Eyes That Can See in the Dark

a music journal
 

August 28, 2002 (link)

12:00 PM

I just talked to Shooby Taylor on the radio!!! Details will follow, but if you're coming to my site looking for the "Stout-Hearted Men" transcription we mentioned, you can find it here.

(Comments for August 28, 2002) (4 comments so far)

August 27, 2002 (link)

9:20 PM

Right now the Greatest Song Ever (to steal a line from Absintheur) is Ida's "Blizzard of '78". I'd heard it before -- both in concert (in November 2000, at a show they played with Low) and as a MP3 teaser for The Braille Night from Insound or Epitonic -- and I'd quite liked it, especially the surprise chord change at the ends of the verses (Emaj7 / Cmaj9 / Emaj7 being the main one). In the past few days, I dug it up again and found out that it sounds great turned up loud. It's definitely aiming for a quality that I'm tempted to call "anthemic", but I'm not sure that that's really the right word. Whatever it is, it's a quality shared by songs like Pizzicato Five's "It's a Beautiful Day". Or maybe it is anthemic after all: it's like an apotheosis of the major chord, bringing out everything joyful and exuberant about it, and the length of the song only heightens the effect -- if anything, I wish it were longer. It's not a perfect production by any means, and I suspect the peak experience I'm having with it will fade as quickly as it arrived, but right now it seems like a wonderful idea in the same way "It's a Beautiful Day" did: "Why doesn't everyone write music like this?" As frequently happens with me, it often feels like my favorite part is the quiet section that comes a little more than halfway through the song. I definitely wish that part went on longer; the song is already pretty lengthy at 7 minutes, but it definitely doesn't feel that long, and an extra few moments to breathe would make it all the better. Was it Schoenberg? Stravinsky? who said, when asked to make certain cuts in a piece of his, that such an approach would never work because you'd just end up "with a long piece that was, in those places, too short."

Absintheur's got a track-by-track up of Yellowdock, a CD set he's put together to kick off the mix group we've got going. It's taking all my willpower not to spoil the surprise and take a look!

Last night, I spent over an hour-and-a-half analyzing the following position with a very nice man:

A diagram depicting move 28 in a chess game, with Black to move.  White has pawns on a2, b3, d5, f2, g3, and h2, a knight on e4, a bishop on e3, a rooks on c4, a queen on d3, and a king on g1.  Black has pawns on a7, e5, f7, g6, h7, bishops on g7 and f5, a rooks on d8, a queen on g4, and a king on g8.

In this position I had Black and played 27...Be6?, which is tricky but should lose. After what happened in the actual game, 28. de?? Rxd3 29. ef+, I should've played 29...Kh8! winning instead of the blunder 29...Kxf7?? 30. Nd6+ Rxd6 31. Rxg4, which eventually led to a loss for Black. But if he had instead played 28. Nf6+ Bxf6 29. Rxg4 Bxg4 (not 29...Rxd5? 30. Qe2), 30. Bxa7 leaves Black down a Queen and two pawns for a Bishop and Rook, which is completely insufficient to hold the game.

However, after 27...Qf3 -- which, by the way, is almost definitely not the best move for Black! -- a very interesting endgame arises. White needs to give up the exchange to avoid mate -- 28. Ng5 Bxd3 29. Nxf3 Bxc4 30. bc -- and both of us initially thought that Black could stop the passed pawns easily, but as it turns out, Black is probably lost from this position. I can't even begin to remember all the analysis we did, but the best line seemed to be something like 30...Rd7 (if 30...a6, in almost every line we looked at, Black ended up needing to move his rook to d7 anyway, usually to avoid being captured by a Knight reaching e6) 31. Ng5 Bf6 32. Ne4 Be7 33. d6! Bd8 34. c5 f5 (the Rook is in danger of being trapped) 35. c6! Rg7 (if 35...fe, then 36. cd a6 [otherwise Bxa7 should win] 37. h4! and White wins the Bishop or promotes the d-pawn after 37...Kf7 38. Bg5) 36. Bh6 Rf7 38. Ng5 Rf6 39. c7 Bxc7 40. dc Rc6 41. Ne6! (locking the King in) after which there are still more complications, but Black is pretty much locked down and awaiting execution. One idea went something like 41...e4 42. Bf4 a6 43. Bd6 (to threaten Bc5, and clear f4 for the Knight) g5!? 44. Nxg5 Kg7 45. Ne6+ Kf6 46. Nc5 followed by Nd7-b6. In variations like these, it was amazing how many annoyances Black could give White by throwing the occasional pawn at him -- one line involved a sacrifice with f5-f4 that only failed by the lack of a single waiting move. I look forward to feeding this position into a computer and seeing what it tells me -- though as I said to my opponent/collaborator, "It'll probably tell us we missed a mate in three or something." This guy, by the way, was an absolute pleasure to play. Though I only scored something like a win and a draw out of six games, something about the mesh of our respective styles incited me to come up with some of the best attacking play I've mustered in a while (often managing to conjure an attack out of some pretty unlikely positions!), and almost all of our games were highly tactical battles that were hard-fought down to the last few seconds on the clock. I'd been mired in a slump of late, so it was doubly nice to play some sharp, violent, and lucid games.

current music: Herbie Hancock -- Sextant, then Ida -- The Braille Night

(Comments for August 27, 2002) (4 comments so far)

August 25, 2002 (link)

9:07 PM

On a happier note, some U.S. Open picks:

Men's semifinalists: Lleyton Hewitt, Carlos Moya, Paradorn Srichaphan, Wayne Arthurs
Winner: Srichaphan
Dark horses: Fernando Gonzalez, Richard Krajicek

Women's semifinalists: Serena Williams, Lindsay Davenport, Amelie Mauresmo, Venus Williams
Winner: Mauresmo
Dark horses: Chanda Rubin, Daniela Hantuchova

If my pick of Srichaphan seems unlikely, consider that he's won 10 of his last 11 matches. Watching his ferocious play against Agassi at Wimbledon made me a convert. Along with Moya and Gonzalez, he's also one of the players in the draw with a good chance of beating Hewitt. I wish Canas and Johansson hadn't pulled out -- without that second-round match against Rusedski, who's since been moved elsewhere in the draw, Hewitt has a pretty clear path to the semifinals, though that match against Blake could get interesting if the crowd is vocal enough.

8:57 PM

I think not playing music is starting to drive me a little nuts. (That probably seems like a horribly indulgent statement, but there it is.) I'm starting to end up more and more often in conversations where I'm reminded of how much music I used to play, and how little (read: nothing) I'm playing now. Sometimes, like today, they go like this: "Where did you school?...What'd you major in?...Oh, music! So are you playing with any groups, or...?" And now that I've been here for over two years, it's becoming more and more ridiculous that the answer to those questions is not only "no", but is pretty much exactly the same "no" it's been since July 2000.

Or, I listen to something like Low's live CD Anthony, Are You Around? (P-Vine), and am reminded both of the sheer magic of Low's greatest performances/best songs, and of the fact that that's what I want to be doing. Not verbatim, of course, though I'd love to cover a couple songs in the right circumstances ("Soon", for one). But the experience of playing good music with fellow musicians you trust, to a receptive audience...

Two years!

current music: Low -- Anthony, Are You Around?

(Comments for August 25, 2002) (2 comments so far)

August 21, 2002 (link)

4:00 PM

One of the two buildings where I work is partially occupied by a daycare program, and we share a fair number of facilities with them -- a photocopier, a dumpster, and so forth. Yesterday, I noticed they were throwing out a boombox, and asked if I might take it to see if I could get it to work. As it turned out, all it needed was a new power cord -- and, in the biggest positive reinforcement I've ever had of my packrat tendencies, I happened to have one that fit. So now I've got a boombox in my kitchen, which is actually a pretty nice windfall, as it drives me nuts not to be able to listen to music while I cook and clean, and up to now my only options have been my clock radio, which sounds like crap and likes to eat tapes, or my little TV, which only works if I want to listen to TV without watching it (and that gets old pretty fast). But now, if I can dig up my car stereo adapter, I might even be able to route MP3s from my laptop through the boombox, which would be very pleasant.

Anyway, all this is just preamble to the main reason I'm making this post: without the boombox, I probably wouldn't have caught the tail end of "Fresh Aire" today, and -- though I'm not normally much for NPR -- I'm glad I did catch it, because they had a nice feature on Pollini, and a new 13-CD box set called "The Pollini Edition" that's apparently coming out. Though it'd be hard to talk about Pollini without mentioning his championing of modern music and composers like Webern and Boulez, I was still pleasantly surprised when they played excerpts from Pollini's recordings of Nono and Schoenberg. I didn't know the Nono, and it didn't make much of an impression on me, but the Schoenberg was the waltz movement from the Fünf Klavierstücke Op. 23 (or whichever piece it is that has the famous 12-tone waltz). Not only did they play Pollini's recording of it, but they compared it with the Glenn Gould recording, which was very interesting -- I suspect I agree with the reviewer's assessment that Pollini's rendition is more on the mark. I guess one could argue that, if the Gould recording is angular and intractable, that it's representing something real about the piece, something that Pollini is whitewashing by making it sound facile. It's not an argument to which I can intelligently respond, since I just don't know the piece very well and certainly haven't heard enough recordings of it to make an informed judgment.

On the other hand, a long time ago I listened to a couple recordings of Pierre Boulez's 2nd Sonata -- first one by someone I'd never heard of, then one by Pollini. The first recording seemed harsh and impenetrable, and to be frank, wasn't something I took any pleasure in listening to, or believed had anything interesting to say to me. Then I put on the Pollini, and the difference was like night and day. I can't really articulate what it was -- something about clarity of line, and phrasing -- but when Pollini played the piece, it made sense. I can't say that I felt like I fully understood it, but at least now it seemed intelligible, the product of a living mind.

Is this what Boulez intended? I don't know, but given the choice, I'd rather listen to what Pollini played. And Schoenberg is just as susceptible to the vagaries of performance -- which can seem pretty improbable when you're listening to a really good performance of one of his pieces: "How could this ever have seemed like it didn't make sense?" But, a few years back, I went to see a concert in which they were playing a piece by Schoenberg -- one that I had just listened to for the first time shortly before, had liked a lot, and felt totally intelligible to me. Given that, I was excited to hear it in live performance. But the performance didn't make any sense -- the piece felt random, unintelligible, nonsensical -- and half the time, all I could think about was wanting to get out of there. (I even got the chance to hear a recording of the performance, and had the same reaction.) Then I went back and listened to the studio recording I'd heard before, and confirmed once again: yes, this piece makes sense.

So if I can be put off a piece I already know by hearing a bad performance of it, then what kind of reaction are the people who don't listen to modern music, and don't know the pieces being played, going to have? They're probably going to walk away from the concert thinking the piece is total bullshit, and I can't blame them. And it's not something for which other concert experiences are likely to prepare them; there aren't too many pieces written prior to 1900 that become totally inarticulate when played badly, or (perhaps this is more precise) without a strong aesthetic vision on the part of the performer. Late Beethoven, maybe, though I'm sure there's more. Usually, bad playing just makes a piece boring, but doesn't make it seem like it never made sense to begin with -- though, then again, I've heard some performances of stuff like Schubert that made me want to run from the room as fast as possible, while other performances have made me wonder if anything could ever surpass them.

I'm thinking in particular of an unbelievable performance I once heard of a Mendelssohn trio, in which one of the players apparently decided to take the scherzo "faster than any of us have ever taken it before", as they mentioned later. It was a breathtaking, hair-raising experience; some people collapse when they're taken out of their musical comfort zone, but on this particular night, these guys thrived on it, and played completely out of their heads. You could feel that they were being pushed right to their limits -- they were probably scared shitless, actually! -- but they hung on, and pulled off a performance that was more real, more visceral, than almost any classical music performance I've ever seen. I never would've guessed that a Mendelssohn piece could be so exhilarating; apparently, the man could write!

And now, without my foreseeing it, we've ended up back at Pollini: a friend of mine described seeing him give a concert at which he played four pieces, two from the 20th century and two from earlier, in a program explicitly designed to highlight the continuity between them and the aesthetic narrative and historical dialogue of which they were all a part. I don't remember what the first two pieces were -- possibly Bach and Schoenberg -- but the last two, I believe, were a Stockhausen piece whose name I don't remember, and the Beethoven Hammerklavier sonata. As my friend describes it, Pollini followed Beethoven's almost ridiculously fast metronome marking (half note = 132), knowing full well that even he was incapable of playing it at that tempo without making mistakes. But he wanted to make a point -- one that, in part, involves explicitly relating the advanced language of late Beethoven with that of the modern era and composers like Stockhausen -- and apparently, he succeeded: my friend says that if anything, the Beethoven sounded more modern, more adventurous than the Stockhausen!

current music: To Rococo Rot -- Pantone EP

(Comments for August 21, 2002)

August 20, 2002 (link)

10:26 PM

"A Has-Been", lyrics by Albert Maddox, sung by Joe Stanton.

Except for the titles mentioned in the opening paragraph, "A Has-Been" is the first song-poem linked on the ASPMA MP3 page. Interestingly, however, it's an atypical song-poem in a lot of ways (at least by comparison with the other tracks on the site). It clocks in at a scant 79 seconds -- even the shortest song-poems usually are close to the 2-minute mark -- and has a fairly unpredictable structure, with phrase lengths that tend to end a little bit sooner or later than you'd expect. It's also unusual in that, all in all, it's a pretty good song!

The only accompaniment is a piano, played in "saloon" style with a bit of stride to the left hand. After a four-bar intro that could've come out of the bar scene in just about any low-budget Western you care to name, the vocals enter:

Jeepers, folks call me a has-been

Right away, with the very first line, the tone for the song is pretty well set. After he sings "has-been", the female backing vocalists chime in, "A has-been!" It's hard not to like: how can you resist someone who starts out with "Jeepers", and sounds like he means it? And this Joe Stanton is the perfect singer for it; if Ralph Lowe sang that line, it'd be like having a stage production of Archie with James Lipton (the guy from "Inside the Actors Studio") as Jughead.

Maybe they're right, maybe they're not

That's the spirit! Again, between the melody, the lyrics and the delivery, it's tough to resist.

The Lord gave me a voice, then he lay me on the shelf
Yes, he took my voice and said "Shift for yourself"

Right around here, I start wondering what this song is about, and whether Albert Maddox's lyrics are autobiographical. Was he a popular regional singer who somehow lost his voice? I did a quick search for him on Google, but didn't come up with anything.

Can't say nothing, can't do nothing, but have no cause to panic or frown
I might sink or float, but I won't drown

The lyrics are packed in tight, with a triplet or two to fit them all in. Is he being literal here? Can the protagonist literally neither move nor talk? Based on what comes later in the lyrics, I think so. It might seem like an odd combination to pair such a happy-go-lucky tune with such downbeat/stoic/optimistic lyrics, but the songwriting careers of Brian Wilson and Daniel Johnston, among others, stand as testament to how successful such a marriage can be.

I keep rollin', rollin' right along

And unexpectedly the phrase ends, making this a 14-bar verse. Without missing a beat, the pianist (who seems like a pretty competent accompanist) drops into a stock eight-bar turnaround, somewhere between Floyd Cramer, Scott Joplin, and Dr. Teeth. The vocals come back in:

Oh, Lord, maybe I am a has-been
Could be they're right, maybe they're not

I sense a little doubt creeping in.

The Lord gave me two hands, then he wadded one up tight
Like a fist, not much to use, not even to write

I'm pretty sure I've got the lyrics right, here. The details are so specific -- and horrific -- that it's hard not to believe that Mr. Maddox isn't either drawing on his own experience, or describing someone he knows. In any event, it sounds like whoever it is, he/she suffered a stroke or something similar: can a stroke make your hand curl up into a fist and stay there?

Can't say nothing, can't do nothing
But I can still wiggle my thumb

This is turning into the My Left Foot of song-poems! The temptation to imagine Mr. Maddox as the protagonist of this song is considerable: a rising star and talented singer, felled by a stroke and only able to move his thumb, which he uses to painstakingly scratch out...song-poem lyrics! But, on the other hand (so to speak!), the lyrics imply his other arm is OK.

So keep on rollin', rollin' for the crumbs
Oh, Lord, I wonder, wonder if I am a has-been

And what a way to end it! Either I'm projecting like crazy, or that second-to-last line is a killer: after all that cartoonish optimism, we get a lyric whose bitterness and self-loathing would do Roger Waters proud. It's hard to imagine Mr. Maddox describing a friend or loved one as "rollin' for the crumbs", so the temptation to see this as autobiography is greater than ever. (It sounds like this was recorded no later than 1965 or so -- and probably a good bit earlier -- so any story behind this track may well be lost, which is a shame.) Once again, the phrase ends after 14 bars, and with a remarkably brief little piano tag, "A Has-Been" is over.

What a curious little song this is! It's one of only a handful of song-poems of which I can imagine doing a straight-faced cover. It seems like such a mild-mannered, innocuous little song, but if I'm reading it right, it's got a dagger up its sleeve. (J, if you're reading this, do you agree with my take on these lyrics? If you've got a minute, leave a comment -- or drop a Livejournal entry -- with your thoughts...) A couple of acoustic guitars, maybe, instead of the piano, and drop the tempo a bit so that the triplets in the vocal line don't sound quite so forced. Otherwise, you can take it pretty much as-is. It'd be a fun little number to drop in the middle of an album, or a concert -- both things I miss making and giving, respectively.

current music: Hukwe Zawose -- "Sisitizo La Amani Duniani"

(Comments for August 20, 2002)

August 19, 2002 (link)

11:54 PM

I have yet to receive any song-poem review requests. Surely somebody out there must have a favorite they'd like to see me tackle?

11:20 PM

Fire up your cassette deck: on Wednesday, August 28th, at 11 a.m., radio station WFMU (91.1 FM) will be broadcasting a one-hour program on Shooby Taylor -- with the man himself in the studio! Sadly, he's in poor health and won't be scatting. However, we'll certainly be hearing some Shooby performances we've never heard before, as there are apparently "a dozen more tapes" of Mr. Taylor that have recently been discovered! (Can they really mean a dozen more tapes, as in full-length cassette recording, or do they mean songs? Either way, it's a windfall for us fans.) You can find more info here at the WFMU site. (I wonder if there's any chance that they'll use my "Stout-Hearted Men" transcription?)

current music: Joe Meek -- It's Hard to Believe It

(Comments for August 19, 2002)

August 15, 2002 (link)

7:31 PM

It seems like whenever I start posting a lot, I invariably follow it up with a long hiatus. (That sentence comes very close to being a logical fallacy.) On top of that, I always tend to get slack at the start of a new month; I hand-code my HTML, and have to manually update the sidebar to add links to the archive for the previous month.

I've had no shortage of thoughts and quotes in the meantime, though I've been equally lazy about writing them down. Some bits:

  • I was casually listening to Spool's "Algo" and thinking to myself, "You know, this is an incredibly good, apposite bassline, and it's the simplest thing in the world. I should write about this on the site." Then I sat down to transcribe it, and lo and behold, it wasn't as simple as I thought:

    The bassline to Spool's song, Algo


    You'd never notice those 2/4 measures, and yet they're simultaneously the thing that makes the phrase interesting, and the thing that makes it seem effortlessly natural.

  • When I was teaching ear training, I played No. 4 of Webern's Five Pieces for Orchestra for my class on repeat, and had them listen through it without a score, identifying the intervals. (For those who haven't heard it, it's a fragmentary, fragile little piece, barely over thirty seconds long; the harmony is atonal, and the dynamics are all mezzo-piano or quieter, as I recall.) In an IM with J. I was talking about how I like to drop experimental/avant-garde/noise tracks into the middle of my mix tapes, which are typically more oriented towards the indie/jazz/ambient/pop end of the spectrum, and I wrote that "One of the things about experimental music is that we so seldom get a chance to incorporate it into any kind of overarching narrative that would make it memorable for us" -- that narrative being, in this case, the overall arc of the mixtape. Another way to make a "difficult" piece more likely to take on a narrative quality is simply to listen to it repeatedly until you've more or less memorized it; if you know what happens next, it's easier to understand its relationship to what comes before and after it, since repeated listening has buttressed the sense of expectation that's easier to come by in Western tonal music, which has a whole arsenal of formulae that are, to varying degrees, ingrained in most anyone who participates in Western musical culture.

    Anyway, I enjoyed the exercise, and assigned some follow-up tasks, but didn't really think about it after the fact. A little while later, though, it came up in conversation with one of my students, and he said something to the effect that "Yeah -- actually, I was completely taken with that Webern piece, and I ended up doing my final project for [Class X] on it. I really, really like it." With moments like that -- with students like that! -- there were times that teaching hardly felt like work.

  • My dad likes to say that his favorite Pink Floyd album is whichever one he's listening to at the time. (If that includes A Momentary Lapse of Reason, I'll be a bit alarmed.) I feel the same way about Debussy and Ravel; when I listen to Debussy's great music, played well -- Pommer's La Mer, Rogé's Piano Works CD -- it's hard to believe there's anything of the kind that could ever be better. Much as I like Daphnis and Chloe and even Bolero, I've never been as (ahem) bouleversé by Ravel's orchestral works as I am by Debussy's -- Ravel's are too flashy, too ornate to have much of the slow-time quality I value so much in Debussy. But on piano, it's a much closer fight. I played "Oiseaux Tristes" the other day, followed by "Le Gibet" from Gaspard de la Nuit and Le Tombeau de Couperin, and rediscovered (for the millionth time) how strong my response is to Ravel's best piano music. I don't even want to try to describe the quality it has right now -- it's hot, oppressively so, and I'm listening to other music. But I keep forgetting the strength of my emotional attachment to my favorite pieces of classical music, and I underestimate the absence it leaves when I go too long without listening to any. And that's been easy to do, lately. Living next to a busy road, and having to keep my windows open because of the heat; the depressing demise of my turntable; the noise from my computer; the casual listening style I've fallen into lately: all these things make it easier for me to just cue up an MP3 of the latest thing I've downloaded, which 90% of the time is something I feel I "ought to have" or "might want to check out" or "should be familiar with", but don't actually particularly enjoy -- and that lack of enjoyment is no doubt at least partly due to the very same listening style that's leading me to stay away from classical music in the first place. It's actually even more problematic, as I've been downloading lots of music that's in some degree experimental, and building a strong connection to that music is hard to do without the repeated listening and deep involvement I described earlier.

  • I wonder if the Grateful Dead community has a term to describe people who like Live/Dead, but practically nothing else the Dead ever recorded. I suspect there are a lot of them. Actually, that's not really true of me at all; despite the fact that I don't care at all for Workingman's Dead, I have an affection for "Friend of the Devil" and "Uncle John's Band", if for no other reason than that they were some of the first songs I ever taped off the radio, on the very first mixtape I ever made for myself, back in 7th grade. (Other tracks on that long-lost tape included "Glass Onion", "White Room", "S.W.L.A.B.R.", "Have a Cigar", "Wish You Were Here", and possibly some Hendrix.) And I remember liking "Box of Rain", though I haven't heard it in a while, and even Terrapin Station. And I've heard a few concert tapes I enjoyed. For that matter, thanks to the generosity of my sister and her boyfriend, I even saw them in concert -- at the tender age of (I think) 12, in 1988 or 1989 at the Shoreline Ampitheater in California -- and, though I didn't see the full show (they started over an hour late), I liked what I heard a lot.

    Having said all that, I recently listened to the first three albums -- the self-titled, Anthem of the Sun, and Aoxomoxoa -- for, as far as I know, the first time ever. That's surprising to some extent, though in fact, they're pretty much the only studio albums by the Dead I've listened to in a long, long time. Live/Dead was the first Dead album I ever really spent much time with; I picked it out of a stack of free vinyl quite a while ago, but only broke it out in 1997 or so -- and was, frankly, blown away by how good it was. I've only listened to Workingman's Dead a couple of times, and my memories of Terrapin Station go back to Reagan's first term. Anyway, my reaction to those first three albums was that they seemed guilty as charged -- in terms of the perennial accusations levelled by Dead-haters: aimless, noodly, ersatz. Every so often an appealing moment would come along, but it would quickly be steamrollered away in a haze of, there's no other way to put it, aimless noodling. I haven't figured out yet why everything clicks so perfectly on Live/Dead and yet seems so uninvolving on the studio albums; I certainly need to give them a few more listens, but even Deadheads have long said that their live shows are where it's at...

  • Pat Metheny likes to play this:

    An excerpt from a hypothetical Pat Metheny solo

    He also likes to play this:

    A second excerpt from a hypothetical Pat Metheny solo

current music: Ralph Towner -- Batik

(Comments for August 15, 2002) (3 comments so far)

 

current reading:

Tom Jones, Henry Fielding

The Computer Connection, Alfred Bester

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