Eyes That Can See in the Dark

a music journal

July 31, 2005 (link)

12:27 PM

(Hey, that looks kinda cool.)

12:21 PM

(Hmmm, I'm listening to Valse Triste right now, but I don't really hear it.)

(Wait, that sounded like a Zen koan.)

(Or the honest autobiography of about 55-60% of classical music listeners...)

(Actually, you could just remove the word "classical" from that sentence and it'd still be true.)

(Also sprach der Snob.)

(Though hopefully not Septimus Bons.)

12:14 PM

The relationship between Dance Cadaverous and Sibelius' Valse Triste was noted by Shorter, but he had another inspiration as well. "I was thinking," he said, "of some of these doctor pictures in which you see a classroom and they're getting ready to work on a cadaver."

-- Don Heckman, in the liner notes to Speak No Evil

11:49 AM

Scott, the fine fellow behind the If We Celebrate Peeing A Bake Sale Will Disappear set that I reviewed recently, had some questions for me about a couple music theory bits that got mentioned in the course of my review. Here they are, with Scott's questions in italics (and my answers, um, not):

Here's one -- what's going on harmonically with the banjo part of the second Sufjan track? The notes go
F# C# D# E B D#;
G# B D# E B D#;
A C# D# E B D#,
G# B D# E B D#.
All of these notes fit into an E major scale, but what mode is this song in? Do the notes outline chords with added and/or omitted tones?

Well, the song's basically in F# Dorian, more or less. The motion you're hearing is mostly the elaboration of a four-bar sequence which could be simplified into:

F# C# F#
G# B F#
A C# F#
G# B F#

The bassline motion (F# G# A G#) and use of common tones (F# on top) is really the main thing that's going on here. One can name it in terms of chords -- F# minor, Emaj9/G#, F#m/A, Emaj9/G# would be one way of looking at it -- but it's basically a modal song, ebbing and flowing in F# minor Dorian, and structurally speaking, its motion is more contrapuntal than harmonic in nature.

It's interesting that he avoids the D# in his vocal part, but it appears so prominently in other parts, including the banjo; this is partly due, I think, to a style of vocal writing that favors pentatonic melodies, which tend to sound "older" and more, y'know, parchment-y -- which then interacts with the more sophisticated accompaniment to make interesting results. Good trick, that: keep the melody simple, and make the accompaniment inflect it. (More on that below.)

Let's see -- "I really like the moment when the second guitar and bass come in, and you find out that the first guitarist's pattern, which seemed like an uncomplicated C major, can actually be inflected through several different modes, and quite effectively too." Which modes? Can you give a more detailed explanation of how this effect is achieved?

Well, to look at it in terms of modes may be somewhat deceptive, in that what really happens is an increase in harmonic tension. When the guitar first comes in, it seems like total standard-issue, root-position C major. There's even a C pedal throughout.

Then, when the other instruments come in on F, it invites us to rehear the initial motif -- or rather, its first few notes -- as the upper chord tones in an F Lydian chord (call it an Fmaj9). Now, we're not "in" F Lydian, anymore than we would be in a Mozart piece [in C major] when he goes to an F chord, but the net effect is to put an unexpected pedal tone under what we'd thought was just simple C major.

The pedal tone then moves up to G, which combines with the 1st guitar part to make a C major seventh chord in its second inversion. Generally speaking, the second inversion of a major chord (let's ignore the seventh for the moment) is considered its tensest position, because there's a prominent fourth between the lowest note of the chord (here G) and the tonic (here C). It has the name "six-four chord", so called because of its interval structure, measured from the bottom up -- the aforementioned fourth, plus a sixth between the lowest note (G) and the third of the chord (E).

Then the pedal tone goes to A, and the other parts are playing the notes A-C-E-F, so we have a F major seventh chord in first inversion. Because the lead guitar part is playing an E on the downbeat, there's a strong A minor flavor to this chord, and there's some ambiguity, perhaps, about whether it functions as IV or as vi.

Finally, the pedal goes back to G, and we have a seventh-less chord of the same kind we did before -- C major in six-four position.

The net effect of all this? What seemed simple, and potentially repetitive and bland (imagine if all the instruments had come in on C!), is imbued with a great deal of interest and tension. By changing its harmonic context, a single phrase is suddenly given multiple meanings, and yet those multiple meanings retain melodic and structural integrity because, in part, of the fact that they're held together by the coherent original that runs through them. (Stepwise motion, as opposed to moving by skip, plays a big role here too.)

You know who's really, really good at that? Debussy. He'll take a melody and harmonize it three different ways (or more!) in the same piece, each time using the subtle shift in color and implication to take the piece in a completely different direction.

In other news, I've been liking Matching Mole's first album a lot lately -- specifically, "O Caroline", which I'd somehow overlooked before. Take a nice, gentle pop/love song with good Mellotron sounds, put it in an unusual key (cf. "I don't really know what I'm singing about / But it makes me feel I feel alright"), and give it wry and compelling lyrics whose tinge of irony enhances, rather than diminishes, their affect (n.): winning combination, round here.

I also like "Signed Curtain" from the same album, but the incessant repetition in the verses undermines the effect a little bit -- though, in trying to describe that undermining, I'm having a hard time coming up with something better than "time is money", which would earn me a punch in the nose from a certain paraplegic Marxist, I suspect. But the last line is a killer either way.

(I smell a doctoral thesis coming on. "Affect vs. Effect: The Emotional and Psychosocial Hermeneutics of the 'Canterbury Scene', 1969-1975".)

Current music: Steffen Basho-Junghans - Rivers & Bridges

(Comments for July 31, 2005)

July 30, 2005 (link)

9:29 PM

Back when I started this thing, two of the first albums I wrote about were Carla Bley's Night-Glo and Wayne Shorter's Speak No Evil. In fact, now that I look at it, Night-Glo was the very first one, which is quite fitting I think; Speak No Evil followed close behind, though with a much less favorable response on my part.

Anyway, under the heading plus ça change, I've been listening to Night-Glo lately -- a few times, I'd say, over the past week or so. Then today, when I closed my eyes and grabbed a CD at random to listen to, it turned out to be Speak No Evil, which I played while I cleaned my apartment up. When "Dance Cadaverous" came on, I noticed that the two CDs had something else in common, too.

First, the Shorter tune, from about thirty-odd measures into the melody:

An excerpt from Wayne Shorter's 'Dance Cadaverous'

Compare the following from Night-Glo, about 4:30 into "Wildlife", right at the end of the "Paws Without Claws" section:

An excerpt from the 'Paws Without Claws' section of Carla Bley's 'Wildlife'

The key motive I'm talking about is the one that's notated as a quadruplet in the Shorter (although actually, it could also be a quarter note followed by a quarter-note triplet -- it's ambiguous in the recording), and that shows up repeatedly in the Bley (as its first four notes, for instance). It's basically a chromatic filigree where the third note is displaced down by an octave, i.e. it looks more complicated than it is; motives like this are all over the place in Bartok, especially.

If I were talking to you right now in person, this is the part where I'd say "Anyway, I just thought that was kind of cool."

I had a dream last night that I met Jandek. I was one of three people or so who'd come to talk with (and possibly interview) him, and we were sitting in the ground floor of a nicely-furnished two-story house. He seemed dapper and cordial, if guarded, as we asked him various questions about his musical tastes and experiences. At one point, he handed me a large, translucent capsule containing some sort of herbal remedy that he claimed to swear by, and suggested I take it. Shortly afterward, he disappeared upstairs, and while he was gone I looked again at the capsule, which now read "XXX POISON" or something like that on it. (There's actually a hint of a true story there, one not involving Jandek, which I won't get into right now.)

He was upstairs for quite a while, and I suddenly realized I was late for work, and really ought to call my boss to let her know where I was. Then, when he came back downstairs, he brought with him several French horns, which it was his intention we should play; I took a stab at it and, being a sometime trumpet player, did all right.

Current music: Mimir - Third Album

(Comments for July 30, 2005)

July 25, 2005 (link)

12:01 AM

"Due to poor craftsmanship, LL Cool J's nine was in truth nearly impossible to load."

Current music: Low - Live at Maggie Mae's, SxSW, Austin, TX, March 15, 1996

(Comments for July 25, 2005)

July 23, 2005 (link)

10:04 PM

And now, my review of Scott's new entry in the Waldo club, If We Celebrate Peeing A Bake Sale Will Disappear. Click here to check it out!

Current music: Ornette Coleman - "The Garden of Souls"

(Comments for July 23, 2005)

July 16, 2005 (link)

7:28 PM

Aphoristic insight of the day:

The most important characteristic of the avant-garde -- the aspect of it that most articulates its specific difference from "traditional" music -- is not its harmonic or melodic vocabulary, but its rhythmic language.

(Possible connections: "serious" vs. "light" music; music that is based on dance rhythms vs. music that is not; "you can get away with anything if you put a beat under it".)

Current music: Hatfield & the North - "Son of 'There's No Place Like Homerton'" (live at the Chalk Farm Roundhouse, April 13, 1974)

(Comments for July 16, 2005)

July 15, 2005 (link)

11:33 PM

The other day I had in my hand a CD of Toscanini conducting the NBC Symphony Orchestra in performances of Debussy's orchestral music: La Mer, two of the Nocturnes ("Nuages" and "Fêtes"), Iberia, and several other pieces. Looking over the disc (recorded in 1940, and remastered and reissued by the Magic Talent label), my expectations were low: given Toscanini's reputation for excessively quick tempi, one might expect the kind of clean, clinical interpretation that kills pieces like La Mer and the Nocturnes1.

Plus, any recording Toscanini might have made would be, thanks to its age, relatively primitive and lo-fi -- something that, again, would strike one as apt to be damaging to Debussy, whereas Beethoven (for example) might not suffer as much. (I single out Beethoven because I first learned the Eroica by listening to Toscanini's version, and I still think it's a great recording.)

But, on a whim, I decided to listen to the CD, starting with "Fêtes" and then continuing with La Mer. And to my pleasant surprise, I discovered that Toscanini is not just a good Debussy conductor, but a great one. Excepting my favorite version (by Max Pommer and the Leipzig Radio SO), his treatment of these pieces is the best I've heard -- better, certainly, than Boulez's version, which had been running a distant second to Pommer2. The tempi are fluid, the dynamics nuanced and subtle, and the playing is accurate and sensitive.

There are moments that fall short -- most notably, the three measures right before the end of "De l'aube à midi sur la mer" (rehearsal number 14, for those of you following along at home), which in the right hands can be one of the most beautiful passages ever written by anyone, ever. Toscanini's treatment isn't bad or anything, it just doesn't come close to Pommer's, seeming rushed and perfunctory by comparison. On the other hand, the ten measures before that -- how can such a beautiful and fragile moment, one that seems like it contains an entire world, be only ten measures long? -- are hushed and gorgeous, as they should be, in both recordings.

Sonically, by the way, the recording is surprisingly pleasant and effective. I assume the original was recorded on an oversize 78 RPM transcription disc, though it could, I suppose, have been an optical recording onto film; either way, Magic Talent did a good job of tidying up any flaws in the source, which seems like it was pretty clean to begin with. There's some distortion on the louder parts, and the acoustic is a bit dry, but the quiet parts are remarkably delicate -- and remarkably quiet, in that the lower end of the dynamic range is impressively well-preserved.

I don't know how available this particular CD is, unfortunately, and I doubt you'll find it for sale in the states -- I think it's a European quasi-bootleg that takes advantage of the less restrictive (and saner) copyright regulations over there. Naxos has also released this session, and I had hoped to cue it up tonight in the Naxos Music Library, but their version is also "not available in the United States". Thanks, Sonny Bono!

1(To be fair, that reputation isn't entirely deserved: when Toscanini conducted Parsifal at Bayreuth, he set a record for the slowest performance ever -- a record that I believe remains unbroken to this day!)

2(Alas, I also saw Boulez turn in one of the worst performances of "Fêtes" I've ever heard, on a TV broadcast from somewhere in Germany. It was completely accurate and completely lifeless, emblematic of everything he's been accused of.)

Current music: Arnold Schoenberg - "Sommermorgen An Einem See" (aka "Farben")

(Comments for July 15, 2005)

July 4, 2005 (link)

4:01 PM

It is the party
Take your fun!
Dancing of people
They have such good time!

3:58 PM

("They have such good time!" Completely correct, yet it sounds like a lyric from an outtake by the Happy Happy Go Fun Music Pop Group.)

3:55 PM

(So let's see: Pink Floyd played together again. Jandek has been performing live. Shooby Taylor was found. And hey, the identity of Deep Throat has been revealed...

Perhaps it's time for Y. Bhekhirst to come forward and solve the mystery of Hot in the Airport?)

[Edit, July 31, 2005: And Smile has been released! I knew I forgot one.]

3:40 PM

And now I've seen it. And yep, it's pretty great.

How on earth they can be that tight after not playing together for so many years, I have no idea. Listen to the attacks, the way that each beat is aligned so closely, all the parts perfectly in sync. They have such good time! And Gilmour's guitar playing is as good as ever!

Pretty remarkable. There are rumors of a concert in Israel -- that'd be great, especially if they could pull out a few other songs. To my way of thinking, opening with "Obscured By Clouds/When You're In" would be a perfect choice, and as an instrumental, it wouldn't put any additional strain on their voices.

Pipe dream, I know, but...

Current music: Neville Marcano (Growling Tiger) - "Money Is King" ("The Tiger say, a dog is better than you.")

(Comments for July 4, 2005)

July 3, 2005 (link)

1:55 PM

What can you say, really? I didn't catch the live feed, alas, though I've heard it far exceeded expectations. Hopefully I'll see a tape of it soon.

12:19 AM

Brilliant -- because of the chords, which are much more classy/smart/clever than you'd ever expect from this kind of thing. It's as though the Satie, circa Trois Sarabandes, had been a member of Slade. Or if Quiet Riot hired Kenny Wheeler to do piano-vocal arrangements.

You can find more Duf Davis tracks available for download here, including an amusing (if sadistic) cover of "Oops I Did It Again". I haven't listened to many of the other bands' tracks yet, though Great Glass Elevator's mega-lo-fi cover of "Rainbow Connection" was actually a mildly pleasant surprise -- it's completely demented, yet surprisingly faithful to the original (though it's a shame he leaves out the modulation between the 2nd and 3rd verses).

In other news, Ill Mitch has a new album, Still Mitch, coming out sometime in about a month. There's a "sneaky preview" currently available on the site; meanwhile, if you've heard "Fast and Danger" and are hungering to hear more of his past work, it seems there are additional MP3s posted at Soundclick and Front Row Morning Show.

Current music: Ill Mitch - "Come to USA"

(Comments for July 3, 2005)


Current reading:

Character Analysis, Wilhelm Reich

Tom Jones, Henry Fielding (if at first you don't succeed...)

just finished:

The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle


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