Eyes That Can See in the Dark

a music journal


July 31, 2001 (link)

7:41 PM

Well, this is a real kick in the stomach:

Jerry Orbach, who plays the shrewd, wise-cracking detective "Lennie Briscoe" on NBC's popular weekly series "Law and Order," has asked state legislative leaders for assistance in banning the cruel and unsporting practice of canned shoots in New York. [...] At canned shoots, trophy hunters kill tame, captive animals on enclosed property, paying large fees for guaranteed kills. Many of these animals are purchased from zoos or game farms; they are familiar with people and may even amble over to lick the hand of the shooter. Because the animals are sought as trophies, the hunter avoids a shot to the head which would produce a quicker kill, and instead riddles the terrified animal with bullets or arrows in other parts of the body, resulting in a long torturous death.

That line about licking the hand of the shooter...


(Comments for July 31, 2001)

July 29, 2001 (link)

12:08 AM

Over the past couple of days I've watched Knife in the Water (which I hadn't seen before) and Reversal of Fortune (which I had). Knife was Roman Polanski's first film; I wish I could say more about its relationship to his subsequent work, but as far as I can recall I've only seen Chinatown and Pirates (both of which I admittedly quite enjoyed, especially Chinatown, which I thought was fantastic). It was an interesting watch, but my enjoyment was marred by the hit-or-miss subtitling; it's very difficult to feel fully engaged when three or more lines, all of them clearly non-trivial, go by without a single subtitle. I also found the score a bit overripe, but that's forgivable.

I'd forgotten how good Irons was in Reversal of Fortune. I'd nearly written him off after seeing him in three misfires of varying severity -- the wildly overrated remake of Lolita, the self-indulgent and alienating Damage, and the astonishingly bad Die Hard With a Vengeance, in which, as I recall, he had a ridiculous blond dye-job and a marginal German accent. But here, he's at his best. One reviewer says, "The true greatness of his performance is that it's impossible to detect when his character is being clumsily witty or shrewdly evasive." Irons' Claus Von Bulow is thoroughly impossible to pin down, and the film's director, Barbet Schroeder (who, tangentially, directed two films -- More and La Vallée -- to which Pink Floyd did the soundtrack), deserves a great deal of credit for maintaining this and other ambiguities right to the end of the film, when so many other directors would have used a sledgehammer approach. (I did, however, find myself troubled by the Hollywoodized treatment of Dershowitz, whom I thought the film made out to be a finer man than he likely is.)

If you ever see Liu Hongjun's Pipes of the Minority Peoples (JVC) in a used CD store, be sure to pick it up. I heard an excerpt from it on a JVC sampler back in 1994 or so, and have always quietly kept a lookout for it, but had no luck until, out of nowhere, I spotted it on (I think) Djangos.com or something similar. It's an enjoyable and tuneful disc, appealingly recorded and with an air of calm and tranquility about it. The track that sucked me in, "Hebian Xi Xinu" (which translates to "The Dancing Girls Frolic by the Riverside"), features a wind instrument with a sound the likes of which I'd never heard before, and which I can only characterize as like a cross between a wood flute and a synth clarinet. It's apparently a huluxi flute, which is described in the liner notes as "recorder-like". Neat stuff, and a very pleasant listen.

This makes me think of another of my Holy Grails: there's a solitaire game for the Mac, Shodan, which features an eight-measure excerpt of a piece of Chinese music for zither and flute. It's a rather haunting little fragment, and in trying to track it down, I've gone so far as to ask the programmer-author himself, but he told me that he'd gotten it from a Compuserve music library, and so long ago that he had no idea how to find it again. (I don't think he was terribly interested in looking, either.) It's probably hopeless, but does anyone have any ideas?

(Comments for July 29, 2001)

July 25, 2001

9:38 PM

Finally, postmodernism is concerned with questions of the organization of knowledge. In modern societies, knowledge was equated with science, and was contrasted to narrative; science was good knowledge, and narrative was bad, primitive, irrational (and thus associated with women, children, primitives, and insane people). Knowledge, however, was good for its own sake; one gained knowledge, via education, in order to be knowledgeable in general, to become an educated person. This is the ideal of the liberal arts education. In a postmodern society, however, knowledge becomes functional--you learn things, not to know them, but to use that knowledge. As Sarup points out (p. 138), educational policy today puts emphasis on skills and training, rather than on a vague humanist ideal of education in general. This is particularly acute for English majors. "What will you DO with your degree?"

9:25 PM

From this essay:

But--while postmodernism seems very much like modernism in these ways, it differs from modernism in its attitude toward a lot of these trends. Modernism, for example, tends to present a fragmented view of human subjectivity and history (think of The Wasteland, for instance, or of Woolf's To the Lighthouse), but presents that fragmentation as something tragic, something to be lamented and mourned as a loss. Many modernist works try to uphold the idea that works of art can provide the unity, coherence, and meaning which has been lost in most of modern life; art will do what other human institutions fail to do. Postmodernism, in contrast, doesn't lament the idea of fragmentation, provisionality, or incoherence, but rather celebrates that. The world is meaningless? Let's not pretend that art can make meaning then, let's just play with nonsense.

(Comments for July 25, 2001) (1 comment so far)

July 24, 2001

10:11 PM

I found this essay, "Kitsch and the Modern Predicament", quite rewarding, and I'd definitely recommend spending a few minutes on it. I especially like these lines: "This work of the imagination is not possible for everyone; and in an age of mass communication, people learn to dispense with it. And that is how kitsch arises -- when people who are avoiding the cost of the higher life are nevertheless pressured by the surrounding culture into pretending that they possess it. Kitsch is an attempt to have the life of the spirit on the cheap."

By the way, I ran across the essay while trying to retrieve a word, which I haven't yet come up with. It's something of a synonym for faux, kitsch, and gauche, and is a word that would be particularly apt in describing (for instance) furniture that had been painted with fake gold to have the appearance of more expensive wares. In other words, it'd be a word used for things that put on airs and unsuccessfully attempt to create the illusion of elegance. I have a feeling it's a French word (quite a shock, that...). Can anyone help me out here?

12:08 AM

Absintheur (who, by the way, can write some damn good songs) wrote some responses to my posts below, about young bands and how they should best start out. Unfortunately, I can't seem to access his journal at the moment -- Livejournal has been very finicky today -- but I remember that he wrote about the importance of using the rehearsals you have together as efficiently as possible, and with a minimum of wasted time. I heartily second that; it seems like a no-brainer, and yet so many musicians and bands can't seem to pull it off.

In my experience, one of the biggest rehearsal killers is playing while other people are trying to talk or tune. When I was a trumpeter in high school, I did a bit of this, but never understood why other people seemed to have such severe cases of it -- especially guitarists. To make matters worse, I was often unfairly singled out for it by my band director, who also happened to be my brother-in-law. It bewildered me, too, that he was so incensed by background noise -- I lost count of the number of times he lost his temper on account of it, but at least one incident left a six-inch dent in the music room wall (where he'd apparently kicked it -- I wasn't there when it happened).

Once I started playing guitar and keyboards in bands, though, I understood the temptation, and my brother-in-law's frustration, a lot better. On the one hand, if you just love to play and to noodle around, it's hard to stop! Moments between songs can feel like the ideal time to try out a lick that's going through your head, or to try to get something under your fingers, or just to play. And if you're a fidgety person, then noodling can serve as an outlet for that nervous tension.

But it's really deadly, and is absolutely maddening if you're trying to get anything done or to communicate with anyone. First off, tuning is obviously crucial -- if the band's noticeably out of tune, you sound like shit, with nearly no hope of salvation as long as the problem persists -- and anything that interferes with the process is almost automatically a bad idea. Never, ever play while someone is tuning -- just don't do it, at all, unless they ask you for a reference pitch. Yes, I've done it, everyone has -- but it's no good. You just can't do it.

Even if no one is tuning, though, it's still very bad form to play when any kind of communication is trying to happen. I know from experience that I can shout myself hoarse trying to talk over the din of guitar masturbation and drum diddling -- and if you're a singer, as I've sometimes been, that's obviously bad news. Even if the noodler stops right away, it still will inevitably lead to wasted time, if only in that you have to take the time to get his (or her) attention over the noise of said noodling (not to mention the implicit conflict of egos it creates when someone puts you in the position of having to tell them to shut up, rather than having the good sense to stop when they should). I've also found that noodling can be a passive-aggressive way of bedeviling someone with whom you're annoyed, or to signal that you're bored, or of expressing your distaste for what's going on -- i.e. "I don't like what we're doing, so I don't care and I'm going to play whatever and whenever I want." On a couple occasions, that became a real problem in my high school band, I think, especially inasmuch as it exacerbated any tension that was already in the air. People also noodle to show off, of course especially if there's any kind of an audience. This can also be a problem at gigs, when you're in between songs; if one member of the band starts to "play with himself" while you're changing instruments or getting ready or whatever you're doing, then it tends to make the whole band seem half-assed and unprofessional. (Yes, I've done this. "Super Mario theme for solo bass" was not on our setlist, but...)

The answer is simple, and is one that's been adopted by most or all of the jazz ensembles I've been in: once the rehearsal starts, it's strictly business. No noodling, no practicing, no autoerotic musical meandering, and everyone agrees that a violation of that rule earns a brusque "Stop it" (or the equivalent) from one's fellow bandmates that requires no apology afterward. If you want to try to work out a song collectively, by showing each other licks or suggesting different motives, then that's one thing. But if you're working on composed material, then unless you say "Give me two minutes, I need to get this passage under my fingers" or "I need to get this synth patch to sound right" or something similar, then the only time your instrument makes noise is when you're playing the songs. Hypothetically, an effective, if tyrannical, solution would be for the band leader (which could be a random member on a given day if there were no real "leader") to have a mute switch that would, if pulled, silence all of the members' amps. Obviously, that's neither practical nor a complete solution (what about drums?), nor is it really a desirable way to run things -- you want people to have self-control, not to need to be policed. But ideally, a rehearsal should sound as though a mute switch were flicked whenever it's time to talk, or to work something out, or to do anything that isn't specifically music-making. Again, even three extra notes can be too much, and can disrupt matters sufficiently to detract from the progress of the rehearsal.

With gigs, it's pretty much the same thing. I don't rule out the possibility that a few extra notes during downtime between songs can be useful on occasion. (Obviously, if something breaks and you need to make noise to fix it, then you do what you need to do.) Still, if it doesn't have a function within the concert, it's probably a mistake, unless you're a band that's gotten a pretty dedicated audience for whom it can be something special if, for instance, David Gilmour decides to use his guitar to imitate and respond to the whistles going on in the audience (as he did at a concert in Munich at the end of their German tour in 1970). But those are bands who already have considerable credibility in their audience's eyes; if you still need to earn their respect and interest, you're probably better off acting like you're in earnest (even if you're earnest about being funny and ridiculous).

Finally, after having heard reports to the contrary, I'm relieved to hear that George Harrison is apparently not dying. I can't help but feel a bit skeptical, but I hope he's speaking with candor. John is the Beatle to whom I have the greatest attachment, but George is a strong second, if only for "Long, Long, Long" and "Here Comes the Sun" (and "Taxman", and "Something", and...), and I don't look forward to the day he's no longer with us.

(Comments for July 24, 2001)

July 20, 2001 (link)

10:34 PM

Sorry, that was Beethoven's Ninth, and here's a link that gives the specific quote. (Not that I'm vouching for everything on that page -- not by a long shot!)

9:19 PM

Among many other good things, Josh wrote this about Low:

The thing I think has changed probably has something to do with two aspects of their music. First, the faster tempos, and second, the more complicated arrangements and just music in general. [...] I think the reason these things matter is that they give the songs a lot more momentum. They move more as I expect songs to move, somehow. All the extra stuff, the faster tempos, they undercut some kind of special thing - maybe if I say "drama" right here you will understand me, but I think that's a terrible word for it, it's something like a threat that the song will not in fact go on, that it might collapse at any moment, in their best songs - which is essential to their earlier sound.

I would only add that while the arrangements are more complicated in many ways, I would argue that the music itself is actually less complicated, or as you said in a previous paragraph, "more conventional". It's particularly apparent in the harmonies. One major change has been the disappearance of a lot of the ninths and elevenths that used to make up a major part of Low's harmonic language on songs like "Slide" or "Alone"; extended and suspended chords are strongly associated, in my experience, with those feelings of floatiness or time-suspension that distinguish pre-Kranky Low. There are also fewer unexpected harmonic shifts, like the surprising (but entirely effective) jumps to G major in "Throw Out the Line", or the gorgeous C major chord that opens "Caroline" up so wonderfully, or the magnificent dance around the C major tonic (F major | G sus | Dbmaj7/Ab | Bb sus) that makes the outro to "Standby" so lovely. On the other hand, the melodies have definitely gotten more ornate and poppy -- in part, I think, because there are more words to set.

It's very hard to describe, though...but it's not hard to hear, or feel. At least not for me -- the scads of people who love the latest album must not be hearing what I'm hearing when I listen to Low.

7:59 PM

There's a zine called Found (I think), made up entirely of fragments and slips of paper containing personal writing or communication of some sort (letters, memos, diary entries, and so on), which people discover in various places -- on the street, in the recycling bin, wherever -- and which the discoverers find to have something interesting or remarkable about them. So, in the spirit of that, here's a transcription of a tiny fragment of a letter which I found while walking home from work today. It seems to be from a woman named Helen, admonishing some relative or close friend about the dangers of housing the homeless. Since the letter is typewritten, and refers to Social Security money and similar things, I'm guessing that the author is middle-aged or older. Though it's double-sided, it's only a few inches square, so there are practically no complete sentences -- ellipses [...] will indicate the breaks:

(first side)

"...ous. I...vern on valuable...he won over the cousin and g...[t]he stranger (the man who moved in...ke; she got five thousand bucks; the...m sale of the land and tavern one...y friend now had to leave her chestnut...[neigh]borhood because her rent was raised...her social security pension money...are so naive and innocent and without...ch a thing; neither could I till...ned. [line break] ...self financially ready for Joan. You already..."

(second side)

"...ng...g you to do...[k]now how competitive th...ed rooting people rooting for her to...ch cast great money to pay the...forget it Jack, she wil [sic] never make it as...Are you going to take on her suport [sic]? You...Most people I know who take in homeles[s]...are well to do. Or they tell the boar...hospitality that is being supported by...a year; a month; etc. so there is no...a softie I know that; You defer to o...yourself, and so never contradict thei...please. [handwritten] Love, Helen -- don't s..."

Maybe no one else will find that as intriguing as I do, but I like it. I've always been a sucker for the ephemeral and the obscured.

I was thinking about bands a bit more -- this time, about the difficulty of telling one's fellow band member that something they're doing is mistaken, or vice versa. I know I've harped on this a bit before, but it really is a big issue in any band. Sometimes an idea, a phrase, even a whole song just won't work -- but it takes a master diplomat to keep a disagreement about such a thing from turning into a battle of egos. So I was thinking to myself, "Wouldn't it be nice if there were some trustworthy party there to arbitrate, to tell the band members, 'No, that doesn't work. No, you're out of tune. Hey, that sounds great! Hmmmm, what about changing key there?' I wonder how you could do that? Wait a minute...I just invented the record producer!" And so I did -- well, that, and the band manager, or at least certain examples thereof.

Producers get maligned endlessly, and with frequently just cause; in rock, the producer is seen as one of two things -- someone who keeps the "genius" musicians from expressing their "true vision", or someone who cynically seeks to market and milk as many pop confections as possible, without regard for taste or ethics. In the classical music world, though, they're rather more respected, in part because they seem less vampiric. The musicians regard producers more as allies, helping them to bring off the best possible performance (and recording). Obviously, there's plenty of disagreement, and there are plenty of schmucks on both sides of the console, as it were, but I still think classical music has the edge in this department. Some might argue that the reason that producer-artist relations go more smoothly in classical music is the ossification of the genre. On the other hand, it might be argued that classical musicians, unlike all too many pop musicians, have worked hard on their instrumental ability and on their understanding of the techniques of music, and thus have the ability to communicate their opinions in a nuanced, specific, and articulate way -- and the ego-strength to endure criticism.

That's largely horseshit, but there is something there. As is often the case with anyone who doesn't really know their craft, many pop musicians live in fear of being exposed as ignorant or unschooled. Perhaps they become more chronically defensive and obscurantist as a result -- or more vulnerable to the wiles of "evil" producers? On the other hand, there's plenty of neurosis, and worse, in the world of classical music -- although for every Helfgott or Glenn Gould, there are probably several Syd Barretts. Nonetheless, I certainly don't mean to put the world of classical music forth as a paragon of sanity or gentility. But I do think the anti-intellectualism that pervades so much pop music (along with its blood brother, arch-conservatism) is a highly toxic thing.

And isn't that what I'm talking about, really? The hypothetical disagreement with which I began this digression would be considerably milder if both parties were committed to the belief that the universe and everything in it (including other people, and music) is in some sense intelligible, and can be talked about in ways that aren't entirely solipsistic: "I don't think it works." "Well, I like it, and it's just a matter of opinion, so my opinion is just as valid as anyone's." Or something like that. Whereas, if you believe that whether it works or not is intelligible, rather than thoroughly mysterious and utterly subjective, then there's grounds for conversation, explanation, and understanding, right? Maybe I seem like I'm overstating my case, but I do get driven up a wall by people who fail to recognize the primacy and objective existence of the work itself, when discussing a work -- which is a line of reasoning that, if followed to the point of absurdity, ends with statements like one I found a while ago in a book on academic freedom (I think edited by Hofstader), where a student, upon being challenged on his wildly incorrect beliefs about the Inferno or somesuch, responded with something like "Well, this is my Dante, and you can't devalue my Dante, because there's just as much truth in my Dante as yours." Which is total nonsense, of course, but it's shocking to see how many people seem to have bought into that over the years.

My diet of late, though, has been the classics, pretty much exclusively. (I'm trying to alleviate my "cultural amnesia"!) The translation I've been reading of The Odyssey is excellent so far, and apparently I'm not the only one in Philadelphia who thinks so -- seeing that I was carrying the book, a woman stopped me on the street to tell me how much she'd liked it, and how she was looking forward to reading Fagles' translation of the Iliad. My new part-time job is only a few blocks from Borders, and I've been stopping there on my way back nearly every day -- though, since the public library is literally a block away (from my job), it'd be silly of me to spend any of my limited resources on anything I could get at the library. Still, I was tempted by a copy of Mann's The Magic Mountain, which I've never read and which looked appealing...

Oh, and I've been listening to Kraftwerk -- yes, yet another seminal 1970s band whose works were entirely unknown to me until now. So far I've heard Autobahn and their first self-titled album. It's pretty much what I expected -- fun, and a bit goofy, but nothing that's going to keep me up at night. There are some interesting bits, though, including a section in the title track of Autobahn that could be interpolated with little difficulty into nearly any live recording of Pink Floyd's "Obscured By Clouds/When You're In".

(Comments for July 20, 2001)

July 16, 2001

11:35 PM

I've been borrowing a friend's DAT, and using the opportunity to transfer some concert tapes by my old band WMF, including our very last show, which was recorded three years ago today. Between that, and a recent post on Absintheur's journal, I've found myself thinking a lot about rock (or rockish) bands who're just starting out, and what advice I might give them based on my own experiences with WMF and other groups. (That probably sounds quite pompous, but no matter, I don't really care.)

One thing that listening to these tapes has reminded me of is the importance of owning your own equipment, and having it be good equipment. WMF was constantly having to run around borrowing amps and guitars and keyboards from our friends; virtually every practice necessitated a fresh round of scheming, and we never really knew where a lot of our equipment was going to come from. Furthermore, a lot of our own equipment was dodgy at best. I had, and still have, a pretty nice bass, but my amp at the time was completely wretched, which pretty much neutralized that asset -- and on top of that, I didn't own a guitar or keyboard, though I played both instruments at various times in WMF. The only member of the band who had a full complement of his own equipment was our drummer; everyone else was as badly off as I was, or worse so.

There were some real disasters as a result. Cheap guitars would go horribly out-of-tune in the middle of a song, or had barely-functional jacks which would fail at inopportune times. Amps would sound like dogshit, or would feed back like crazy since we had no idea how to set them, having never used them before we borrowed them from our opening band. Half-broken pedals would cut in and out without warning, or would turn an otherwise decent guitar sound into a distorted mess. Toy digital keyboards would invariably become separated from their AC adapters, and behemoth analog synths would fail in unexpected and maddening ways. Indeed, it's a miracle we pulled off some of the great shows that we did, though in our defense, none of us had much money -- I can't speak for everyone in the band, but I know I've always been broke. On the occasions that we did get to use top-drawer equipment, it was pleasing, but incredibly frustrating, to hear what a difference it could make.

Another thing that strikes me: the last-minute song is always, always, always a bad idea, with very rare exceptions, and is doubly dangerous when it bloats an otherwise concise set. In our early days, WMF was a rather half-assed band in many ways, but one of the reasons we were so consistently successful was that our sets were quite well-rehearsed, and short. We all knew the songs very well, comparatively speaking, and we didn't try to play anything we didn't know. As a result, we repeatedly left crowds demanding more, which was hard at the time -- we wanted to keep playing, but we just didn't have any more material. But, of course, ending too soon beats overstaying your welcome any day. A bit later, we played a really good show that would've been perfect if we'd ended it after about an hour. Instead, though, we pushed it to more than 90 minutes, and by the end we were exhausted and sounded terrible. We tacked on a few songs at the end of our set that were woefully underrehearsed, and that really undermined the credibility of the whole show.

I think there should be an iron rule in most bands that new material must have at least two to three good rehearsals before a concert, or it doesn't get played at that show, period. More rehearsals would be required for highly complicated songs, but for simpler songs fewer rehearsals would still probably be a bad idea. The band deserves to get some time to absorb the song, and to let it percolate a bit, and to fine-tune the parts that don't quite work. Regardless, the song absolutely has to be playable from memory; if people need chord charts to stay together, disaster is probably on its way.

I also think that every band should evolve a clear system of signs and signifiers with which to communicate, both musically and non-musically. When I was playing a lot of jazz a year or two ago, I often found that our ensemble tended to have problems with rushing and dragging, so I evolved a couple tricks to let the drummer know that I thought we were doing one or the other -- if I thought we were dragging, I'd make a "dragon face" (teeth bared, wild eyes) at him, and if I thought we were rushing, I'd make a "Russian face" (lips puffed out like Anatoly Karpov, world-weary eyes). It was goofy and ridiculous, but it worked, and it solved a lot of problems very quickly. All groups need to have that kind of thing, so that if something goes wrong, it can be addressed as quickly and unobtrusively as possible. It's thoroughly demoralizing to have people coming in at the wrong time, with no one knowing where anyone else is, and to have no effective way of communicating that fact.

More overtly musical signs can also provide a way of stretching and transforming one's songs on stage. I'm not just talking about Phish-esque musical codes for synchronizing extended improvisations, although that's certainly a worthwhile approach; I also mean subtle sequences of notes, or choices of accents, or whatever, that can clue one's bandmates into any piece of information you want to give them: "Let's make this longer here -- people are dancing and things sound good." "Everyone seems lost -- THIS is where we are: boom." "I don't know what happened, but when I finish this drumfill, we're all going to land on the downbeat and figure something out." This, too, can be another error-correction scheme; nearly any degree of lost-ness can end up sounding plausible if everyone magically lands together. Having these options available tends to make people more alert, and tends to encourage everyone to listen to each other -- although an obvious prerequisite is that everyone actually be able to hear each other, which is sometimes a difficult proposition. And it can get out of hand, of course. But it provides a possible alternative to the awful experience of having to shoot each other bewildered looks when something goes wrong, knowing full well that the audience realizes that something has gone amiss, and that their "belief in the performance", if you will, is in danger of being deflated.

(Comments for July 16, 2001) (1 comment so far)

July 14, 2001

12:08 AM

I'll also toss in a link to the links page of the Epsilon site, which has a lot of good stuff on ambient music.

(Comments for July 14, 2001)

July 10, 2001 (link)

9:29 PM

Recently I was talking with a friend about how we both felt somewhat musically jaded, by contrast with how we felt three or four years ago. I do feel like I've lost some of my enthusiasm for new music and new ideas since about 1997. Part of that, I think, is the growing tendency of certain of my favorite bands to back away from the things about themselves I hold most dear. It's been surprisingly depressing watching them steer into something that's not nearly as good as where they were, and that only superficially resembles their greatest achievements. It makes me think that they didn't really know what made them special, or what set them apart -- that the magnificent suspension of time they cultivated was somehow an accident, or something that could only survive if it were done unselfconsciously. That's a very bleak thought.

And it does feel like nearly everything exciting has been commodified, in one way or another. A few years ago, I thought all the cross-pollination in the air meant that we were headed for more things like (for instance) Dots and Loops and Happy End of the World -- works that combined the best parts of the sensibilities of the 1960s and the 1990s. That sounds trite now, but it seemed like, finally, the elusive magic that makes music created between 1964 and 1974 so powerful was coming back. But instead, we've just gotten irony and deconstructionist/pomo bullshit, and the number of bands who use the innumerable techniques and samples they co-opt in any meaningful way is depressingly small -- and no one seems to realize what's been lost. (How could, say, Stereolab make Cobra and Phases... after Dots and Loops, and not hear what a huge step down it was?)

A friend of mine likes to describe the events since Watergate (and, thus, the consequent alienation of the American population from hope of, and belief in, the possibility of meaningful political change and intelligent discourse) as "the mystification of reality", and I have to say I'm starting to agree with him.

All that being said, I want to make a list of moments in music that send chills down my spine. And I mean that literally, which is perhaps a rarity for me -- so there's a lot of beautiful music that I really love that is not going to be on this list, simply because it doesn't literally give me chills. But I hear this music, and most or all of the time, I am moved and shaken, whether or not I want to be.

So here we go:

  • Ivan Rebroff, "Die Legende von den 12 Räubern"

    This is from Vergißmeinnicht, a German pop compilation on vinyl dating back to about 1967, which I picked up in the Bennington College library a year or two ago for something like a quarter. (Despite the torn cover, I found the packaging pricelessly funny, and it looked like it could be a gas.) Almost all of this record is German kitsch-pop or easy-listening by the likes of Freddy Quinn and Alexandra, which is fun and (for the most part) surprisingly appealing, but doesn't keep me up at night.

    But out of nowhere, in the middle of side 2, appears this Russian song with balalaika accompaniment, performed entirely rubato, by one Ivan Rebroff -- a Russian bass of whom I'd never heard. I have no idea what the song means, and I'm not sure if I want to, because I would not want to ruin the feeling I get when, about two minutes in, all of the instrumentalists drop out and Rebroff's voice suddenly soars into the stratosphere, with one of the most perfect and delicate falsettos I've ever heard. It's a spine-tingling moment -- and if it's kitsch, well, then sign me up, because I'd rather have one of these than a million fucking High Llamas songs.

  • Claudio Monteverdi, "Ave Maria Stella" from Vespro della beata Vergine

    I have to thank my friend and former boss Susie R. for pointing me at this one. I can't vouch for every performance out there, but the one on Teldec, conducted by Harnoncourt with the Arnold Schoenberg choir, is just transcendent. I'm a big sucker for tonal choral music -- it's one of the only hot buttons I have, emotionally speaking -- and this one nails me every time. I can't imagine how anyone can be untouched by it. Indeed, I'm not sure that I'd want to have any truck with someone who wasn't.

  • Coleman Hawkins' entrance on "Epistrophy" by Thelonious Monk, from Monk's Music

    This one's a bit different from the others. "Epistrophy" is a fiendishly difficult tune, with constantly shifting chord changes in the A-section that defy any attempt at assembling a strong, coherent, melodic solo. I don't have my tape handy so I can't give a play-by-play, but as I recall, there are at least one or two solos to start off the tune, probably by Ray Copeland and Wilbur Ware. They do their best, but don't make much headway.

    Coleman Hawkins had at least a decade or two on anyone else there; he was decidedly over 50 by the time this session was recorded. So you'd expect him, as an old-guard musician whose career had largely been played over blues and "I Got Rhythm" chord progressions, to flounder when faced with these very difficult changes, right?

    Wrong. He doesn't play lots of notes, or fast runs, or any particularly fancy licks. But what he does play is, note-for-note, one of the best solos I have ever heard in my life, even though he's largely just restating the melody. You can hear his ego, in the best possible sense, in every single note he plays. It's like listening to pure will -- as though he knew you would count him out, knew that no one thought he could cut it, and here he is, playing something so deadly and so simple, saying, "Thought I couldn't do it? Fuck you. Top this, motherfucker." It's the quintessential example of an old veteran refusing to lay down and die, and for that one interval, he was playing on the very highest level anyone can play. It's an amazing moment.

  • Anton Bruckner, Symphony No. 9, 3rd movement: opening motif

    Not much to tell here, since it's such a famous passage. But when it lands on that E chord ...well, in the right performance, it's absolutely incredible. For moments like this one, a huge, lush orchestral sound -- and the sound system to hear it on! -- is indispensable.

  • Low, "Coattails", in live performance in 1997

    Sometimes, just for a moment, a band manages to conjure something so beautiful that they seem almost compelled to retreat from it as soon as possible, especially live. Pink Floyd was only able to perform "Echoes" at the highest level for a few months, and never even touched "Fearless" live -- let alone some of Rick Wright's great songs like "Summer '68".

    Well, Low did just that with their live performances of "Coattails". I've written about this so much, and so many times, that it seems silly to tread over the same ground yet again. Suffice it to say that, when I saw them play it in March 1997, it was probably the most beautiful live music I have ever heard, and I can honestly say I've never been the same since.

Some honorable mentions might include the very different version of "Outside the Wall" from the soundtrack to The Wall (the film), and possibly a couple of things that would probably shock the hell out of anyone who knows me -- one of them is even from a musical, which around me is normally a dirty word. (Bad singing + bad acting + horrible lyrics = crap.) I think I'll keep those to myself.

6:07 PM

I just heard a song on VH1 Country (don't ask) that was so blatantly Autotuned it wasn't even funny. I think it was "I Could Not Ask For More", by Sara Evans. It basically sounded like everything else that's on MTV/VH1, except with denim, cowboy boots and a Southern accent. Clearly, Nashville needs a new promotion! Something like this:

"Country music -- it's getting even worse."

5:54 PM

This is mildly amusing.

(Comments for July 10, 2001) (1 comment so far)

July 7, 2001 (link)

10:09 PM

Also, I've transferred a couple more Deep Chill Network songs to cassette, and will try to review them shortly (and thus resume that long-deferred project).

9:41 PM

I just finished giving my first listen to the Violostries of Bernard Parmegiani, which I liked rather more than I initially thought I would. I find that pieces for solo-instrumentalist-with-tape are very hit-or-miss; they tend to have a high "bleep-bonk-bloop" factor, as though composers inevitably feel compelled to use highly "electronic" timbres as a foil for the more "organic" (almost typed "orgasmic") qualities of the acoustic instruments. This has a bit of that, but the relationship between the two elements seems meaningful, and sounds pleasing. I'll have to give it a few more listens (when is that not true?), but it overcame my initial resistance. I often forget how much I like what might be called academic electronic music; some of it, like John Chowning's pieces, is very, very good. However, as a listening experience, it's just as demanding as classical music, and my apartment is just so noisy that I seldom feel inclined to listen to classical music these days, which is a shame. I tried putting on my very favorite Debussy CD last night, but over headphones it sounded like crap, and over my speakers I could hear too much outside noise (especially my neighbors' air conditioners). Someday I'll have a quiet home in rural New England for such things -- though at this rate, I'll be lucky if I can afford an ice cream cone.

(Comments for July 7, 2001) (2 comments so far)

July 4, 2001

6:52 PM

I recently had my first (and long overdue) listen to Brian Eno's Music For Airports. The first track was rather better than I expected, and indeed did have a bit of a soothing quality; I can imagine that it might succeed, at least in some measure, at its apparent purpose (calming the anxieties of passengers waiting in airport terminals, especially those afraid of flying). The timbres were attractively chosen and understated, and the piece itself felt gentle and sincere. I was almost ready to revise my somewhat preconceived opinion of Eno; I've always seen him as a bit of a peddler in cliché who, however influential he may have been, didn't write terribly interesting music. (I'm really not fond of the whole "pandiatonic rambling" thing.)

With the next two tracks, though, my hopes were disappointed (and my prejudice vindicated). I reiterate my statement of a couple months back: "Too many airy, digital-sounding synths and heavenly choirs...too much pandiatonic rambling...and too much damn treble! It seems like almost every time an album gets tagged with the word 'ethereal'...it means that it's got too much treble and voices saying 'ah'." The treble comment doesn't necessarily apply, but the voices are out in force. I simply don't find that sound to be an interesting one; it feels manipulative and tacky and clichéd. It wouldn't surprise me to learn that this album was, in fact, the originator of said cliché -- but so what? I still don't like it.

It turns out that, unlike the other tracks which were all Eno, the first track was co-written by Eno, Robert Wyatt and Rhett Davies (the engineer). I don't know if it's necessarily Wyatt's influence that makes the first track more successful, but I vastly prefer it regardless.

Who can translate the lyrics to this? A reference to Franz Josef Land in the etext of The Smoky God left me curious; it's apparently the northernmost island in all of Eurasia. And so, this song: but what does it mean? I suspect I enjoy music like this more when it's sung in a foreign language (thereby minimizing associations with American-style fake-folk mayhem), and it's a pleasure to hear the utterly different phonemes of a Slavic language in such a context, but I'd still like to know what he's singing. I know the alphabet, but I don't speak the language...Josh, how's your Russian?

Finally, did anyone besides myself, and my father, find Heaven's Gate to be a great movie? It could be argued that Kris Kristofferson's performance was a dud -- I suppose that's a matter of taste, or of tolerance. And sure, it's too long. But I thought that, if anything, it was better than The Deer Hunter. Regardless, it certainly doesn't deserve its reputation as an artistic failure. I suppose the time was ripe for a whipping boy, and Cimino, with his considerable excesses, was it. (In fairness, he did bankrupt the studio...)

(Comments for July 4, 2001)

current reading:

The Odyssey, Homer, trans. Robert Fagles

just finished:

The Smoky God, Willis George Emerson
(from Project Gutenberg)


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