February 29, 2004 (link)
The other day I got a call at work from a marketing firm who wanted to know what radio station I was listening to. It was amusing to be able to tell them "Actually, I'm listening to Tunisian radio", but it would've been more amusing if the woman on the phone had acted surprised or confused: alas, she didn't miss a beat. (Maybe she just thought I was pretentious. "Quid pro quo, Mr. Colt...")
This made me laugh out loud:
Adams: Ok, here's a very good example of an unintended side effect. I told you about my first game Adventureland. Well, to conserve space in the 16K world, I only looked at the first three letters of the nouns and verbs that people typed in. There's a section where there's a bear on a ledge and you've got to get past this large bear and, being a pacifistic game, you're not going to be able to kill the bear no matter which way you try. You can give it honey if you want, but honey is one of your treasures and you're going to end up wasting your treasures.
Current music: Alan Maralung - "Ibis"
February 24, 2004 (link)
There's something about Harold Budd's "Campanile" that makes it almost unbearably painful for me to listen to. It makes me think of early winter in New Hampshire, of quiet afternoons in the Packards' living room, or the red room in the basement of my old house; of sitting in front of the fireplace at three in the morning at Bennington, with Mike and Sara and Kelley, listening to Andreas Vollenweider and feeling suddenly, gently melancholy; of waking up in the morning at Nate's place, listening to the cars pass by and thinking odd, desolate thoughts, of bleak landscapes that seemed perfectly described by the sound of the low notes on a piano, were they struck so quietly as to be only barely audible...
It makes me think about silence, and sadness, and the past, and things I've lost that I wish I could have again. But there's something else, too, something I can't quite name...the image inexplicably hanging in the air, the dark fields...
Current music: Harold Budd - La Bella Vista
February 21, 2004 (link)
"If Morton Feldman is like two or three snowflakes falling quietly to the ground, then Milton Babbitt is like getting hit in the head with unexpected, irregularly shaped hail."
I guess I've noticed before that the introduction to the Opel version of Syd Barrett's "Wined and Dined" was a little irregular, but I never realized just how irregular until today, when I actually sat and counted it out (which took a couple attempts before I got it): Syd takes 4 bars of 4/4 and turns it into 4/4 + 7/8 + 7/8 + 5/8! Of course, in many kinds of music there's a long tradition of what might be called "flexible" phrase lengths; if you listen to a lot of those older blues recordings, a chorus of so-called "12-bar blues" would, as often as not, end up being 13 bars long, or 11, or 12-and-a-half, largely I suspect to accommodate lyrical variations and ad-libs.
Since Syd named the band after two blues musicians (supposedly, anyway -- there's some debate about that), it's easy to think he might have regarded that kind of flexibility as nothing unusual. Plus, there's not much incentive to keep your phrase lengths regular when it's just you and your guitar, as anyone who's ever listened to a mediocre singer-songwriter at an open mic night can attest (not to mention: ever tried playing with one of those people? It's like trying to dance to a skipping CD). And the way Syd plays it sounds pretty natural, which is probably why I never really flagged it before today.
Still, though, it sure is a lot of dropped beats...and if you're sitting here reading my analyses and justifications and thinking "Ummm, the acid did it"...well, yeah, probably.
Current music: Hatfield and the North - (self-titled)
February 18, 2004 (link)
Meta-post on recent incoming searches:
Current music: Matching Mole - "Waterloo Lily"
February 17, 2004 (link)
(I actually wrote half of this post on the 17th, and the rest on the night of the 18th.)
So I ended up going to that William Parker and Henry Grimes concert last night at UPenn, the one that someone left a note about in my comments for February 12. I didn't get back home until after midnight, and it'd been a long day to begin with, so I'm feeling completely exhausted today -- though that probably has more to do with resuming my exercise program on Monday, not to mention helping to move a piano up a flight of stairs this morning (!). [Note on February 18: today, I feel even worse -- sore all over, as though a small child's beaten me up with a baseball bat.]
But let me try to jot down what notes I can about the concert, while it's still fresh in my mind:
Since this was the first free improvisation concert I've been to in Philadelphia (unless you count Scorces last April), I had no idea what kind of attendance to expect: if there had been only a couple dozen people there, I wouldn't have been surprised. As it turned out, the hall was pretty full -- I'd guess there were 150 people in the audience, maybe more -- which was a nice surprise, though I wouldn't have minded being able to sit a bit closer. Another surprise: the usual stereotype is that the audience for free jazz/improvisation is mostly made up of white male hipsters in their 20s, and that the only time you'll see a woman at one of those shows is if she's someone's girlfriend -- or, barring that, if she's a hipster or a avant-garde musician herself. But there were plenty of women at the show who seemed relatively mainstream -- i.e. "not heavily involved in any particular subculture", to quote a good line -- nor were they on the arms of men in black turtlenecks (or tight-fitting ironic T-shirts). Given that there are so many people who (for ideological reasons?) relentlessly harp on musical adventurousness as a trait that's stupid, obsessive, and uniquely male, I guess it's nice to be reminded of yet another way in which that particular ideology is false1.
The concert started about ten minutes late; both musicians were actually sitting outside the door to the hall when I arrived, so I suspect they just wanted to allow some extra time for latecomers to arrive. After a short announcement, Parker and Grimes entered to warm applause (I wonder how many of the people there knew Henry Grimes's story, and how many were there mainly to hear William Parker?) and hoisted their respective basses. (Henry Grimes's bass was of course dark green, the famous Olive Oil.)
They began with an extended improvisation for two basses that went on for at least 35 minutes, and may well have been quite a bit longer (I wasn't wearing a watch); it was by far the most arid and challenging of the five selections they played that evening. For most of the piece, one bassist was bowing while the other one was playing pizzicato -- Parker started out arco, then after a brief passage where they both played pizzicato, Grimes picked up his bow. From my vantage point, I could see much more of Parker than of Grimes, which helped to give the impression that Parker was leading the improvisation -- i.e. the dominant voice and soloist, with Grimes in more of an accompanimental role -- but that may have just been a reflection of their basic style as musicians. The vocabulary was definitely that of free music/free jazz, with a strong feeling of pulse, consistently dissonant/non-tonal harmonic and melodic formulations, and occasional use of microtonal intervals. Occasionally Parker would bring out a particular melodic fragment, turning it into a kind of riff that would serve as a touchstone for a moment; I noticed that he often tended to choose motifs in 6/4, which gave them rhythmic clarity without evoking a lot of the idiomatic reference points that might come up with a motif in 4/4.
It was demanding, even exhausting to listen to, especially over the course of 30-plus minutes, and was certainly quite a lot to take in all at once. It might have helped a bit had there been an extended solo by either of the musicians, rather than have them both play continuously throughout; as it was, I suspect most of us in the audience succumbed to some degree of overload before the piece was over. Still, there were some very appealing moments, particularly when they started making some very quiet sounds that were just shy of silence; indeed, I can think of few concerts I've attended where the very bottom of the dynamic spectrum was explored so consistently (if briefly), and with such clarity.
After that opening, if they'd done more of the same, I'm not sure that collectively we would've been up to it. But for the second song, Parker put down his bass and -- to the audible pleasure of several audience members (i.e. "Yeah!") -- picked up another instrument which I'd thought was a shenai, but turned out to be a nagaswaram (I asked him after the concert). In the wake of 45 minutes of nothing but bass, the wild tone-color of the nagaswaram made for a very pleasing contrast, and Parker's playing was surprisingly fluid and quick, with lots of tasty microtonal shadings. To be honest, though, the nagaswaram became a bit overwhelming after a while -- its sound is innately loud, if not downright strident, and Parker was playing nonstop -- and I again started wishing for a little more space. When he paused about five or six minutes in, giving Henry Grimes his first solo moment of the evening, it was like a breath of fresh air, and I could feel everyone in the room craning forward in the sudden quiet, eager to hear Grimes on his own for the first time. Unfortunately, that moment lasted only about thirty seconds -- Parker came right back in before Grimes had the chance to play much of anything.
However, Parker soon put down his nagaswaram again, this time immediately replacing it with what I'm pretty sure was a shakuhachi. Not only did this make for a huge difference in tone color and dynamics, but it also precipitated a major change in the harmonic idiom, since while the nagaswaram is a chromatic instrument2 -- or, perhaps more accurately, it's an instrument that innately has a high degree of pitch-flexibility -- the shakuhachi is tuned to a pentatonic scale, and so naturally encourages tonal/pentatonic playing3. Once he started playing shakuhachi -- which made a beautiful sound, as you might expect -- the piece immediately shifted into the D minor tonality to which the instrument was tuned, and after a few minutes, drifted to a hushed, pianissimo close (as did most, if not all, of the pieces played that evening -- I don't remember any sudden endings, let alone any crash-bang cadences). It was a great change of gears, and was warmly appreciated by the audience.
For the third piece, Parker picked up yet another instrument, this one a kind of 16-stringed lute with a large, bulbous body, a very thin neck, and a beautiful sound. I thought at first that it might be another Indian instrument -- it had a very subtle buzziness akin to that which many Indian instruments have, though it lacked the metallic quality of a sitar or tamboura -- or if not that, then a kora from Senegal. But it turned out to be a doussn'gouni, an instrument from Mali that I believe I've seen referred to as a "hunter's guitar", and which Don Cherry used to play. The instrument was tuned to an E-flat minor pentatonic scale, and I believe Parker was only playing the open strings (actually, I'm not sure that you can fret a doussn'gouni), so the improvisation that took shape was based around E-flat minor, with Grimes playing a walking bass line in 4/4 under Parker's figurations and patterns, many of which were suggestive of swung jazz rhythms. They played for about six or seven minutes, and in a different context, it might've seemed a bit on the static side -- but after all the challenges posed to us by the first piece-and-a-half, it was a pleasure to be given something so direct and easily intelligible.
Parker again changed instruments for the fourth piece, now taking up another doussn'gouni that (I think) only had six string; it was tuned to the F-sharp minor pentatonic scale, and so the piece that ensued was in F-sharp minor, continuing the shift into tonality that had begun with the introduction of the shakuhachi. Whereas the preceding piece had been fairly leisurely, this one was faster and more rhythmically propulsive. I'd been noticing that several people around me were taking notes -- as it turned out, they were graduate students at Penn, in ethnomusicology and theory as I recall -- so when Parker started playing some very interesting, rhythmically tricky stuff, I decided to pull out a piece of paper and jot down some of what I was hearing. The following motif in 11/8 first appeared a few minutes into the piece, and was repeated quite a few times (if it hadn't been, I probably wouldn't have managed to write it down properly!):
After six or seven minutes, that piece drew to a close. Before beginning the fifth and final piece, which was another duet for two basses, Parker took a moment to remind us that the concert was dedicated to Malachi Favors Maghostut, who died in January. He then added that they'd also like to dedicate the concert to the drummer Walter Perkins, who had also just passed away (news to which several audience members responded with words of dismay; he had apparently been battling lung cancer, and died on Valentine's Day).
The fifth piece began with both basses arco, playing the following dissonant harmony (with William Parker on top):
Both musicians received a standing ovation, each saying the other's name to loud cheers and applause. My sense was that most everyone in the room enjoyed the concert very much, and certainly the concert was structured in such a way as to encourage a nice afterglow: had the order of pieces been reversed, I think most of us would've felt a bit punchy at the end. Morgan has playfully accused me of seeking out difficult musical experiences as a form of personal growth, and there's a grain of truth to that -- certainly, I felt a sense of accomplishment after that demanding opening piece, having managed to stick with it and remain attentive despite feeling pretty overloaded by the end of it. But I also think that, as an audience, many of us came to the concert with a different kind of mindset than we otherwise might have had; certainly, for those of us who knew Mr. Grimes's story, it informed our approach as listeners and helped to remind us that we were getting to hear something quite special and unusual, and to listen in that spirit.
1 (The ideological reasons being, in part: a desire to ghettoize all music that isn't chartpop, hip-hop, or dance music, and a denial of the idea that, much though they may have to offer, there's something about those forms that intrinsically prevents them from expressing certain kinds of very powerful aesthetic content of a kind that -- if it's not putting too fine a point on it -- the world desperately needs. cf. RFK's rephrasing -- "Poetry does not feed, but men have died for want of it." -- of a William Carlos Williams line I can't seem to track down at the moment. Alternative forms of music are then derided as emblematic of the marginalized, disenfranchised, or otherwise devalued -- which serves as an attempt to defang everything challenging and dangerous that those forms of music have to offer, by denying the idea that anyone powerful, or worthy of respect, would ever be interested in engaging with them. It's an attempt which also rather magnificently serves the interests of corporate capitalism/consumerism, but that's another soapbox for another time.)
2(At least I think it is...? Heh, this is funny: when you do a Google search on nagaswaram chromatic, two of the seven hits are Eberhard Weber-related links!)
3(To be fair, the shakuhachi is also a highly flexible instrument, and is fully capable of playing all the notes of the chromatic scale. I suspect, however, that producing non-pentatonic pitches on the shakuhachi requires a fairly advanced level of skill, whereas the nagaswaram seems almost comic in its pitch-flexibility. I wonder if the cornetto is the same way? I remember reading that a cornetto player can easily bend any given note quite a ways in either direction...)
Current music: Richard Lainhart - Ten Thousand Shades of Blue
(there are parts of this, especially "Two Mirrors Face One Another", that sound quite a bit like an electronic piece I wrote back in the late '90s...)
February 15, 2004 (link)
Those of us who spent our Valentine's Day in a state other than that of amorous bliss might appreciate My Creepy Valentine. Favorites are Nos. 2, 7, 18, and especially 25, which made me practically fall out of my chair.
Also, to answer your question about running water and toilets, I just made it up on the spot, in response to the continuing misadventures of Rick. Glad you liked the line, and thanks for the link! (While I'm reading my Sitemeter referrals, I don't know that I ever acknowledged this link from Yomlogs, either.)
Some albums and songs I've enjoyed over the past couple weeks, without comment for the moment:
Current music: Percy Hill - "Sunrise"
February 14, 2004 (link)
The other night I was watching the DVD of Warner Brothers cartoons that just came out. I hadn't seen most of them in a long time, but they were permanently etched into my brain from years of Saturday morning repeats on ABC -- which made it all the more surprising when, here or there, a scene I'd never seen before would creep in to the middle of a cartoon I'd otherwise practically memorized. (Most of the gags that got cut either had some sort of racial-humor component, or were just plain unfunny and/or added nothing to the flow of the cartoon.)
I always liked the cartoon where Bugs Bunny exacts revenge on an irritable opera singer, and having worked professionally on a project about Stokowski, I could better appreciate "Leopold! Leopold!" -- and the whole cartoon, for that matter -- than I could when I was ten. But one of my favorite parts, then and now, remained the same though I'd completely forgotten about it: near the beginning, Bugs plays a series of three melodies on three different instruments -- banjo, harp, and tuba -- each of which is, in turn, broken or otherwise violently attacked by Giovanni Jones (the opera singer). I've always been fond of the song he plays on the harp, the lyrics to which are something like:
Oh my gal is a high part stepper
(The harp then gets broken over/around Bugs's head, as I recall.)
Seeing it again the other night, I thought to myself "So what is that song, anyway?" It didn't take long to find a transcription of the lyrics taken from the cartoon, but getting a page that actually identified it proved more difficult -- until I found this message board post, which in turn led to this transcription. (Warning: both pages contain offensive language.)
So "Ginger" turns out to be derived from "My Gal is a High-born Lady", an old (and apparently, rather popular) minstrel song. Did the alternate lyrics predate the cartoon, I wonder? It's certainly possible, and it'd hardly be the first time that questionable lyrics were replaced so that a good melody could be recycled ("The Star-Spangled Banner", anyone?).
But if the lyrics were written in-house, I can't help but be curious -- what motivated Chuck Jones to pick this song in particular? It's possible that he just liked the tune, or that he figured it'd have a vague resonance for some audience members. Judging by the cover art you have to figure that the song was at least a couple decades old when the cartoon was made in 1949 -- and as I scout around, it appears to be much older: a copyright date of 1896 (renewed 1918) is listed here, and this Wikipedia entry confirms it. On the other hand, it's hard to imagine a song with those lyrics staying popular for such a long time -- over fifty years! -- assuming it didn't take on a life of its own, whether as an instrumental or with different lyrics. (This site says such songs didn't stay popular past the first decade of the 20th century, though that seems a bit early to me.)
But if the song didn't stay popular, why did Jones pick it? Was he slipping in a little surprise for the older members of the audience, along the lines of "Somebody get this freakin' duck away from me" -- in other words, something they could recognize with amusement? It's hard to know what the song (and the melody itself) meant to people then, in other words. I don't think Jones was going crypto- or anything like that -- if you look at cartoons from, say, a decade earlier, some of those questionable gags were anything but crypto-. But it's still an interesting question, one I'm not equipped to answer.
(I still like Bugs' version, though.)
Current music: Sume - "Kiisa Puigulertorpagit" (straight outta Greenland)
February 12, 2004 (link)
Crap, I left "Hey Bulldog" off the list? That was a mistake. (It should be somewhere in the top 40.)
Current music: Earth - Special Low Frequency (Truth in advertising.)
February 11, 2004 (link)
To my total astonishment, Stereolab's new album is energetic, attractive, and -- at least at first listen -- easily the best thing they've done since Dots and Loops. I suppose that's not saying much, considering how lousy their last few releases have been...but given how lifeless and dull I expected it to be, the fact that it's actually a pretty decent record is a major surprise (to me, at least).
Meanwhile, yesterday I downloaded about a dozen Beatles videos, and have been checking them out. The first big surprise was "Hey Bulldog", which may well be the best of the lot; it's basically just the Beatles recording the song in the studio, but the visuals are a real treat -- they move in a way I'd never have guessed, particularly Paul, who spends the whole time bobbing and rocking back and forth, animated and intent. It really brought home how completely they knew what they were doing in front of an audience -- both in terms of their stage presence, and their focus, if that makes sense -- and how hard they had probably worked at getting to that point (especially John and Paul).
The other big surprise was the video for "Something" -- or rather the first 30 seconds of it, which was all I could find. I'd seen pictures of Pattie Boyd before, and had never really seen the appeal -- she seemed overly made-up, and basically just not my type. But in this, well...let me put it this way, she looks every bit the woman who would inspire what's been described as "the greatest love song of all time". Why she doesn't strike me that way in all these other pictures I've seen, I have no idea...if it were anyone else I'd say she wasn't photogenic, but the woman was a model!
(And suddenly it occurs to me what the first line in the song is -- i.e. it ain't "Something in the way she looks", right? Then again, cf. "Darling, you look wonderful tonight".)
(Which is also a good song, as is "Layla" for that matter.)
Current music: Stereolab - Margerine Eclipse
February 6, 2004 (link)
Once again, for those of you who like this sort of fish, this is the sort of fish you'll like: here's my review of J.'s newest Waldo disc, iTunes Random. Let me know what you think!
Jemand von der Schweiz ist durch eine Suchen nach "Rainer Brüninghaus transcription" (mit Google.ch) hier gekommen. Warum sagen Sie nicht "Hallo", na ja? (Mein Großvater war von Basel gekommen.)
Current music: Space - "Female of the Species"
February 5, 2004 (link)
So I thought to myself, "What are my fifty favorite Beatles songs?", and decided to find out:
Five George songs, around 20 Paul songs, and the rest are John Lennon's; almost every track from Abbey Road; not so much from their early days. I thought I might run out of songs, but far from it -- there are another twenty or so I might like to put in here. I could easily futz with the order for another hour, but it's time for bed!
Current music: The Beatles -- Red
Euripides II, ed. Richmond Lattimore and David Grene
Euripides III, ed. Richmond Lattimore and David Grene