September 16, 2001 (link)
With a name like Ethel the Blog, I almost overlooked this, Josh's link notwithstanding. But there's important information to be had there, especially the entries about the WTC warning and how CNN's now-infamous footage of Palestinians cheering the WTC attack was allegedly taken from a tape made in 1991!! Yikes.
[Addendum, 9/17/01: the scuttlebutt is now that the latter story isn't true. I can no more verify its untruth than I could verify its truth -- something about which I should've been clearer when I posted this. However, I certainly do not agree, as the Snopes link implies, that this was merely a question of "stock footage" -- it's far too inflammatory a clip for that, and it's irresponsible of Snopes to suggest otherwise. When you're dealing with a piece of video that will be instrumental in inspiring American citizens to advocate the slaughter of Palestinians, there can be no room whatsoever for stock footage.]
[2nd addendum: And, as Badgerminor says, "Of course, according to Snopes, i'm supposed to accept without question that they definitely are real because a guy at CNN said that they were real." Badger's been linking to me for a while now, and it's about time I returned the favor -- notice the sidebar.]
You know, there's nothing like Fela Kuti to get you out of a funk. (Which sounds rather odd, considering that his music is, you know, pretty damn funky.) It did take me a while to get on the right wavelength for Fela, but I came around. "Shuffering and Smiling", "No Agreement", "Dog Eat Dog" -- these are tunes I like to play, and tunes I like to listen to. After having tried to compose this afternoon and getting thoroughly frustrated, I felt sick and tired of music -- not even Miles did the trick. But Fela did!
Reading this story on Slashdot makes me wish I knew how to keep abreast of similar meetings in the Philadelphia area -- I'd like a chance to speak out, as best I can, in favor of civil liberties and free speech. I generally tend to avoid political gatherings, because I tend to leave them with a lower opinion of my fellow human beings. But I suspect that's hardly an excuse.
Last week, I ordered some "new" (used) CDs from half.com -- which, as it happens, was the first time I'd purchased new music in quite a while. Two have arrived so far, and unfortunately, one's only so-so and the other one stinks. The so-so one is Deformo's The Queen Bazaar EP, which has the same relationship to their full-length as many EPs do: the good songs are on the full-length, and the leftovers are on the EP. "English" could grow on me, and of course "Mr. Saturday Night" is great, but that's on the full-length. I don't mind the disc, but it's hardly as good as its mate.
The stinker is the Hang-Ups' So We Go -- and what a disappointment it is. I really liked the live version of "Sweet Tooth" from Stuck on AM, and had meant to get this album for a while. The lo-fi sound samples at CDNow didn't grab me, admittedly -- and you know, I knew I wouldn't like this album -- but I felt like I had to get it anyway. And lo and behold, I don't like it at all. As my girlfriend put it, "It sounds like a watered-down version of something that wasn't very good to begin with." The production is overblown, overcompressed, and very dated (big, loud, jangly '90s grunge sound), and the songs just don't engage me in the slightest -- they seem hackneyed and strained and cloying and, well, kinda dumb. Even the song I liked, "Sweet Tooth", is unremarkable here, in its studio version. I really wanted to like these guys, but I just can't stand this record! Loud and bland: not a good combination. Good thing it was cheap...
And I finally finished Fagles' translation of the Odyssey. Perhaps I'll post some comments about it at some point. It definitely strikes a good balance, succumbing neither to the overly colloquial tendencies from which Stanley Lombardo sometimes suffers, nor to the stilted archaisms of more "formal" translations. Yet...was there something missing? I'm not sure. I'd never really read the Odyssey before -- we hit it at some point in Classical Lit in high school, I think, but it really went in one ear and out the other. It could be that I just prefer the Iliad -- I don't know, really.
September 15, 2001 (link)
Oh, and 11. Datacide - So Much Light: Do spend some time with it. That album is such a masterpiece...I don't understand why those guys (Atom Heart and Tetsu Inoue) don't do more like it. Seldom have I heard anything so richly textured and warm and elusive.
Absintheur is still writing about the set I sent him, and I'm still enjoying his writing. Here are a few reactions to what he's written about disc 3:
I've had a copy of Carla Bley's album Heavy Heart for something like eight years now, but have never managed to listen to it -- every time I've started, the opening track, "Light or Dark", has put me off so thoroughly that I've bailed out and listened to something else. My impression was that the album would compare quite unfavorably to Night-Glo, which I've discussed here before; whereas Night-Glo (released in 1985) was inspired enough to turn its cheesy aspect into something of an asset, Heavy Heart (which came out in 1983) seemed even cheesier, and uninspired to boot.
Listening to it now, for the second time today, I can say that my intuition was basically correct. Admittedly, it's not quite as bad as I thought it was the first time through. Most notably, my tape copy seems to have a speed problem (it runs too fast), which is totally inexcusable for a commercial cassette. I wasn't sure the first time, but now that I've corrected it (using the pitch control on my lovely Tascam 130, a deck I highly recommend), it's pretty obvious. (The Dolby noise reduction sounds much better, too, which makes me suspect that this was a mechanical glitch, rather than a mastering error.) The timbres of the album were thoroughly grating at the faster speed, but it sounds much more akin to Night-Glo, timbrally at least, at the correct speed.
But it doesn't have any of the lilt or grace of Night-Glo, and furthermore is dated in a way that's far harder to overlook -- a fair number of cheesy '80s timbres are in evidence, particularly a "fake brass" synth patch (a Synclavier, perhaps?) that Bley seems to like to mix with the real horns. The compositions, most of which have a Latin tinge, are nothing terribly gripping; about half of the tunes fall prey to some sort of uninteresting harmonic ostinato, and the others seem like fairly by-the-numbers Fuzak -- "Joyful Noise" sounding suspiciously like an outtake from the Showcase Showdown music from The Price is Right. The blatting, spitty trombone in "Ending It" is simply obnoxious (not least because it's often too loud in the mix). The late Kenny Kirkland and (despite his tacky guitar tone) Hiram Bullock inject a bit of life into matters in "Joyful Noise" and "Starting Again", but their solos are too brief and have too little support to really be exciting. And the title track, though it has a couple moments (the organ solo being one of them), is still too Fuzak-ish to engage me, and the big-band-style flourishes at the end are thoroughly unconvincing. From the song titles, I suspect the album may have some semi-programmatic content having to do with Carla Bley's romance with Steve Swallow and consequent separation from Michael Mantler (her second husband), but I'm not sure.
Bottom line: don't bother with this album. It's not offensively terrible, but it's pretty mediocre.
Absintheur tells me I should post this, an excerpt (slightly edited) from an email I sent him yesterday:
Misinterpretations, like mistakes, can provide a valuable opportunity for considering possibilities that one might never think of. We train ourselves to think in such specific and particular modes that we tend to forget the sheer number of possibilities that actually do exist. Some of the best moments in my compositions have come from mistakes -- like the syncopation of the 2nd violin at the fast part in my string and piano piece, which was originally a Finale glitch, but which worked so well that I kept it. Or from splicings -- the best moment in my Jody piece [...] was a place where I originally had a lot of other material, but after cutting it out, suddenly found that the juxtaposition of two chords (Cm/Eb, E9sus4/B) was beautiful. Or from processes set into motion, the end of which I can't foresee -- like my piece Three, the first two-thirds of which were literally generated out of whole cloth: the second third from a .10 second sample, drawn by hand and expanded to three minutes, and the first third from taking that three-minute piece and convoluting it with a pitch-shifted sample from a Chick Corea album (!). If the outcome is beautiful, who cares how you made it? Composition is sculpture too, not just architecture. I only see the simple pieces in advance.
September 13, 2001 (link)
I guess another thing that troubles me at times like these is my feeling that, in the majority of observers, the tendency is to focus on the big picture -- in other words, the overall loss of life ("10,000 people"), the scale of the tragedy, the implications for the future, and the effect on the policies and lifestyle of the nation at large. But in a very real way, focusing on the big picture precludes most kinds of genuine sympathy and compassion. It reminds me of how my 8th-grade teacher kept intoning the mantra "Four million Jews, four million Jews" while lecturing about the Holocaust. I tend to think that, in most people, the effect of such statements isn't empathy -- it's awe. Such numbers are not only too large to grasp, but too impersonal as well. To most people -- and certainly to most grade-school students -- "four million Jews" is really little more than an abstraction, an idea, one not capable of inciting a genuinely compassionate reaction.
The emotions of our class would likely have been far more engaged by listening to one or two of the survivors' interviews I transferred at my old job. Underlying all secular morality (or at least that of the Hegelian sort) is that moment when we look into the eyes of a fellow human being and realize, "He is like me, and I am like him" (masculine pronoun used for convenience's sake) -- in other words, that the drives and loves and fears we feel are, on some level, the same as his, and that he exists, and is not merely a solipsistic creation of our imagination. Something of this moment of recognition can be transmitted in survivors' tales, turning the victims of whom they speak from numbers, or abstractions, into irreplaceable human beings -- and, in the most harrowing and lucid of these tales, we can have that rare, but crucial, experience of appreciating both sides of the horror of murder: both the horror of the victims, and the horror of the loss suffered by those who loved them. The former is the experience of being extinguished; the latter of having a hole in one's world that can never be filled. I suspect the horror of witnessing violence, and murder itself, is something to which people are more easily desensitized than they are to the horror of the loss that marks its aftermath -- if they're able to truly apprehend the latter.
I promised myself I'd keep mum on the whole thing, but:
What You Can't Do: Bring back any of the people who have died, or make their final moments any less horrible. Seek vengeance with any reasonable chance of being both successful and just. Fully prevent people on either side from exploiting the events of September 11th for their own ends, or to their own profit.
What You Can Do: Give blood if you can. If you have an Arab or Muslim friend, walk them home from work, or to the store; speak out against assaults on the persons and property of American Muslims. Donate what you can to the appropriate charities. Give your old PC, or other computer equipment, to the Red Cross. Give your old friends a call. Monitor the media, but with a critical eye and ear. Be quietly worried -- and when the moment is right, be vocal in your support of the just. (What constitutes justice is, of course, something each of us needs to decide for ourselves. I can comfortably say, however, that in my view, it does not include carpet-bombing Afghanistan.) And remember what it means to die, and the infinite void that a human life leaves in the universe when it is Xed before its time.
I won't add to the chorus of voices talking about Tuesday's events; I know of nothing I would say that hasn't already been said. Suffice it to say that, as far as I know, all of my family and friends are OK.
This is an interesting link on racial profiling and its relationship to the so-called war on drugs. It certainly reemphasizes what I've long thought -- that America's drug policy is total madness, and is motivated by avarice, hysteria, and malice.
Actually, I will say one thing about Tuesday: I fear that one of its consequences will be a new-found willingness on the part of the greater public to agree to nearly any abrogation of its liberty that the government might propose, in the name of preventing further attacks. People will sell nearly anything down the river to "guarantee" their own safety.
September 10, 2001 (link)
If you think Boards of Canada's Hi Scores EP is brilliant -- as I do -- but find some of their other work less engaging, you might want to check out Arovane. So far I've listened to the Tides full-length, the i.o. EP, and the yeer/disper split 7" with Christian Kleine; of those, Tides was probably the best. His stuff isn't as sleekly perfect as Boards of Canada can be, and his sound-world is a bit different, but there's a similarity there nonetheless (they're both "rain bands", if that makes any sense, though my own association with listening to BOC in the rain is probably skewing my perspective). Minimal beats with cool, flat-key synths, the occasional harpsichord, and -- especially on Tides -- a rather bleak outlook. Overall, what I've heard has been a bit uneven, but at its best very rewarding, and definitely worth investigating.
September 7, 2001 (link)
This is brilliant. Very well done, and very funny. (There's a thread on the list about whether they're the Thompson Twins of the '90s, so...)
I'm going to make another case for third-party browsers -- something which may be all the more apropos for Hotmail users, since I can no longer access Hotmail using the Mac version of Internet Explorer 5. (I think it's probably something that Microsoft broke while plugging a security hole -- someone was recently able to hack into Passport and gain access to user information.) PC and Mac users both can use the German browser Opera, which is probably the best of the third-party browsers I've used, and is certainly (as is often claimed) the fastest browser I've ever used. It's a bit of a bandwidth hog -- when I run other browsers at the same time, Opera seems to pretty much grind them to a halt until it's done loading. But it's an excellent browser with beautiful scrolling, and the latest version seems to work on every page I've tried (including Hotmail), which is usually the big test for a third-party browser.
Finally, a browser I'd never heard of before, Wannabe, also only available for the Mac. It combines the sleekness and speed of a text-only browser with the ease of use of a standard, mouse-driven UI. It's not as flexible as MacLynx, and still can't really do input-based forms (like searching on Yahoo, etc.), but it seems stabler -- and of course being able to use one's mouse, rather than memorize arcane key commands like in MacLynx, is a big help. It's especially nice for pages like Absintheur's music journal, which (because of the structure of its tables) usually takes at least 15 seconds to load in Internet Explorer (and 10 in Opera), but which shows up right away in Wannabe. Speaking of Absintheur, he's in the middle of reviewing a 4-CD set I gave him, and I must say that I'm enjoying his approach tremendously. It's not easy to write intelligent and probing criticism that retains a sense of wonder; it's something with which I grapple constantly in my own writing, but he's doing it like it comes naturally -- and so it does. Check it out.
September 3, 2001 (link)
I do a fair amount of freelance work as a copyist -- indeed, I'm taking a break from a job right now to write this. It's a good line of work in many ways, but one of the most frustrating things about it is that, although I can generally listen to music while working without any problem once all the notes have been entered, I can't really listen to anything with pitch content until that happens -- since I'm literally playing pitches on the piano to enter the notes, any background music is distracting and confusing.
So I've taken to listening to spoken word recordings while I work -- but since much to my chagrin I don't actually own any, I've been playing RealAudio streams from various sites, some of which have been more interesting than others. Other than the U.S. Open radio feed (which you can find at their website if you're really interested, but I'll not belabor it here), I've also found a couple of interesting nuggets: on this page, you can listen to a professor from UC Berkeley read a few brief selections from Beowulf in the original Saxon (or is it Old English?). And here, at Kansas State University, they have a page full of RealAudio files of lectures given by various visiting speakers, including Nixon, Reagan (back when he was Governor) and Bobby Kennedy. His (RFK's) speech against the Vietnam War, to which I listened earlier today, was about what you might expect (a bit heavy on the rhetoric at times, but fairly intelligent), but his discussion of the corruption of the South Vietnamese government was full of all kinds of information that was embarrassingly unfamiliar to me. That's not an aspect of the war that seems to get talked about much nowadays -- or have I just been oblivious? Most depictions of the war in film and literature seem to focus on the actual combat between Americans and the Viet Cong, and so they tend to take place on the front lines (such as they were), far away from where I would think the South Vietnamese government would be most apparent (i.e. Saigon)...
September 1, 2001 (link)
To start off the new month, I want to talk about Rainer Brüninghaus. (I was going to make a list of "great piano solos", but I was having too much trouble coming up with much off the top of my head.) He's a great piano player, and more people should know about him. His playing is clean, clear and lyrical, and he makes such a beautiful sound! He is at his very best when working with Eberhard Weber, whose albums benefit immeasurably from his presence. (I have an album with RB as a leader, Continuum, which is unfortunately rather scattered and a bit dated.) His solo on the song that gave this music journal its name (from Weber's Silent Feet) is a masterpiece of simplicity and lyricism, one high point being a beautiful moment leading into the first chorus (or B-section) when he turns a single repeated note into a sort of lovely, delicate sigh. And though it's broken up into two parts, his solo on the title track from Colours of Chloe is also gorgeous. That's a weird and bewitching little song, by the way; for starters, how many jazz songs can you think of whose instrumentation is electric 5-string upright bass, piano, drums, ocarina and multiple cellos? And the structure is very odd -- it opens with a fairly normal rubato section in which a sort of "main theme" is announced, but it abruptly shifts into a very simple, almost unfinished-sounding passage in fast 6/4 for ocarina, before suddenly moving to the more fluid 6/4 that constitutes the main (and best) part of the song. And, as I mentioned in passing above, the solo section is broken up by an unexpected and highly dissonant polychordal passage, which again makes the whole thing teeter on the line between being unstereotyped and inventive, and just plain strange...
Have I mentioned Miles Donahue here before? I was fortunate enough to attend a great concert he gave in 1992 at the University of New Hampshire at Manchester, which as it turns out was recorded to DAT and released as an excellent album, Double Dribble. He's an excellent tenor sax player and trumpet player, which is a pretty unusual combination (with considerable potential for embouchure woes), and a skilled composer and arranger -- his arrangement of "Don't Blame Me" turned out to be the impetus for me to write what I think is one of the best jazz songs I ever wrote, which eventually got named "Cariad" (after four or five years of searching for a good name). I used to try to write songs when I got bored in class back in high school; some of them were more successful than others, and most of the time I didn't get very far without a piano (though it was probably a stroke of mercy that I had to abandon "I Used to Have Cupcakes, Now I Have Lots of Friends" after only four measures or so). But I think I wrote "Cariad" in science class, determined that, since Miles Donahue could take a simple melody and back it with crazy chords and have it work, then dammit, I could too! (And I did, at that.)
Anyway, on this album (Double Dribble) there's a lot of good stuff. Kenny Werner, in particular, stands out; his solos are consistently exciting, and give you that wonderful feeling that anything's possible -- one moment he's nailing a fast run or navigating tricky changes with aplomb, and the next he's pounding the piano with his fists, and the relationship between the two seems perfectly natural (which is damned hard to do, I might add). He's another great piano player.
Now I'm listening to Duke Ellington & John Coltrane. I've always felt a bit like a Philistine about this album -- I've never really been able to get into it, really. I don't know why -- it just doesn't engage me at all, somehow. Perhaps this listen will prove different. I can't get a fix on the bass player -- is it Jimmy Garrison? Whoever it is, they're doing some interesting stuff -- I don't remember it being this in-and-out. He's hardly walking at all on "Take the Coltrane", but is instead playing a lot of half-notes and dotted half-notes in odd and asymmetrical patterns. [Note: it did turn out to be Jimmy Garrison. -- pfs]
By the way, have folks heard the Circle album on ECM with Anthony Braxton, Chick Corea, Dave Holland and Barry Altschul? If you're into so-called "freebop", as I am, you can't do better than the first disc of this set, especially the opening track, a long and wild take on "Nefertiti". I think that, for me, the vocabulary of free jazz is often at its most compelling when it's worked into a composed structure. In other words, I like to take things "out", rather than start out. When you start in, and go out, you still have the pulse of where you started underneath you, providing a sense of structure and form and narrative to what you're doing. (This applies to my classical composition, too -- I'm one of those moldy figs who often start their pieces out with near-tonality, drift into full atonality, and head back again.) It's a great feeling, and is one of the things I love most about collective improvisation -- "how far can we take this out, and still have it make sense? Can we bring it back? Can we all land in the same place?" I miss playing with Charles, and indeed everyone at Bennington -- there were some great musicians there.
Anyway, this "Nefertiti" is a fantastic example of that. I remember going for a walk sometime in February or early March 2000, in Vermont on a strange day when it was unseasonably warm (60 degrees or more), with this playing in my headphones, and me loving every minute of it. Dave Holland has scarcely, if ever, cut a bad disc, and this is hardly an exception -- he's as fast and fluid as ever. Even Braxton (who is an acquired taste at best, especially on alto sax) sounds great in this context. I think a reviewer in one of those "every jazz album ever released" review guides claimed that this album suffered from the group's indecision between Braxton's free-jazz tendencies and Corea's more conservative inclinations, but I think that tension is what makes the whole thing work!
Groups that can improvise collectively in a convincing way, whether they start from a composed piece or not, are depressingly few and far between. At their long-ago peak, Phish could (I think "Union Federal" is brilliant). Cerberus Shoal can, albeit in a totally different way. Miles Davis's groups could, and were sometimes impossibly good at it, though with the caveat that they did use an intricate system of codes to telegraph various changes and transitions -- but then again, so did Phish. Pink Floyd included long improvised sections in many early numbers (especially "A Saucerful of Secrets" and "Interstellar Overdrive"), but by 1970 or so the improvisations had become heavily formulaic, and it's hard to find a concert where they really pushed the envelope. There were a couple of notable exceptions, both involving the otherwise undistinguished song "Embryo". At a concert in Hamburg in November 1970, the normally brief (under 10 minutes) song suddenly turned into a noisefest of nearly 30 minutes, complete with Roger Waters' patented Pict rant. It's great stuff. A year later in Cleveland, when Rick Wright's keyboards suddenly and mysteriously died for about 15 minutes, the three other members gamely tried to groove their way through it -- though, unfortunately, the results are pretty dull and meandering. Anyway, by 1972 or so, the Floyd's improvisational streak was basically a thing of the past, with the success of Dark Side of the Moon and later albums leading to endless click tracks and the like. But back in 1967, by all reports, Pink Floyd spent quite a lot of their set simply improvising for a half-hour at a stretch or more. The bootlegs we have, unfortunately, aren't too impressive -- they date from Syd's last few months with the band, by which time he was almost completely burnt out.
I remember a wonderfully spooky moment at a concert with Tom Farrell, professor at Bennington and fantastic pianist. Right at the climax of his solo on "My Funny Valentine" (I think), we suddenly, as though of one mind, tapered off abruptly and played two consecutive staccato chords before landing on the downbeat. It's a known formulation, but not an obvious one, and the coincidence left us both laughing and surprised. (I wish I had it on tape, but I suspect it was at an impromptu performance in the college art gallery, or perhaps at a vocal concert.) Another great (albeit rather different) moment was the last song of my junior concert, a nice tune by my friend Dave Banulis called "Found Money". After the bass solo, I was playing a standard ostinato bass line behind the beginning of Raphé Malik's trumpet solo, but it was an octave higher than one might expect; to be honest, I just did it to rest my hand! There was definitely something missing, though, so after 32 or 64 measures (or something like that), I dropped an octave. The timing was absolutely perfect -- at that moment Raphé hit a suspension which made the whole thing make complete sense, so that, instead of sounding like I'd corrected a mistake, it sounded as though I had intentionally been holding back the whole time and, just as the tension was about to burst, had suddenly let loose with the payoff, which kicked the entire song into overdrive. I remember seeing the sax player, Jason, glance back at me and nod his head in approval. It's an incredibly gratifying thing to get one of those nods -- no lavish praise, no hyperbole: just the recognition that you nailed it, that you made it all work, that you were able to sense what needed to happen, and you did it. I'll take a simple nod of genuine respect like that over the most effusive compliment just about any day. And it may seem odd, but a moment like that really exemplifies how irrelevant considerations of ego can become -- in that it was a moment whose power came not from being some sort of apotheosis of myself, or of my own personal skill, but rather in the extent to which I felt that the music existed not as a projection of my own musical ego, but as a separate entity that I was seeking to...serve? That's not the right word, but it's a feeling I've talked about before -- the feeling that you're a conduit, not an auteur, if that makes sense. Instead of being motivated a desire to "express yourself" (or something less noble), you're trying to bring something into being, something that feels alive. It's a hard feeling to describe, and it's even harder to find on any consistent basis, but when you can get to it, it's quite something. I've found it as a composer, when pieces have on rare occasions come to me, fully formed and with little for me to do but get them on paper or on tape; and I've found it as a performer, when for a blessed interval it suddenly feels like everyone is listening, everyone is playing the right notes, and everyone is working together to give birth to something miraculous and luminous -- or explosive and climactic.
The Odyssey, Homer, trans. Robert Fagles (finally!)