Eyes That Can See in the Dark

a music journal
 

July 30, 2003 (link)

11:56 PM

Not A Kitten says, "Let's hear the fishing line story!" And I'm happy to oblige, though there's really not much to it:

When I was 12 or so, my parents got a postcard from a former friend of my father's, a man he knew (casually, I suspect) when he was a student at Brown. The postcard was an advertisement for a concert in the area -- which, in New Hampshire terms, means "within 100 miles" -- at which he would, apparently, be playing the bowed piano. This was new to me, and -- not having heard John Cage, etc. -- I remember being bemused by the picture on the postcard, which showed this man wearing a tux and bowing a piano that had (I think) been retooled in some way to make for easier bowing. "Bowed piano? What does he do, wiggle a violin bow between the strings? Do they bend the frame into a curve so he can reach them all? What a silly idea," I probably thought to myself, and figured his act probably amounted to little more than comedy.

A few days/weeks/months later, my parents told me it was time to clean up the house from top to bottom. When I asked why, I was informed that the bowed piano guy was coming to stay with us, and we needed to have the house spic-and-span for company. Naturally, this annoyed me -- though I wasn't quite as much of a slob at that age as I had been, I was still pretty bad -- and so, while I did in fact help out with the cleanup, I no doubt grumbled and resented my way through it, and bore the bowed piano guy no great goodwill.

On the appointed day (I'm pretty sure they told me when he was coming), I was walking home after school, on the dirt road that led from the bus stop to my house, when a car I didn't recognize drove up behind me, slowed down, and pulled up next to me. I'd imagine my initial reaction to this was an anxious one -- it wouldn't surprise me if, in that instant, I thought to myself "Oh, no, it's one of those kidnappers" or somesuch -- but it quickly turned to astonishment when the window rolled down, the people in the car shouted at me, I turned around, and it was...

My eldest sister and her boyfriend -- who lived in California, and whom I hadn't seen in far too long -- or at least certainly wasn't expecting to see!

So the whole thing was, of course, a hoax -- the bowed piano guy was never coming to stay. I have no idea why or how my parents seized on that particular trick, but it was a good one, and worked perfectly: I was completely fooled, and what a nice surprise I got instead!

Current music: Agitation Free - Fragments

(Comments for July 30, 2003)

July 27, 2003 (link)

1:53 PM

And now, let's do it again.

Side A:

The drone gets the first thirty seconds more or less to itself, except for the tape hiss. One might mistake the first sounds of motion, in the background, for a small wave reaching the shore. The next sound, at about 1:00, is definitely some sort of glass object, scraping -- it makes me think of a Mason jar being dragged across pavement. The cover of the tape depicts leaves, some nuts, maybe berries too; should I think programmatically? The wooden flute definitely has -- I want to say "anti-modern" associations, though that's not quite it, but it certainly is associated with cultures in which harvest is a prominent part of the annual calendar. (How many people walking down the street in NYC would know when harvest time is? Do I, even? I have some vague thoughts about September-October, but...) Here comes the bowed cymbal, or it might be a very low piano string being struck or otherwise played with some sort of object -- it's a bit like the open pianos in upstairs Commons. (Maybe it was bowed with fishing-line? There's a story I should tell sometime.) The pitched white noise sounds a bit like an airplane taking off. And a hint of a countermelody emerges, somewhere way in the background, but it quickly gives way to the pitched white noise and the sound of the outdoors. The noises in the background seem quite purposeful, as though it's a location recording being made of some sort of process (rather than a guy randomly making a bunch of noises with dry objects in the middle of nowhere). For a moment that large object sounds like it's going to be a thunderclap. Another Pink Floyd association between the "whoosh" -- or more correctly, three whooshes, the last of which is followed by a light "smack" -- and the end of "Grantchester Meadows" off Ummagumma.

Side B:

Is the synthesizer-heavy texture of this side in conscious contrast to the naturalistic textures of the first? My favorite part of each of these sounds is typically the resonance it creates within the (presumably artificial/digital) reverb, bringing out individual harmonics which are relatively pure in tone and which "sing" nicely. The first "tap" -- which sounds like it was passed through a harmonic resonator, to clarify what I wrote earlier -- sounds structurally different when you know it's going to be a key part of the subsequent texture. I wonder what that underwater object is? It makes me think of a large shape made of relatively narrow plastic tubes, being turned over and moved around in the tub I mentioned before. The E drone started out high, but has re-emerged at a lower pitch. The way the tape saturates/drops out when the big "thump" noise hits reminds me of the foley effects for big explosions in the movies -- I wonder if they use analog tape to get that "near-silence in the middle of an extremely loud noise" effect? What's being cranked by hand -- an old camera? A projector? A free-standing bicycle wheel? At the moment this track appeals to me less than Side A, largely because there's less space in it and the sounds seem a bit more digital (and obvious). The "washing machine" definitely makes me think of a water-related sound -- the closest I can come up with is a lawn sprayer, but it's not percussive and clipped like those are. And then it ends.

I should do this more often!

Current music: same.

1:32 PM

My impressions of Harvest by Andrew Chalk, written down in real time as it plays, with no editing (other than typos and formatting) after the fact. (I did something similar a while back, with a piece by Bernard Parmegiani, here.) I've heard bits of Harvest before, but never really listened to the whole thing.

Here we go:

Side A (9:38):

A deep oscillator plays a very low C. In the background, I hear things moving around -- paper rustling? A soda bottle being moved on dirt? Now the drone starts to sound more like C-sharp, and a wooden flute of some sort comes in, playing a pentatonic-ish and mournful-sounding melody. It's got a very attractive, rich tone, and its placement in the soundstage isn't quite upfront -- there's some reverb and a palpable feeling of distance. The deep oscillator sounds a bit like a down-tuned, bowed bass -- I'm thinking a little bit of the final note in Jaco's "John and Mary". I'm not getting a good bead on those sounds in the background (4:40) -- should I be thinking about the title? Now bowed cymbal comes in, and then fades back away after a moment -- and then comes back in again. Whoever's playing the flute is using upper grace notes a lot -- little leaps down, from something around an A-sharp to whatever note's on the bottom. It gives the whole thing a C-sharp minor 6th feel. Now the drone's gone away, and now we're hearing breathy noises that hint at being pitched, but then aren't -- and now the flute's gone away, and it sounds like we're hitting wooden things together somewhere near a highway (a car passes by) or an airport. A creak, like an old, rusty gate being opened. Someone's whistling, more-or-less tunelessly. Footsteps, tape hiss, and the sound of something very large being moved. Then the sound of something being swung through the air -- a wooden pole? -- quickly enough to "whoosh". A car or airplane starts to come closer, gets louder -- and is then cut off, as if by an edit, and the track ends.

Side B (9:52):

Completely different from Side A. Huge synthesizer drone, playing in some sort of a G minor, big and sloppy and heavily reverbed. Altered notes come in, then drift back out. (Should I be thinking of "Shine On You Crazy Diamond"? Probably not.) The notes on top are buzzy or metallic, the drone on the bottom is fairly smooth/warm. The aural impression is very "vertical" -- things on top of other things, moving in discrete but not independent layers. Three minutes in, everything drops out, cued by a sound that calls to mind Forbidden Planet and 1950s style high-to-low sinewave glisses with tape delay. Now it's a low E, much quieter, and we have a few different sounds -- light, percussive harmonically resonant taps; an alien-sounding hum that sounds akin to the "chirpies" that come frome excessive digital noise reduction; and now -- the sounds are mounting faster than I can type about them -- there's a deep rumble, almost like bass feedback, that's getting louder and louder, but just crested and pulled back a bit. Meanwhile, over the top, vaguely metallic, pitched sounds -- C-sharp, G-sharp -- play single notes, like more bowed cymbals but decidedly clearer in pitch. Now we get something that sounds like a large structure being moved around underwater, like in a very large tub, while the percussive sounds (picture a metal string being struck with a wooden dowel, with reverse reverb on it) keep coming. A lot of change now, too much to keep up with: a sound like some sort of old clock, winding back and forth. The alien sounds from before are getting quite loud, or maybe it's a slightly different version thereof because it definitely doesn't sound so much like the chirpies. The pitched sounds up top remind me of Seefeel's "Meol" a bit. Another Forbidden Planet sound comes in, taking a sinewave from top to bottom and back again. Big thumps, deep in the bass register, causing what sound like tape dropouts (probably a recording media issue, since this was transferred from cassette). Now everything's quiet, with just a relatively faint hum and a cycling sound akin to a pint-sized washing machine...and then that fades out, and it's over.

Current music: Andrew Chalk - Harvest

(Comments for July 27, 2003) (3 comments so far)

July 15, 2003 (link)

6:00 PM

In praise of speaking plainly:

From his discussions, Perry has concluded that Bush simply won't enter into genuine talks with Pyongyang's Stalinist government. "My theory is the reason we don't have a policy on this, and we aren't negotiating, is the president himself," Perry said. "I think he has come to the conclusion that (North Korean leader) Kim Jong Il is evil and loathsome and it is immoral to negotiate with him."

Meanwhile, at the Asia Times:

Although North Korea pursued its enriched-uranium program in the latter days of the Clinton administration, analysts Joel Wit and James Laney suggest that the program accelerated only when the Bush administration cranked up its hostile rhetoric - suspending diplomatic contact, criticizing South Korean president Kim Dae-jung's engagement policy, and ultimately including Pyongyang in its infamous "axis of evil". Whatever doubts remained in Pyongyang about US intentions were dispelled by the war in Iraq, which led North Korean leaders to draw three conclusions. A non-aggression agreement with the United States was pointless. No inspections regime would ever be good enough for Washington. And only a nuclear weapon would deter a US intervention.

On that cheery note, a nice link I came across recently: go to Art of the States to hear recordings of American contemporary music, including a complete recording of Elliott Carter's "Night Fantasies".

Current music: Pink Floyd - "Absolutely Curtains / Childhood's End" (live at the Hallenstadion, Zurich, December 9, 1972)

(Comments for July 15, 2003)

July 12, 2003 (link)

12:20 AM

I'm in the middle of finishing up a couple CD reviews for a certain publication (whose latest issue is due out very shortly) -- which is where I've been lately, by the way, as I wanted to honor that commitment before I resumed writing about other music. Anyway, after I finish a review, but before I submit it, I tend to take a moment and look on the web for others' reviews of the same album, in case I've missed anything blazingly obvious, made a major factual error, or in some way failed to engage the album as well as I should. Of course, I try to avoid reading these reviews before I write mine, for obvious reasons; mainly, I want to come up with my own insights -- or in any event want to earn them on my own, even if they turn out to be the same as someone else's, which is likely to happen if you've got two people writing about the same thing, right? I'm not too worried about covering the same ground that someone else already has, but I do want to do it independently.

So last night, I finished my review of Ogurusu Norihide's Modern on my laptop, which is not currently Internet-capable. After transferring the file to my desktop PC tonight, I queued up the album to give it one more listen, and decided in the meantime to take a look what others had written about it. It's a pretty straightforwardly conceived album, so I figured my review wouldn't be too dissimilar to others out there. But I was astonished to read this review, which I'm 99% sure I'd never seen before in my life, and find that we'd written several phrases that were almost identical. To wit:

Me: "...there's a palpable feeling of calm that's present throughout Modern, and it's tempting to ascribe at least part of that to Norihide's background as a Shinto priest..."

Junkmedia (Susanna Bolle): "It's tempting to ascribe Norihide's predilection for simplicity to his formal training as a Shinto priest..."

Or, less strikingly:

Me: "His is an overtly minimalist aesthetic, one which needs only the smallest of things from which to build its songs: a few notes played on a piano, a faint digital click, a handful of chords strummed on an acoustic guitar, a quiet handclap."

Junkmedia: "Norihide explored a clear and restrained musical aesthetic based on simple repetitive melodic patterns comprised of a scant few musical elements -- acoustic guitar, piano, subtle electronics."

Of course, I don't intend to rewrite my review: why would I, really? There are enough differences of approach, phrasing and opinion to ensure that anyone who reads our respective reviews will have no trouble differentiating between the two. But it's still funny, and a bit alarming. In a world full of writers it's inevitable that we'll inadvertently reprise each other's thoughts, and I've always been aware of the possibility; it's certainly happened to me in music -- more than once, in the past, I've "written" a song only to realize that I'd cribbed someone else's melody.

There's something about having it happen in prose, though, that's particularly unsettling: call it one-third Great minds think alike?, one-third Is there nothing new under the sun?, and one-third I'll never look at evidence of supposed plagiarism in quite the same way again. And I've read music writers complain about other writers "stealing" bits of prose and turns of phrases from them -- though to their credit, they usually acknowledge that it's probably unconscious. Still, I suspect that if Susanna Bolle ever reads my review without reading the above, she'll probably at least raise an eyebrow.

So, Susanna, if you should happen to pass this way: not guilty!

Current music: Ogurusu Norihide - Modern

(Comments for July 12, 2003)

July 1, 2003 (link)

10:51 PM

And, by the way:

I quite liked the review of "My Husband, Lover, Friend," too! That's a great ongoing series. I was, however, hoping for another appearance of the great line you uttered in mild exasperation when you first played the song for me: "What, is his name Lover Friend?"

8:52 PM

Only a week or two after our first guest contributor, here's our second: Absintheur, aka Spherey J., was kind enough to help me with my latest song-poem review of a song whose lyrics eluded me in a couple places. His comments are interpolated with my own and, naturally, they're in green.

And away we go:

"Barbra", lyrics by Thadeus Jones, performed by The Melodiers.

Why, it's Rock Music! The insistent bassline, the fleet-footed drums! I do like the way this song starts -- it's got rather more of a bang than your average song-poem. We have two guitars, but they sound like they may well be the same guitar played with two different pickup settings, so who knows if we actually have two guitarists. We're a few dozen cents north of E minor, and we're probably not in our parents' garage, despite efforts to sound like we are.

I'd actually never listened to ["Barbra"] before you sent me this email, but it's one of the more variant ones, musically; it must be from many years later than some of the other specimens from the ASPMA site.

According to the ASPMA, when this 45 was up on Ebay, the A-side, "Freedom One", was characterized as "blatantly [ripping] off 'Paint It Black' with ill-fitting lyrics". I originally misread that as referring to "Barbra", which left me a bit confused, though it isn't the most unlikely comparison in the world. (It's not as if they said, you know: "Total rip-off of Górecki's Third! Polish pandemonium!!")

Barbra, you're like a dream come true

And of course, before the needle even hit vinyl you were thinking: "B-A-R-B-R-A? Like Streisand? Does anyone really...?" It could be anything, really -- misspelling, or indeed a paean to a large-nosed egotist prone to attacks of silly paranoia.

Meanwhile, I think our singer actually is young, as opposed to an older guy (not you, Martin Mechanic!) trying to sound young. Nice enough voice, I guess. The melody starts out a bit unusually, sliding up to an unexpected upper neighbor note. Improvisation, accident, or intentional compositional decision? Stay tuned...

A yellow bird lets me know how

This was the first lyric that tripped me up; I just couldn't get a fix on it. Sometimes it sounds like -- well, I'll let A. take this one:

Barbra's singer is pretty mushmouthed in several places.

[Definitely!]

The thing is, it sounds to me like he's singing "...lets me know how" in the first verse, and "that's me know how?" in the second verse.

[Or even "that's me, noh-huh" the first time round, and "that's me, don't know" the second.]

The latter makes even less sense, though - not as if a yellow bird letting him know that Barbra's like a dream seems at all logical or apropos of anything whatsoever - but perhaps the writer is attempting a variation on the "a little bird told me" expression; that's more likely than the author deeming himself a yellow bird with no exposition to back up such an out-of-left-field assertion.

[A "canary love" sort of thing, really, though thankfully not Chirpy-esque.]

So I cast my vote for "lets me know how," though that's more contextual than genuinely interpretive.

I would also like to express my fondness for that particular beer -- though part of me still wants to turn the line into one in which Barbra is the "yellow bird": "Barbra, you're like a dream, you're like a yellow bird that..." That what, though? Without a plausible action on the part of the yellow bird, this interpretation must give way. Perhaps it can be salvaged: can you, out there, hear anything we haven't?

Barbra, I'd love to share with you
Give you all the love that's in my heart

There's a debate about how to pronounce "banal", did you know? "Some Panelists admit to being so vexed by the problem that they tend to avoid the word in conversation." That's a shame, since it's so often a relevant word. (Q.E.D.)

Barbra, love is good and it's fun
And love's happiness outshines the sun

Thus begins the song's B-section, such at it is, with a drop into C major (or Db if you prefer). A touch of unexpected vibrato in the vocals here, kind of like Marty Balin but less good. [I'm fond of Marty, and have always liked Jefferson Airplane.]

Love's a shabby gown meant for two

You know when you drink orange juice, or milk, or eat a lot of ice cream, and your spit gets really thick? And you know how sometimes, when you do that, some saliva gets on your vocal cords, and your voice unexpectedly becomes odd and glottal and congested -- kind of like the way Slavs (or Saturday Night Live actors pretending to be Slavs) swallow their L's, except it's happening to every word you say, and keeps happening until you clear your throat or drink a glass of water? That's the way Mr. Melodier sings "shabby gown": his epiglottis eats it right up. It took me a bunch of tries to get a read on it (early attempts included "cap and gown" and "type of gown") and even now I'm not sure I got it right.

I do think he's saying that love's a "shabby gown," although that makes no sense, either as a legitimate metaphor or in the context of the song. I wanted to believe it was, perhaps, a "chamois gown," not that many gowns are sewn from chamois, mind you, but why call love a shabby gown?

Sort of a J. Geils Band / Dominique Deruddere thing, I guess. I figure I've seen worse metaphors -- though are there that many gowns for two? At least it beats "Love's a pair of Fundies" or something. (This kind, not that kind, nor this kind either.)

And we're the two that design was for

A real E-Lentil, this one. After many attempts -- "whether two like the silo for"? "wither too like the silence four"? -- I'd settled on "And we're the two that the sign was for", but I like Absintheur's reading better:

The only correction I'd offer is in the last line of the verses - "And we're the two that the sign was for." I think, instead, he's referencing the shabby gown from the previous lines, and is singing "we're the two that design was for."

Not such a bad line, really, in its way. It's at least a little more creative, a little less stereotyped, than your typical "we're meant to be together" stuff.

And now the guitarist turns it up and we get a Sixties Garage Guitar Solo! The key to enjoying this kind of solo is to treat it as an atmospheric part of the sound-world of the song, rather than as a narrative in its own right. Do that, and it can be fun; listen to the notes themselves, you'll just hear a series of clichés and semi-competences, thunking tamely to the ground like a flock of narcoleptic chickadees successively succumbing.

Our singer returns:

Barbra, you're like a dream come true
A yellow bird lets me know how

Not only do we get no improvement in the diction, but we've abandoned the little interesting lilt that the first verse had: "Melodiers", my foot!

Barbra, I'd like to share with you
Give you all the love that's in my heart

Hey, before it was "I'd love to share with you" -- having second thoughts, there, Mr. Jones? Speaking of which, I'm sure it isn't him, but it's fun to imagine that Mr. Thadeus Jones is actually a certain jazz trumpeter so smitten with Funny Girl that he couldn't record his message of love himself, and had to immortalize her in song-poem instead. It'd certainly improve the song if he showed up, unless he started quoting "Cherry Pink & Apple Blossom White" or "Pop Goes the Weasel".

Barbra, love is good and it's fun
And love's happiness outshines the sun

What edgy, risky lyrics! "Love is good! Love is fun!" Golly, no one thinks that! And you know, that's the perfect thing to say to a coy lover: "Well, I don't know..." "Come on, love is fun! And good, too!" "Oh, OK. I didn't realize. Please feel free to woo."

Love's a shabby gown for two

I remember one time, out of nowhere, the phlegmy/post-orange-juice stuff got on my vocal cords, and turned my voice into a vocoded robot! It was the strangest thing -- my friend Diane and I looked at each other, as if to say "Did you hear what I hear?" I sounded like Kraftwerk! It went away almost instantly, alas; if only I'd had the presence of mind to go "Au-u-u-u....to-o-o-o-oh...baa-a-a-a-ahn..." Or even better, "Elektronenklänge...aus dem Radioland..."

And we're the two that design was for

Our lead singer belts forth the last of it, the Sixties Garage Guitar Solo returns, and we fade out.

Current music: A yellow bird lets me know how.

(Comments for July 1, 2003) (4 comments so far)

 

Current reading:

Euripides I, ed. Richmond Lattimore and David Grene

just finished:

Fires on the Plain, Shohei Ooka

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