith Rowe. He had a good connection with his instrument, even though his instrument was spread out over two or three tables and a bunch of floor, and his technique would encompass brushing a frayed live wire over a metal casing, then stuffing it between two pc-boards, for example. Or making minute finger-twists to potentiometers. He had his profile to the audience, like a pianist, which was an excellent strategy on his part. It had the effect of drawing an audient into what he was doing, lending the vignette of geek-bent-over-workbench some drama.
The trio of Jack, Bhob and I followed a while after. Blowing our minds. I’m surprised, now, listening to it, how the two long pieces we played fracture themselves into many, many small bits. I don’t remember it that way. The music is crazy-kaleidoscopic, dense but full of refracted rays of light, ripples and lurches. Some opera buffa mixed in there, too. At the close of the first piece, Rainey pitched himself to the floor, clutching his baby sax like a corpse grasping an orchid. This mock-dramatic gesture caught me off-guard, and I wondered, worried: Is he making fun of Jack and me? Was this his way of saying, You guys are too overwrought, too emotional, too dramatic? I decided to do something dramatic myself, and opened the second piece with a double-trumpet trick, and repeated a set of detuned motives a la Feldman, many times with microtonal variations. (Of course, it doesn’t sound like Feldman, on playback.) Like the solo I did at DL Space, this wasn’t “freely” improvised, it was an idea I’d worked over before. With Jack and Bhob on board, it goes off into a weird “harmonic choir” bag. In the setting with Jack and me, Bhob’s music can’t be as static as it sometimes becomes. There’s a rude moment on the first piece where I blow a loud sort of car-horn fart that interrupts a characteristic Rainey tone-bleed; it takes a few long seconds for him to come back in. Again, I felt some apprehension: Oops, excuse me. But who knows if this kind of tension isn’t good, not just for Bhob, but for me too? I was disappointed, however, to find that my split-tones didn’t blend so well with Bhob’s multiphonics. It’s like sprinkling ground glass-grit over a delicate, faint watercolor. The collective sound is much fuller when I blow a soft, pure tone, or half-valve tone. This, I hope, will all have time to develop over the next few years… (Ed. note: In 2008 or so I happened to play another session with Bhob out in California. Afterwards, I remarked that I just couldn’t make my split tones work with his multiphonics, and he said, “They really don’t,” with an inflection that said, Oh, you finally figured that out?)
There was some hanging-out after the show. (The guy who books the space had made some latkes for Rosh Hashanah, and they got gobbled up before the show. That was my early dinner.) After blowing my brains out for over an hour, I was empty-headed, a vacuum sucking wind. And hungry. After some thwarted inquiries into where to get some good Indian food before they all closed for the night (the curry aromas coming up from the kitchen below the dance gallery were gorgeous), the gang decided on their usual after-hours grille pub, Christopher’s, I think it was called. Bullock and Rawlings and Dave Gross, Jack and Rainey and I, maybe a couple others. It was a good, loud party. Bullock knows all the Monty Python routines (how could he not? — he’s just that kind of a guy), as well as some of the other comedy avatars I was raised on, so we riffed on some of that fun.
I-95, RHODE ISLAND 9.7.02
Well, that was quick. My first visit to Rhode Island, and it’s already over, after 1/2 hour or something.
Jack & I talked this morning about some of the “inner” factors affecting the decisions we make while playing. I brought up the conflict between listening to your intuition on the one hand, and the urge to ‘get beyond’ your own personality and all its limitations and habits. Jack said “Those are the two horses at the chariot, that Plato talks about. The balance of Reason and Passion.” I said that although reason is exercised when making decisions, I want to think more in terms of evolutionary models. I look on our music, literally, as “evolution made audible.” Not even so much in the sense of the music itself evolving — progressing through clear developmental stages to some ‘higher state’ (although that’s certainly a workable premise in itself) — but I’m thinking in the sense of our individual consciousness(es) passing through to some new evolutionary plateau, dragging humankind’s social consciousness with it. Jack asked, “How is that different from learning?”
First answer that comes to mind (this may not be wholly relevant) is Cage’s distinction: “I’m not interested in learning. I’m interested in change.” He wasn’t interested in the concept of learning as “acquiring new tools.” (Relates to the Buddhist tenet of Non-attachment, and also Cage’s non-result, non-objectifying aesthetic.) But that’s not really answering Jack’s question!
I guess I’m a little bit seduced by the idea that there could be an actual molecular-level shift in our hardwiring, and that this shift becomes part of the gene pool instantaneously: The phenomenon of the Hundredth Monkey. Learning, to me, implies acculturation and socialization as well as accumulation of experience. Up until this moment, those first two seemed to be more sophisticated processes than evolution, but really, they’re part of it. I want to excavate the foundations of survival. How far up the cultural/social pyramid does the imperative of survival fix itself? Does every little thing we do boil down to scoring that DNA-replication fix? Jack seemed to think so: “Well, we play music in order to get more gigs and spread our names around and become successful…”
Of course, he was being facetious — getting more gigs isn’t the only reason we play. But this question of Fame and its agonies is something on the order of a demonic possession for Jack: He can’t get rid of this thing; it won’t let him go, and at times on stage it seems to wrestle for control of his horn. Can he survive without being “known?” Or, maybe more to the point, can he survive without the awareness that he might be famous? We need fame more than fame needs us. I have the same disease. Is this the thing that makes us continue playing? (Rhetorical question; of course not. I’ve known, deep down and for a long time, that I need music to survive, to salve the wounds from getting through the day. It’s not unlike addiction.) But the lure of fame, the reward of attention shapes some of the decisions we make, no question. The pursuit of fame = survival? I don’t feel like this can be dealt with, with only rhetoric, assumptions and anecdotes. Research needs to be done.
Jack seems unusual for a musician in that he keeps evolving the quality of the dialogue he keeps with fellow-players — and himself. It turns away from just an issue of “style”: Jack doesn’t have a style, he’s not concerned with honing a style into an schtick, to be mass-produced and consumed by millions. His inner life is his art, and it keeps growing, becoming ever richer the more he pours it out of his horn. It’s a much more direct, deep and wide-ranging resource for him than artists who are stuck with making a living from their music — making their music into a product of compromises, filing down the edges of their psyches (or building the edges up into a caricature). He says, “I chose not to make a living from my music, and that freed me from having to tailor my music for any mass appeal. I’m not at the mercy of club bookers or agents or record producers.”
I know what he means. When I worked as a copyist for Braxton in 1979, I saw first-hand the craziness, the desperation, the heartache incurred by a professional musician, an actual genius who also was topping the first pinnacle of his career; having to cajole and wheedle promoters to get paid for shows he’d already played while at the same time making nice because he depended on their good will, their wanting to secure future bookings for him; complaining about the mammoth compromises he’d had to make to get his four-orchestra piece recorded (only to see it show up in cutout bins a few months after release); gathering twigs in the forest around his house to heat it in winter, driving around in an old beat-to-shit AMC Pacer and eating Big Macs for cheap body-fuel. I looked at all that, and thought, “This guy’s the best there is, and he has to deal with this shit. I’ll never be at a tenth of his level of mastery — I gotta get a day-job.”
Jack’s other recurrent theme: “I can’t get a gig at such-and-such a place because they won’t have anything to do with me.” He’s convinced he’s made a lot of enemies. For instance, he joked — but sounded serious — that if a certain “Downtown” New York mover and shaker found out that he (JW) was booked anywhere in Manhattan, they’d pull up the drawbridges to keep him out. He expressed a great deal of anticipation over the forthcoming issue of Signal To Noise magazine, which was slated to feature the first-ever print interview/article on Jack Wright by Parisian Brit-expat Dan Warburton (also my review of Pauline Oliveros’ 70th Birthday Concerts, so I was excited too). For that to happen, Jack had to have near-complete control over the interview process — he wrote a set of questions that he then answered —Warburton then converting it into an article. And Jack reserved the right to read/approve the thing before it went to press. When we finally did see the issue, JW was perturbed greatly that his list of playing partners, sixty-odd strong, didn’t make it into print. That list seemed to be the important thing, to him. Is this a man of gaping heart, or just a crank?
I mentioned Herzog’s quote, “We as a culture absolutely have to have new images or we’ll die out like the dinosaurs!” Jack’s immediately reply was a somewhat sarcastic observation having to do with imperialism, Germans, and filmmakers. “You’d expect a Western director to advance his own cause.” He said other cultures don’t have this need for constant refreshment of images. (To clarify: Images meaning not just pictures, but cultural icons that are mined from the collective unconscious and cut into perfect, multifaceted diamonds of poetic meaning.) I asked him to name such a culture. “The Neolithic peoples.” Well, I asked, where are they now? Our culture has survived so far — in fact, now it’s paving over the rest of the world with its images — because of its obsession with images and embedded meaning. What Herzog was addressing was the pressing need to evolve past (above) our current levels of simple, neat morality plays, to transcend and include, as Ken Wilber would say, to a higher level. Evolution made visible!
Imagination = the process of creating new images. In what we do, this involves billions of details. Billions and billions of new connections. We hope that the audience is listening, and that their imaginations are fired, too. The beauty and power and overwhelming joy that possesses the artist comes from an appreciation of the vastness of his own imagineering powers. They bring him back to life, always back to life.
What distinguishes our music from its predecessors is an attention to not just musical details but emotional details, things that go by so quickly most people don’t normally catch them. It’s an elevated speed limit of emotional conversation, of listening to the body and letting it express myriad, teeming, minute nuances of feeling, bringing them out into the world through sound. Hypersound. The articulation/animation of subtle energies.
Perhaps it’s a new level that I’m just getting to be able to hear in myself. But what I’ve heard out there doesn’t do it for me. The now-passé ‘Downtown’ scene sure doesn’t do it. (That’s what happens when you hitch your wagon to fashion: You eventually go out of fashion.) The old-guard Europeans don’t do it. The Europeans had some staying power, but talk to younger Europeans now and they’re all down-in-the-mouth. (News of Peter Kowald’s death comes as I write this.) And the ‘new reductionists’ or whatever? They’ve got the details, but they’re mired in a high-art concept of stasis and anti-expressionism, which I think is simply a reaction to the sort of overflowing, near-romantic energy of the free improvisors of the 60’s-80’s generation. Do they note the paradox? “We’re tired of music that’s all about reactions; we’re going to do something different.” Reacting against reacting constitutes more reacting, a recursive worm-hole. (I visited Joelle Leandre yesterday, and she ranted, “Don’t tell me about zis Axel Dörner! Radu Malfatti! Radu Malfatti, in 1968!!! ‘E waz doing zis ‘ps…ps…ps…’ wiz iz mouspiece, you know? 1968!… Zis ‘reductionizem’—zey don’ tyuse ze bodee, it’s all ‘ead!”)
Jack’s a true optimist: He believes in the next generation and in their potential for re-generation. He should know. The vast majority of people on his “list of 60” are a generation or two younger than he. He meets fresh faces practically every day while he’s out on the road, barnstorming. Now they’re sprouting from the homliest seedbeds, places like Omaha and Swift’s Neck and Cerritos and Arcata.
BALTIMORE (Recalled 9/21)
The long haul between Boston and Baltimore took up most of the day (Saturday), and a couple of dismal All-American fast-food stops along the way made us overjoyed at the Vietnamese féte we shared with John Berndt and his beautiful fiancée Kristin. Before the rolls arrived (we all ordered rolls: spring rolls, Imperial rolls, seafood rolls, etc.), John got up from the table and worked the owner of the restaurant — sponsorship of the next High Zero festival was the topic. He’s single-minded about that stuff, and it pays off handsomely: high press awareness, big audiences, lots of musicians, good rep among musicians, no lack of funding — more and more festivals just keep on coming. And the musicians come, too.
The Red Room duos display the sound of “evolution made audible.” You can hear Jack and Tom breaking through to a whole new level of interplay and sensitivity and daring and humor (Well, I can hear it!). I was feeling somewhat exhausted even before we played (we had already played a quintet set with Berndt on sax and percussion, Andy Hayleck on guitar and Dan Breen on drums). After the first duo, Jack had some saxophone reassembling to do, so I jumped into the silence with silly singing: “Every kiss, every hug, seems to act just like a drug, you’re getting to be a habit with me…” I finished it with the ‘karaoke-mic’ mute, buzzing the words out of the trumpet bell. (“My god! That’s not ‘non-idiomatic!’ You’re breakin’ the rules!”) By the time we got to the end of our second duo, my inner song became: I can’t go on any longer. I didn’t know it, but Jack was in a similar place. He stood and asked the audience, “What happens now — do we do one more?” I thought, Oh, no. But I stood up too and made like a gunslinger at him. Draw, pardner, if yer man enough. Suddenly we were playing again… (Where do you go from the end of a 100-foot pole? — Jump!) After a few squiggly lines, we both landed on a declamatory long-note major-third at the exact same time. We diverged for a second, I played a hoary trumpet-exercise lick, and we both landed back on the same third, again! Suddenly the music sounded very much composed, and it stayed that way even as things got very strange and silly and everything else all at once. Wild, exhilarating. (But: I haven’t been able to write a thing for the last half-hour, because I’m spellbound, listening to the New York session. It surpasses Baltimore, in passion, depth and range. Damn.) A nice reward arrived from John in the form of $160, the best we did all week. Modest by most standards, even embarrassingly so, but when you’re playing for the door, it’s a king’s ransom. Berndt gives everything to the artists, bless his heart. A fine way to end the evening, but one more thing — a random compliment from an audience member — sent me off, grinning, spinning, into the night.
We decamped at Bernd’s place, grateful of his hospitality and thankful to have a decent place to stay, finally. (Rainey’s apartment was pretty nice, too, actually.) My cot was in the cat-shit room downstairs in the three-floor row house. There was a wee bit more street noise coming in through the bay windows than I cared to endure, so I got up to close them and — WHAM! — a falling curtain-rod nailed me on the forehead. Curse, grope, squint, wipe teary eyes, check for blood, locate cot, try to forget about the drape…and the kitty skank…and drift away…
Next morning Jack and I went out early for a promenade around the neighborhood, one he’s old friends with, seeing’s how he lived here when he was doing his graduate work, back in I guess the early sixties. I was charmed by the look of the row houses in the neighborhood. Nothing like your New York variety; these had front yards, for one (and great backyards, too, viewable from porches on all three floors). And the characteristic Maryland white marble front steps were laid out, one after another down the street. Another block of houses all had expansive front porches and leaded-glass details. Neither of the North nor South, Baltimore.
We veered off towards Jack’s alma mater, Johns Hopkins. Jack spun tales of his time there, of Lyndon Johnson’s 1965 speech there, announcing the escalation of the Vietnam war “which was such a stunning reversal of his campaign rhetoric…he ran against Goldwater as the peace candidate…” And Jack remembered his own activism, researching and publishing an exposé on the quiet racism at Johns Hopkins (all the faculty and students, white; all the service personnel, black), and he told me about his graduate work in Medieval history and his adviser’s betrayal, “You can’t work on this, this is something you’d do only if you had been in the field for thirty years. No, you have to do this…” which led to his quitting the program and going into antiwar activism and anarchism.
Our walk took us by a large Civil War memorial, Generals Lee and Beauregard (?) on horseback, and their parting words at Anteitam (or was it Sharpsburg?), a tribute to their “gentlemanly conduct in the face of overwhelming odds” or similar ancient sentimental sediments. Yes, we laughed, that’s us! Refined gentlemen riding into town on shining white steeds, conducting our hopeless, heroic battles with the enemy, Mass Culture. Our code of honor: Free Improvisation: We’re the good guys, proclaiming emancipation from barlines, harmony, and idiom.
Back on the track: We had a session to play at the Red Room with Berndt that morning, kind of anticlimactic after the resounding session the night before.
MANHATTAN, East Village
We came up through Staten Island, over the Verrazano-Narrows bridge, one of an untold number of monumental viaducts we’ve crossed. I snapped some shots of the bridge and the distant lower-Manhattan skyline from the moving car. I felt a great deal of anticipation over a gig in the Big Apple which dissipated once I surveyed the humble scrap of 5th Street where the Downtown Music Gallery is buried; upon approaching by foot, instruments and recording gear loading me down, I could tell we’d be cramming our duo sounds into a glorified shoebox. Ah, glamorous New York! Mighty battleship of American culture in all its diversity! Dreadnought of tastemakers, cultural man-o’-war, floating armory of PoMo cruise missiles, icebreaker in the frozen wastes of the Sea of Irony. Oy gevalt!
We were met at the door by a handful of Jack Wright groupies, young and wide-eyed. Kind of sweet, really. A troupe of us, stars for a day and our footsoldiers, bivouacked at the local juice bar on 2nd Avenue. The East Village is an insular throwback of grooviness in the cold sea of Manhattan’s corporate towers. Headshops, record dives, cafés, hippies and hipsters, and no lack of — hooray — curry palaces! My brain drooled in anticipation: a reward after the work!
And work it was. Undaunted by the micro-staging, I set up the recording gear, the preamp wobbling dangerously on top of a record-bin (ABBA and Aerosmith were the underpinnings of this documentary apparatus), Jack sat on a tiny foldup stool in front of a whirring PowerMac, and I next to him, with my mutes ‘n’ carrot juice parked on a little glass top table between us. The crowd swelled to twenty(!), cascading out the door. The lights went down and we started. I put away worries over a seen-it-all New York audience, and just listened. Today, it sounds like this: The music continues the high-level dialogue launched in Baltimore without a break, as if time or miles had not elapsed in the interim twenty-four hours. This is emotion unmediated, microscopic un-sanity, dark roads travelled by guttering candle-light, scenery from the flip side of the psyche, planets shot through with radiant colors — a universe running on Evolution Made Audible. We hit another simultaneous unison at about ten minutes in, but instead of “Oh, let’s both play long notes together!” we keep composing the unexpected. Jack goes his way and I go mine, interweaving sojourners on the road to Hell in Heaven. By 13:20, we’re there. At 15:00 I dive into a short, splashing solo and resurface, good and wet. Things happen at 18:08 that I can’t begin to describe. A minute later, rippling wails part the curtain into little bitty cries & whispers. It seems like time is moving at different rates, simultaneously. Jack solos, although it sounds like a trio at times, at 20:20. In two minutes, I’m back in with my little ‘lectric hand-fan, rattling my CDR-bucket mute, then the pig caller gets plugged into the trombone mouthpiece and Jack lets me solo with that for a minute, wallowing around in the mud. Just before minute twenty-six a torrent of note-patterns is unloosed, spreading out into howling wahwahs and reedsplits. Then a section of urgently repeated notes, each one sounding like it’s being ripped out of each horn. At 31:00 we’re in scary territory, sad howls and belligerent whimpers. We end with a lament, almost a folk-song. But the ending is not the ending; there’s no easy resolution to this thing we’ve created and let loose, it doesn’t want to die just yet.
Jack tells me, “Music doesn’t get any higher than this.” Is this true? Well, it might be true for us. (I think we can go higher and wider and deeper, and stay there, for longer time-spans and with even more microscopic attention.) But what’s our functionality index? Are we bringing folks in the audience along with us? I guess so. One guy in Baltimore said so. The kids in the DMG applauded warmly and seemed completely engaged.
Music’s function. I play for myself, to make myself feel better, or feel something new; outside of myself I become a “content provider.” Most people consume music (less people play their own music than ever before, I suspect). They consume it as another commodity in their lives, like coffee or shoes, shoved around by the manipulations of the marketplace. I’m not interested in that system at all. I am interested in the functions of music, but the idea of a “community” function, to me, is fucked up because so many communities don’t really exist outside of the stranglehold of market capitalism. I think a good way to look at this is to apply Wilber’s distinction between “inner” and “outer” spheres… So the musical function of my music operates almost exclusively inside me. It’s true I have some kind of public face, and that’s where the inner comes out and fulfills some kind of outer function, but what that function is, changes from audient to audient. Our community is so tiny: A.) It’s not worth it to marketers to target (although Rent Romus reports otherwise); and, B.) From my perspective I can peer at it prismatically, through the color of each individual within it. (Hah! Peer-to-peer marketing!) Of course, I don’t play my music through a prism, or over the internet, for that matter. I just play, dealing with whomever I’m with in the same room. (A solo’s quite a different thing, though. A weird activity, loaded with questions of ego, privacy, intimacy, narcissism. What’s the Intent of a solo? Joëlle would no doubt say, Don’t worry so much. Let your body move with the instrument. Listen to your emotions.)
EUROPE AND BEYOND THE INFINITE
On the road, still. Next tour: Pacific Northwest, another short tour (week or ten days), going for some more serious money, the guarantees. This time, a trio: Bhob Rainey added, the “Signs of Life Tour.” After that, duos in Europe in the summer. We’ll put out a CD, of Baltimore/NY, and record more in the studio. Jack’s flying to Europe today, actually, and he’ll make new friends there and reaffirm old relationships and play our duos for them and tell them, as he told me, “This represents the best I’m doing now, what I most want to be heard…I’ve been thinking ‘I’ve lost the ‘wild edge’ I had in the eighties,’ that I needed to ‘get back’ to that, but here it is, and if I’m not mistaken I bring that out in you, I give you full license to do whatever you want to do. Even sing your song, in Baltimore, which is more ‘free’ than most aesthetically free musicians would go (you, that is). It’s exciting being this free with a ‘mature’ player like yourself (i.e. burdened with life, family, worries, self-awareness, obligations)…”
(Signal to Noise, 2009)
They’re Only In It For The Music: Pink Mountain
Act one: We’re not young, we’re not pretty
San Francisco’s Hemlock Tavern is located in lower Polk Gulch, evocatively named and famed for its picturesque gay hookers. As a tourist shopping guide unironically advises, “Different tastes are accommodated on Polk.” It’s a busy night, Thursday being the new Friday in 2009’s threadbare economy. This being lower Polk, there are plenty of indigent creatures ready to assist you in emptying your pockets of loose coins. A scrum of rawboned British sightseers bustles by, in a rush to find the next watering hole. The Hemlock, featuring a giant sport fish on one wall, pool tables and other manly accoutrements, is named for the alley which it adjoins. One whiff and you know half of humanity finds blessed relief in a nearby doorway.
At the back of the Hemlock’s long, double-winged bar is a room that can be reached via a couple of creaky steps and a curtain of those thick, clear plastic straps such as are found at the doors of walk-in coolers. Here, the chamber beyond is a walk-in hot box, somewhat smaller than a garage, filled with human meat bobbing and weaving to the music of raw, vital, loud bands of all stripes. No colored lights, no fog machines, no giant video screens, barely a stage, just an adequate PA. This is one of the prime indie showcases on the West Coast; possibly, according to some devotees, the best in the world. Tonight, universalist claims have some credence, as the stage rips with the world-class kaleido-melodic caterwauling of Pink Mountain.
At the moment, the band is bouncing every which-a-way to the nervous mechano-synth line of “Pink City” (played on keys, not a sequencer. The keyboardist’s MiniMoog is too ancient to boast anything like an onboard sequencer, excepting possibly the family of mice in the power supply.) A second ‘theme’ – duhduhduhduhDOMM duhduhduhDEE duhduhduhduhDOMM duhduduh-d YAHd-d-DAHd-d-dah and some choice shredding from the guitarist round it out in about three minutes flat. The assembled admirers, including friends and family, give up the skin-noise. And, BOOM, another number lurches forth, and the hot box becomes a kinetic fun box.
Pink Mountain’s taken the San Francisco stage on the first leg of a tour to hype their new album. The setup sounds purely conventional: all-dude rock band, ear-shredding sound, new album, road trip, tee-shirts and records, pogo-ing fans, smoke, sweat, beer and piss. Take the money and run. Right?
More like: Hope for gas money and try to have fun.
A cheerful fatalism hovers over Pink Mountain. They’re too old and too smart to wrap themselves in the colors of idealistic warriors in the cause of Rock. (And they sure as toast aren’t hoping to get signed to a major record deal.) Their music’s too out there to sell out. The lyrics don’t moan of teen angst, twenties angst or even thirties angst. They don’t promise they will rock you. They live in different cities. Three of them are dads. Their shirts stay on when they play.
Kyle Bruckmann, one of the five frontmen for the quintet, is one of the most aggressively self-deprecating guys you could hope to meet. Indeed, if such an oxymoronic entity could walk the Earth, he’s your man. Typical Bruckmann promo: “The State of the Art: whether and why the hell to make a rock record at this late hour. Five grizzled middle-aged men, the sum of whose collaborative creative experiences reads like a veritable STN index (a sampling: Anthony Braxton, John Butcher, Cheer-Accident, Merce Cunningham Dance Theater, Fred Frith, Nina Hagen, Oxbow, Terry Riley, Elliott Smith, Tom Waits) knocking their heads together to create an impossible, uncategorizable album with zero hope of mass appeal, hype, sexiness, tour support… But doing it anyway, releasing it against all better judgment, lavishly packaged and audiophiliac…” (Just for the record, there is some tour support for Pink Mountain’s new release. And, as of this writing, you’ve probably already missed it.)
Maybe such self-immolating sentiments should be expected from a highly trained oboe virtuoso. Sure, he’s the best there is on his instrument, and nobody in his preferred field of music gives a rat’s ass. It’s in the genes, maybe. Pick up the oboe and master it? You must really love to hate yourself. “I definitely have a complex relationship with the instrument and the tradition. Oboists are stereotypically a pretty damn neurotic bunch, and I’m not especially happy about the degree to which I fall into that pattern…Did I somehow know I was destined to be myopic and uptight when I was nine years old, or did the instrument make me this way?” Unlike the stereotypical goody-two-shoes type classical musician – well-spoken, polite, neat as a pin and off-gassing formaldehyde – Bruckmann goes about in slacker duds and intones dark and bone-dry gibes under his breath, dissing the straight-up musical world while unmistakably being a well-nurtured (and employed) product of it. Bite the reed that feeds you.
Bruckmann’s the owner of that mossy old MiniMoog; no oboe was in sight for the live show. It does show up on PM’s records; an episode of dire reed distress is overdubbed on the recording of “Pink City,” with Scott Rosenberg joining in on saxophone. (Kyle’s other activities have been documented in these pages by this author (Summer 2005 issue): his bands Lozenge, Wrack, and EKG from Chicago days; work with Braxton, sfSound and various orchestras around the Bay Area, and numerous improvising groups as well.)
The new Pink Mountain record, out last April on Sickroom Records (www.sickroomrecords.com), is the band’s second eponymous album. Coming to blows over song titles, they apparently lose all self-control when it comes to consensus on an album name. As it stands, the new rekkid lays out fifteen songs over two LPs in a gorgeous gatefold sleeve with surrealist artwork (kind of like Mati Klarwein’s work for Miles Davis’ classic Bitches Brew, but unpopulated, and darker in mood). Lavishly packaged and audiophiliac. The album includes a “free” CD of the music for those who’ve stepped forever beyond the vinyl age; there is no CD-only issue.
How could a band of deadly-sincere-yet-allergic-to-sincere-posturing musicians escape the gulag of its own scene? And why even try? Defined by – and therefore constrained by – the clamor of insular fans and something always called ‘community’ but which rarely behaves as such (at least not in any functional sense of the term), your geek-core band has a tendency to form a truly hard core which ossifies when exposed to the sunlight of remote locales. But in the Facetook ‘n’ Youboob technoscape, everywhere is local – or seems so, when staring into the computer screen. Thus, the thousand hardcores of light link to form a network – an online “community” that might support a tour across its carbon-based-lifeform nodes. The tour might support an album, and thus the quixotic urge to procreate in vinyl, to spread the seed of Pink Mountain over the flatland. Thusly. (Via these words.) Which gets us back to Kyle Bruckmann’s comments on the futility of launching another rock band and releasing records, and ensuing discussion in the band van:
“Depends on what you mean by futility,” says Coomes. “Economically?”
Gino: “Who is this ‘Kyle,’ by the way? Is he around here?”
“We owe the label at least some concerts,” says Shiurba. “We should support the record as much as we can.”
“I just love to play music,” Coomes offers.
Rosenberg: “That being said, we’re only doing four shows, because that’s what we can do. Three of us have kids, everybody has another job, we live in different cities, and we can only take really good gigs.”
Bruckmann: “I guess what I was trying to get at there, is that the futility is an asset, and an aesthetic stance that, uh, tickles me pink. We’re not young, we’re not pretty, there’s no hype – there will not be – we can’t tour eight months out of the year –”
“Can’t even tour one month,” gripes Shiurba.
“Yeah, and we released the record in this totally obnoxious, gorgeous, fetishist format,” continues Kyle. “Gatefold sleeve, double-LP – it’s what the music demanded. The more ridiculous and absurd it became, the more beautiful it felt…It just really makes it clear that we’re just doing it for the music.”
Did I really say these guys were too old to be idealistic?
Act two: Gino’s wild years
The hot, dry suburban hills east of Berkeley are where Gino Robair has settled down, in a fair-sized ranch house with landscaped lawns (thanks to his wife Laura who makes her living as a landscape designer) and two kids and a mini-van – the whole bit. “I always thought I’d fall in love with another musician or an artist, and we’d have this bohemian city lifestyle where we went to lots of openings and parties with other artists and did nothing but avant-garde art and music. But I ended up marrying a nurse and moving out here, and now I have this self-contained, other part of my life that has nothing to do with any of that stuff.” Still, pockets of weirdness can be found in the provinces; one wing of this middle-class compound houses Gino’s wonderland/workshop of sculpted noise. The space is filled with computers, speakers, analog synthesizer modules, gongs, cymbals, drum pieces, sticks, mallets, bows, piles of CDs, et cetera – and enough styrofoam to propel a symphony of hair-raising squeaks. (The Classic Guide to Styrofoam, Vols. 2 & 3 are upcoming on Rastascan…after his opera, I, Norton.)
There’s lots of drumming in Gino’s background: high school marching band, academy training, graduate studies with master percussionist William Winant and gamelan maven Lou Harrison at Mills College. Before earning concurrent masters degrees at Mills in the 1980s, Gino left the drums behind during a year in England, studying and/or hanging out with AMM’s Eddie Prévost and immersing himself in the London improvised music scene. “It was an education in the DIY, creative-music lifestyle, where you book your own performance series and run your own record label, while striving to grow as a musician and give back to the community.” Since then, he’s been a stout pillar of the SF Bay Area scene, launching bands (Robair was a founding member of the Splatter Trio, a pioneer hybrid of free jazz, modern classical, and punk) and special projects with the likes of ROVA, Fred Frith, Carla Kihlstedt, the Kronos Quartet, Tom Waits, and John Butcher (and Braxton, too); putting on festivals and releasing dozens of recordings on his own label, Rastascan.
Gino Robair is one of those sound artists who can pick up the nearest object lying around and instantly create an utterly engrossing sound-world on it. One of his annual concert gambits is what he calls “Potluck Percussion” where audience members are encouraged to bring along a random thingy and present it to the maestro, whereupon Robair strokes, scrapes, whirls, taps, and/or pummels the offering until it surrenders its sweet muse. A big fan of the Fluxus scene, Gino also likes to mix in generous swipes of Dada, so it’s not unheard-of to catch him wailing away on a floppy floor tom with a pair of bananas wrapped in newspapers. What’s wonderful about this action (besides being hilarity-inducing) is that he appears to be carrying on in heedless 2-year-old abandon – but no: there’s control and finesse in those absurdist fruit-smacks. Those randy ‘nanas sound musical doing exactly what they’re doing.
Oh, and Robair has composed, written and arranged, for various ensembles, the opera I, Norton, based on the pathetic life and grandiose rantings of Bay Area ur-crazyman Emperor Norton, who walked the streets of the Barbary Coast a century and a half ago (probably including Polk Gulch).
Even though he’s been known to don the unholy robes of the “anti-percussionist,” Robair plays loud, righteous DRUMS for Pink Mountain. God damn GREAT drumming! in fact. Hear him tick off the lurchy-clock tocks in “Eternal Halflife” and the reprise “Eternal Shelflife,” 4-beat, 5-beat, 4-beat, 5-beat, 4-beat, 3-beat, all set against a steady duple time. Tough stuff. Or sample his damn-the-torpedoes style, underpinning the seven-minute Sisyphean climb of “Foreign Rising.” (Fans of James Tenney, gather ‘round.) Then again, the bedrock he lays down under the horrorshow “Ditch Witch” says all that can be said about Robair’s love of metal bands and their no-nonsense beats.
Scott Rosenberg might seem to have the most direct connection to the band, via his name (=‘Pink Mountain,’ in German) and the fact that he started it all, but he’s taken perhaps the longest, ramblingest journey to the ruddy alpine environs, from LA to Middletown, CT, New York, Chicago, Paris, LA and NYC a couple more times, and three or four times in the Bay Area. “I arrived at Wesleyan in 1990, the same as Braxton’s first year there. I pretty much spent college just studying with Braxton and playing the saxophone.” At Mills College in the mid-90’s (disclosure: Scott was a classmate of this writer) Rosenberg studied with Alvin Curran and George Lewis and came out the far end staging orchestral happenings (“IE (for large ensemble)”, on Barely Auditable, and “Creative Orchestra Music Chicago 2001,” on New World) involving multitudes of musicians and Braxtonian grandiosity. After scoring big with critics for his “Owe” (Cadence) and “El” (Spool) avant-jazz albums and being rewarded with little interest from bookers, Rosenberg jumped over to folk-rock with “The Full Sun” (Howells Transmitter), fielding a regiment of 60+ players.
The new album’s “Foreign Rising” is one of Rosenberg’s compositional ideas where simple ideas lead to grinding cosmic complexity. (Q: What is the sound of two galaxies fucking? A: an endless, mounting sonic climax.) It’s also reminiscent of “Hums,” one of the orchestra pieces on “IE” – a gigantic, uninterrupted glissando, nothing more or less.
Scott’s earthly trip continues with his next geographic leap, to a creative writing program in Laramie, Wyoming. “It won’t matter to the band,” he says, “We all live in different towns anyway.”
John Shiurba’s portfolio: Eskimo, The Molecules, Merce Cunningham, Anthony Braxton, Spezza Rotto, his own 5×5 groups; Limited Sedition label with dozens of DIY releases documenting the Bay Area improv scene; brooding master of the skronk. His quiver of string-exciting curiosities includes vibrators, an eggbeater, sticks and Ebows. At the Hemlock, he was seen during the first number stroking the strings tenderly with a serving fork. But, for Shiurba – as he proves with fine riffs on “Pink City,” and ethereal acoustic overdubs on “V” – sometimes a guitar is just a guitar.
The guitarist seems endlessly adaptable and unfazed by any kind of musical challenge thrown at him: rock, noise, improv, country, classical, or the ‘jump or die’ scores of Mr. Braxton. Shiurba’s band-mate in two outfits, – The Molecules and Spezza Rotto – is Thomas Scandura, who also happened to drum alongside Robair in junior high and high school. Speaking of Shiurba’s enlistment in The Molecules, Scandura says simply, “The music seemed to accelerate after John joined. We were always about playing tight material in a carefree and sometimes ‘wrong’ way. He had no problem fitting in, even though he was playing bass.”
Shiurba lives in his own house in the Oakland flats, where his kitchen is the staging ground for myriad band rehearsals, as long as his horse-sized dog Bloom isn’t holding the floor. One room is ceiling-to-floor LPs, a dangerous place to linger for any music geek.
Sam Coomes is by default the “star” of Pink Mountain, being a mainstay of the Portland indie-rock scene for well over a decade. Fronting Quasi since 1993, he’s also consorted with Built to Spill, Heatmiser, Sleater-Kinney, and Elliot Smith, among others. Pink Mountain is his first incursion into improvised-and-other music. He’s the most down-to-earth and engaging of the bunch, which may further explain why he’s the guy out in front communicating verbally with the audience. Not for him the game-theory composing strategies, obscure no-wave bands or niche-niche genres. (Although this may be an act on his part: There’s a shot of Sam reading Graham Lock’s “Forces in Motion” on the inside jacket of a Heatmiser record from the mid 90s. That’s a great book all about – that’s right – Anthony Braxton, who should be made godfather to this band.)
Shiurba: “Sam and I were talking and I said, ‘This is like my classic rock band,’ and he said, ‘Well, this is my ‘out’ band.”
“What is skronk-rock, anyway? The Contortions or something?” asks Coomes. On being surrounded by composerly types: “These guys start talking about numbers, and scratching on paper with pens, and it could be ancient Chinese or Sanskrit to me.”
“But then Sam will come up with a bass or guitar part that’s more complex than anything Shiurba could ever write out,” adds Gino.
Coomes was key to the formation of the group and the content of its character – the pop icing on the improv cake, if you will – a Quasi-stellar object. Rosenberg sought him out after seeing him in action at an Elliot Smith show: “I came away from the concert with the thought ‘That guy’s the heavy musician of the group.’ My impression of Sam had been as this elder statesman/guru of the Portland scene, but his harmonic language was unique and more colorful than a lot of folks around him, and he clearly used improvisation and drew heavily from the blues, with a kind of energy that is lacking in a lot of rock bands.”
Rosenberg remembers,“Listening intensively to Quasi gave me a sense, from Sam’s music and lyrics, that he’d be really fun to work with, and that he might be open to doing something heavier and weirder than Quasi. As it (fortuitously) turned out, Sam is very much the same in person as he is in his music, which isn’t necessarily true for a lot of people.
“When I saw him play live it was totally clear to me that he was an improviser and had a much broader vocabulary than pop songwriting – it was clear that his influences included stuff like Cecil Taylor and noise and I started imagining putting together this dream group of some of my favorite musicians. And that turned into Pink Mountain.”
Act three: Fibonacci Fibonacci
“I heard one theory that we’re releasing records in the Fibonacci series,” says Gino in a rush, “so we’ll have two records that are number one, the third record is actually two, and the rest will go on from there.” With the corresponding number of years in between each release date? “Hopefully not.”
“We will never break up,” proclaims Shiurba.
“You have to be together first, to break up,” opines Robair.
From the first PM album on Frenetic (www.freneticrecords.com), “Biography of The Sun” sounds like a tortured slice out of Naked City’ Leng Tch’e, at (mercifully) 1/10th of the length. “The Kids Are Insane” sports demented vocals indeed, with Zorn-squalling sax and death-metal underpinnings. “Circling the 7th Planet,” which sounds like a close transcription of a terminal attack of the hiccups, must be the first rock track ever recorded with a contrabass clarinet on it. (The second might be “All Fours,” from the new PM release, although as is true with a lot of their tunes, it’s pretty hard to tell what the fuck is making those sounds.) “Anti-Gravity” sports handclaps and room noise over a silly Mickey Mouse funk bounce.
“The first album…basically we improvised these chunks of noise with rock drums, and then overlaid keyboards and vocals….There was no editing at all,” says Shiurba. We chose all the parts we liked that were formally the way we liked them.”
“There was editing,” Bruckmann kvetches.
“Yeah, but only on one piece.”
“We bring five different writing processes to the thing,” says Rosenberg. “Kyle wrote out some really elaborate stuff for overdubs, and I wrote out some lines, but then in the studio there’d be conduction, or more improvising –“
“Sam emailed some parts in,” says Shiurba. “And I would listen to those and go, ‘Oh, now I have a whole new idea for another part.”
The new album celebrates the art of cut ‘n’ paste noise-rock as undertaken with a chainsaw: violent, raw, and brutally efficient. Bruckmann is the sonic surgeon of the group, taking raw tracks and making ‘songs’ out of them, although all members have a hand in the results.” The kiss of death in this band,” says Rosenberg, “is if someone says something sounds like one of your other bands. Then it’s automatically thrown out.”
“In order to even do the tour, we had to become a Pink Mountain cover band,” states Shiurba. “We had to re-learn all the parts that we’d improvised in the studio.”
“Over the Rainbow, Somewhere” – B major chording in 4/4! This is rock ‘n’ roll! “Thee Red Lion” is taken up with a most devastating buildup and hot flashes of distemper, with an interlude of Mellotronic string-section warbles; then it breaks through the clouds as Coomes intones echoplectically over minimalist perc/bass, whereupon all the disparate elements stack up at end, crunch. “Ditch Witch” is another “pop song” with a humping beat, amplified metal-string banshees in the near midground fuzzing up your ears quite satisfyingly. After numerous arty traps that plunge into rock-us noise fests, the album calls an official truce with “Underworld,” an exploration of Robair’s lovely prepared-piano vignettes, overlaid with drum guitar plonks ‘n’ skronks and ribbons of analog electronics. Things densify with a spastic stalking riff as practiced by a hairy pegleg warthog. All voices exeunt saving the prepared piano, whose bell tones and percussive pops evoke a twilighted no-man’s-land, a distant church overlit by exploding stray ordnance left behind in the retreat, sounding The End, (PONG) The End…
“The reason I got pissed off the first day we were recording,” says Gino, “is that we bring Sam down from Portland, we get in the studio and we start playing and it immediately sounds like every improv record you’ve ever heard… I didn’t come down here for this. We got this guy who’s a songwriter, why don’t we make songs? I thought we were going to play some rock ‘n’ roll.” There it is again, that word. What rock bands would the group count as an influence?
“Oh no,” groans Robair. “Influences? Oh, man, come on…” The tweener-fanzine question eventually leads to some reflection.
“We’re too old for influences,” says Sam.
“That’s the thing,” goes Kyle. “The whole fucking point of this band is that we all have completely different aesthetic agendas, but with a lot of overlap. And we work together because of those overlaps, and because of the places where they conflict.”
“Guillermo!” exclaims Shiurba. (Wha? Jimmy Kimmel’s security guard? Out-jazzer Guillermo Gregorio? Or a game strategy meant to throw off a credulous interviewer?)
“Influences are for when you’re trying to learn your instrument and how to write a song,” continues Coomes. “And then you just forget about it. And then you’re influenced by the presidential elections… and the weather…”
“We sound like a fucked-up rock band that’s listened to too many other fucked-up rock bands,” mutters Kyle.
“Personally, I’m really into the Rolling Stones,” confesses Scott.
Earlier, in a sequestered space, Kyle Bruckmann wasn’t too grown up to unearth an encyclopedia of his musical upbringing, which surely includes some of the “overlaps” mentioned earlier by the other PM’ers:
“This Heat is indeed a reference point, but as an influence they’re purely post hoc – people kept saying to me things like, “Obviously you’ve been listening to them forever,” when in fact I’d never really heard them – when I finally (belatedly) checked them out I wished I could say I had been. Same proved true of Henry Cow, James Chance and the Contortions, Devo’s first record (!), and even (to my eternal shame) Beefheart.
“Things that felt more particularly relevant, moving beyond my adolescent hardcore and industrial roots, were Minor Threat, Black Flag, DK, burning rapidly through high school into Einstuerzende Neubauten, Test Dept, Skinny Puppy, Big Black, Shellac, Jesus Lizard, Tar, Helmet, Zeni Geva, Foetus, and forefathers like Pussy Galore and Birthday Party. But that stuff all started to feel too cartoonishly MEAN and macho, and bands like the Ex, Dog Faced Hermans, and God Is My CoPilot clued me in to the joyful, playful possibilities of propulsive noise. Meanwhile, Boredoms & Ruins led me to Zorn, who in turn served as a gateway drug into “improvised music,” etc. Splatter Trio showed up at an incredibly impressionable moment, believe it or not – Rice University’s campus radio station brought them, plus ROVA, Debris, and Tim Berne/Hank Roberts down to Houston for a concert in ‘92. Gino and Myles walked through our living room during the second Lozenge rehearsal EVER and provided some highly inspirational encouragement.
“Once in Chicago (starting in 1996), my ‘scene’ comrades were really primarily the wildly varying neo-nowave bands in the Skin Graft Records orbit – the Flying Luttenbachers, Cheer-Accident, US Maple, Bobby Conn, Lake of Dracula. I veered deeper and deeper into improvised music and all the obvious things. Nowadays, I’m way too old and un-hip, rockwise, but the things that HAVE crossed my radar and which still excite me are bands like Ex-Models, the Locust, Deerhoof, Hella, Orthrelm, Erase Errata, Gorge Trio, Lightning Bolt, Wolf Eyes.”
The sound of a control-freak composer (Rosenberg) being assimilated by a rock ‘n’ roll band: “We were having another fight in the studio, and at the end of the night Sam said, ‘God, I really love the push and pull of this band! It’s so much fun!’ And I was miserable…” He peps up, though: “But, I finally get it now. I only have one-fifth of the responsibility and control. I can trust these guys. If I come in with an idea and these four stop me before I can even finish my sentence – they’re right!”
“We’re all fighting for the music,” Coomes adds. “People are brutal, but it’s a noble fight. Since everybody respects each other, we can hack it.”
Will there be any fisticuffs onstage tonight?
“As long as Rosenberg doesn’t mess up,” cracks Shiurba, to general laughter.