Tag: albums

This is the Album of the Future

record collection

I am a composer, performer, music producer, and avid record collector, and I am currently in a complicated relationship with physical media. Like many others, I love the tangible process of opening up a CD or LP, playing it through my home system, and studying the artwork and liner notes as I listen. I hold my own albums to this standard as I release them into the world. I pore over the details of the physical package, driving my collaborators crazy as I attempt to perfect every aspect of its design. After spending several maddening months—and often years—to make an album, the moment of finally holding the object itself is a satisfying final seal, assuring me that I’ve created something permanent.

Yet the age of streaming rages on, my closets are filled with boxes of overstock, and even my mother is more likely to listen to my music online than she is to put on a CD or LP. As much as we like to think of these discs as the sacred vessels of our musical concepts, many of us are questioning whether it is worth the time, money, space, and materials to produce the physical object.

What makes an album such a powerful statement is that the artists and producers craft a complete experience for the listener, not only through a cohesive musical idea but through its presentation: artwork, information, liner notes, and now virtually any form of media. Currently, digital platforms do not allow much room for this, confining albums to tracklists and an album cover: a thumbnail representation of something that could be physical. This has had financial repercussions—by reducing an album’s worth to the play count of its individual tracks, huge corporations have gotten away with paying artists fractions of pennies for their work.

In response to these changing tides, some of us have chosen to dig deeper into the classic formats, releasing our albums on limited edition vinyl and cassette tapes. Others search for new objects to represent their album (beer koozie with download code anyone?). Look no further than Tristan Perich’s 1-Bit Music (2005), a self-contained electronic music circuit and playback device within a CD case, for an eloquent example of physicality as the concept of the album itself.

There have been many creative approaches to releasing albums as physical objects in today’s world, but that’s not what this article is about. I’m tossing any purity I have left aside, and I am wondering: What can an album be now that it no longer needs to be an object?

Florent Ghys’s “This is the album of the future” from his video album Télévision

The album has always been and continues to be a malleable form, having adapted to over 100 years of changes in technology, business, and pop culture. The very first albums were, literally, albums: bound books manufactured to contain several 78 RPM phonograph records, examples of which can be found as far back as 1908. When Columbia Records began releasing 12-inch discs in 1948, the term had already been extended past its original meaning to refer to any collection of musical tracks. Since then, our albums have contorted through a variety of formats, shapes, and sizes and now, residing on the internet, they no longer require a physical container. Artists can release albums at a faster rate and with more ease than before, and the possibilities seem to be endless for the integration of multimedia and interactive elements.

Some are skeptical as to whether some of the newer formats should be identified as true “albums.” To decide for myself, I apply a very simple litmus test: Does the artist call their work an album? If yes, then it is so. I see the changes in how music creators conceive and present this music as the indication of its evolution as a term.

I have been searching for compelling examples of albums that have extended this form within the digital world and collected them here. Some big-budget and mainstream offerings need to be mentioned, but I have chosen to focus on a few specimens from independent artists and labels, and have given them a close and thoughtful listen.

This is by no means a comprehensive survey. I invite anyone with examples of albums that should be included in this discussion to post in the comments below.

Notes from Sub-Underground

Object Collection’s Notes from Sub-Underground (2017)

One of the immediate parameters that is lifted for albums in the digital age is that of length. At one end of the spectrum, an artist can release a shorter offering and present it as a complete concept without feeling the need to fill the entirety of a CD, tape, or LP. On the other end, albums can be very long indeed. Notes from Sub-Underground, a 2016 collection of experimental music put out in the wake of the Trump election, is an awesome example of this. Produced by the music theater group Object Collection, this five-hour-plus compilation is comprised of 62 tracks representing somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 artists. The line-up includes influential experimentalists from across generations including Richard Foreman, Cat Lamb, Phill Niblock, Michael Pisaro, and Matana Roberts, as well as performing groups String Noise, Ensemble Pamplemouse, and my own group Dither.

Beginning with a call for submissions in December, the compilation was assembled in less than two months and released on Inauguration Day, 2017. Object Collection compiled the tracks, did some basic post-production work, and produced a cover and liner notes for digital distribution. Upon its release, in order to download a copy of the album, listeners would contribute an amount of their choosing through an Indiegogo campaign, all proceeds of which were donated to the ACLU. (You can now access the compilation through Object Collection’s website.) While only some of the tracks are overtly political, the collective album effort is what makes this an effective statement.

And it’s a great record. I committed to a complete listen, toggling between sessions on my home computer and on my headphones while on New Jersey Transit. Although the sequence of the tracks is not curated (the song titles are placed in alphabetical order), there is a satisfying flow to the album in its consistent inconsistency. One of my listening sessions began with Mellissa Hughes and Philip White’s “Clinging to a Cloud, an abstracted pop song comprised of autotuned melismas intertwined with synth tones and computer voices. This track flows beautifully into an excerpt from Suzanne Thorpe’s vocal collage “Constituting States,” constructed of recordings of the U.S. national anthem as sung in different languages. The voices swirl around each other and finally resolve, to be interrupted by Jonathan Marmor’s clangorous electronic piece “Easter Helicopter”. Listening to the entire project is a cathartic experience that holds true to Object Collection’s maximalist and DIY ethos.

OneBeat Mixtape 18

OneBeat Mixtape 18: Vols 1-6 (Found Sound Records, 2019)

A collective musical endeavor that approaches the album format as a series of shorter offerings comes from the Brooklyn-based nonprofit organization Found Sound Nation. To document the output from their OneBeat program in 2018, for which they enlisted 24 international artists to create collaborative works, they have produced and released a series of digital “mixtapes,” each averaging around 20 minutes in length. Their concept is to provide an extension (“B-sides”) to the golden record that was included aboard the two Voyager spacecrafts in 1971. They staggered the release of the six volumes, each referencing a stop as the ships traveled deeper into space. The entire project can be found on Bandcamp.

While the eclecticism of the tracks on each volume holds true to the idea of a mixtape, the concept and production of the recordings create a unified offering. (All tracks were produced by OneBeat and recorded during the same sessions.) “Sorabe,” the opening track of Vol 1: Earth composed by Tsanta Randriamihajasoa, groups the Malagasy pianist with Indian vocalist Pavithra Chari, Hungarian clarinetist Zolt Bartek, and Algerian drummer Younés Kati. The track is a jazz-infused tour of each artist’s musical language, emulating the idea of the earth’s bustling “acoustic and organic sounds.”

Skipping ahead, Vol 6: Heliopause is described by OneBeat as a collection of “abstract pieces perhaps only understandable by the most adventurous human ears.” While I don’t find this material to be inaccessible (especially after listening to 5.5 hours of Object Collection) this volume certainly conjures an otherworldly sonic palette that one might equate with the edge of our solar system. Beginning with the more tangible songlike opening of “Outer Space,” each track of the album continues a trajectory deeper into textural and droney soundscapes.

Florent Ghys: Télévision

Florent Ghys: Télévision (Cantaloupe Music, 2014)

There are many notable examples throughout recorded music history of a film being produced in conjunction with an album. The Beatles’s A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Prince’s Purple Rain (1984) are two of many landmark works which were released separately as film and soundtrack. As home video systems became increasingly popular in the 1980s, artists began to regularly distribute video compilations, live concerts, and documentaries as part of their output. I fondly remember the comedic band Green Jellö (popular on MTV for their heavy metal claymation video “Three Little Pigs”), who claimed in the opening credits of their Cereal Killer VHS (1993) to be the “world’s first video-only band.” (They did in fact release a soundtrack album separately from the video.)

Billing an audiovisual work as the album itself is still a relatively new phenomenon which is quickly being embraced by the mainstream, encapsulated by the success of Beyoncé’s “visual album” Lemonade (2016). Although one might question how these offerings differ from the films and videos made by their predecessors, I see this as a natural arrival point, enabled by current digital platforms: the audio and visual elements of the album are both readily available on the same interface and can be easily conceived, created, marketed, and distributed together as a unified concept.

Bassist/composer Florent Ghys dubs his most recent solo release Télévision (2014) a “video album,” and it is indeed a high-level integration of musical and visual concepts. In this case, the two elements are so intrinsically connected that it’s hard to imagine experiencing the music alone. Working in sync with both audio and video software, Ghys composed the two entities in tandem, providing a direct video corollary to virtually every musical event.

In the opening track “Beauté Plastique,” each new instrumental layer enters with a corresponding visual element, creating a complex tapestry of hockets and contrapuntal lines. The final track, “This is the Album of the Future,” features a tongue-in-cheek video collage of dated advertisements for compact disc players. (Télévision is in fact also available as a CD from Cantaloupe records.) The entire video is an absorbing and effective visual experience which kept me engaged in a way that felt more akin to binge watching a TV series or going down a YouTube rabbit hole than listening to an album of the past.

Rabbit Rabbit: Rabbit Rabbit Radio, Vols 1-3

Confronting the issue of digital distribution, another creative video-based offering comes from Rabbit Rabbit (Carla Kihlstedt and Matthias Bossi). Frustrated with online services, in 2012 the duo began a long-term project in which they released a song and video per month on their own subscription-based site, rabbitrabbitradio.com. Although they have now chosen to end their monthly output and focus on larger-scale works, they compiled their three years of work into three albums which can be listened to and watched on Bandcamp.

While maintaining high production values, these videos are intimate and homegrown, often using footage from the recording studio or home performances. They incorporate several candid and personal moments, including a living room session in which their young daughter throws a minor tantrum during the song. Family and friends feature prominently throughout the three volumes. “Paper Prison” is a documentary portrait of Bossi’s father as he discusses his rare book collection. The final track, “Merci Vielmal,” was recorded on a train while on the road with their group Cosa Brava (performed with bandmates Fred Frith, Shahzad Ismaily, and Zeena Parkins). Not only is this music captivating, but you come out of the experience feeling as if you have had a window into the artists’ everyday lives.

John Cage, The Ten Thousand Things, I Ching Edition

John Cage, The Ten Thousand Things, I Ching Edition

John Cage, The Ten Thousand Things, I Ching Edition (Microfest records, 2013)

In the ‘90s, artists such as Peter Gabriel, Primus, and The Residents released CD-ROMs with game-like applications along with their albums, providing an interface for listeners to explore the songs, art, and other elements. Today, our touch-screen devices offer even more potential for interactive music applications. Bjork’s Biophilia (2011) was released as an “app album,” featuring artwork, extensive liner notes, videos, and games associated with each track. Other artists take the interactive model further by allowing the music to be generated in real time. Brian Eno’s most recent release Reflection (2017) exists both in fixed media and as an application that creates a unique and endless version of his composition.

An interesting example of a generative album experience comes from Microfest Records’s release of John Cage’s The Ten Thousand Things (2015). In the 1950s, Cage composed this set of pieces to be played independently, in any combination, or reconfigured in a variety of ways. Microfest produced The I-Ching Edition of the album which consists of a fixed version of the piece, accompanied by an application (delivered via thumb drive) that allows you to generate unique versions the composition. Each rendering is constructed from performances by pianists Vicki Ray and Aron Kallay, bassist Tom Peters, percussionist William Winant, and an archival recording of Cage himself reading his lecture “‘45 for a Speaker.” Each new version of the piece uses the same recordings, but is unique in its organization.

One of the most satisfying things about this piece is that the spoken material in Cage’s fragmented lecture describes the same compositional techniques that you are hearing in real time. The chance aspect of the application itself adds yet another layer. The creativity of this format, the top-notch performances, and the charm of hearing Cage masterfully read his lecture make for an enthralling aleatoric experience.

Ironically, many of these innovative application-based albums have fallen victim to operating system upgrades. We can still get Bjork’s album through Apple’s app store, but similar offerings from Jay-Z, Lady Gaga, and Philip Glass seem to have become obsolete in less than ten years. These apps were either never updated, or they were seen by the record companies merely as short-term marketing tools. There also just haven’t been a huge quantity of app albums made, as the financial overhead required to create these programs is still prohibitive for most independent artists.

With so much trial and error required, it is not a surprise that album formats have needed to pass a high threshold of popularity and mass consumption in order to achieve longevity. This is one reason that physical albums are still relevant today—they survive as permanent objects on the sidelines of a constantly changing and merciless digital landscape.

What is the album of the future? I hope for an interface that is as accessible and navigable as the current streaming platforms, one that allows artists to configure a unique experience for their listeners, and one that empowers us to control its monetization. (Bandcamp is well ahead of the pack in this regard.) The ideal platform would not only provide easy access to music, art, text, and all types of media, but be malleable so that new elements can be integrated as they arise. The next sea change in business and technology will surely provide new and unforeseen formats for our music, and within it artists will continue to innovate, adapt, and respond.

NewMusicBox Mix: 2016 Staff Picks

holiday lights

Before we ring in 2017, it’s become a bit of a tradition here at New Music USA to give a cheer for some of the standout music of the past year. Below you will find a selection of tracks streamed separately with a bit of commentary on what made them notable, as well as a continuous playlist of all of the music at the bottom of the post. Follow the links for further listening and to add the albums to your own collection.

Don’t see a favorite of yours? We hope you’ll add it below so we can all give another round of applause to the great work that hit our ears in 2016.

Happy Holidays from New Music USA!!

Timber Remixed

Michael Gordon; remixed by Ikue Mori: Timber
Performed by Mantra Percussion

ALBUM: Timber Remixed
Cantaloupe Records

Purchase via the Bang on a Can Store / Amazon / iTunes

I love the idea of keeping a work alive by recreating it in a variety of ways, and for this work Michael Gordon and Mantra partnered up to shine light on a number of composers, each with a very different voice. Why this particular track? On a personal level, I just really respond to Ikue Mori’s aesthetic. I shared this with the hope that many of you listening will explore the entire release, and then dig deeper to explore all the composers on it further. –Deborah Steinglass, Director of Development

Nicolas Jaar: No

ALBUM: Sirens
Other People

Purchase via Other People / Amazon / iTunes

An atmospheric delight. Imagine walking the halls of a slightly run-down, crowded apartment building on a sultry August evening. Lots of background, a shifting and elusive foreground—you never know what you’ll hear next. Here’s a track, but seriously, you need to sit back and just listen to the whole thing. –Eddy Ficklin, Director of Platform


Daniel Wohl: Formless
Performed by Daniel Wohl, Lucky Dragons, Olga Bell, Caroline Shaw, Bang On A Can All-Stars, Mantra Percussion, Mivos Quartet, and Iktus Percussion

ALBUM: Holographic
New Amsterdam Records

Purchase via Bandcamp / Amazon / iTunes

I’m a sucker for post-rock and ambient music. Eno’s Music for Airports done by the Bang on a Can All-Stars was one of the first introductions that brought me to contemporary classical composition. Listening to Daniel Wohl’s Holographic reminds me of this area of post-minimalist/classical and post-rock/ambient genre cross-talk that has always interested me. This record exhibits that style of slow and thoughtful musical development with well-orchestrated blends of electronic textures and instruments. — Blake Whiteley, Development Assistant


Oneida / Rhys Chatham: You Get Brighter

ALBUM: What’s Your Sign?
Northern Spy Records

Purchase via Bandcamp / Amazon / iTunes

I first heard Oneida play in a disused public parking lot Brooklyn in 2001. It was a pretty dark time for New York and we were all young and angry. Oneida’s sound has matured without losing any of that passionate, furious energy which struck me then. Teamed up with composer Rhys Chatham, Oneida have recently issued What’s Your Sign?. While some of the tracks are a little uneven, “You Get Brighter” is definitely worth a listen. –Madeline Bohm, Software Engineer and Designer

stone people

Martin Bresnick: Ishi’s Song
Performed by Lisa Moore, piano

ALBUM: The Stone People
Cantaloupe Records

Purchase via the Bang on a Can Store / Amazon / iTunes

Lisa’s playing (and singing) here is, as always, supremely musical and controlled and full of intent, and the piece, like all of Martin’s music, is profound, surprising, and rewarding to delve into. The Ishi of the title was the last of his people–the Yahi Indians–and the piece is based on transcription of a traditional song he recorded after being taken in by anthropologists at the University of California, Berkeley (his story is definitely worth reading). I’ve heard Lisa play (and Martin introduce) Ishi’s Song live a number of times now, and each performance feels like a brief glimpse into a lost world. The original melody is sung and then braided into shimmering, shifting textures, creating a mirage-like sensation, like being on the edge of seeing or grasping something that ultimately remains elusive. –Eileen Mack, Junior Software Engineer


David T. Little: Winter – Act III, Scene 2, “Endgame”
Performed by James Bobick, Marnie Breckenridge, Cherry Duke, John Kelly, Michael Marcotte, Newspeak, Alan Pierson, Peter Tantsits, and Lauren Worsham

Album Name: Dog Days
Vision Into Art Records

Purchase Amazon / iTunes

Dog Days, the opera by composer David T. Little and librettist Royce Vavrek, is terrifying, and that’s why I love it so much. There’s something about watching a family fall apart in a post-apocalyptic world that’s deeply disturbing (especially–spoiler alert!–when cannibalism is involved), but at the same time it’s too fascinating to look away. David’s score is a haunting representation of the action on stage, and this track reflects the tension, panic, and loss of humanity and hope we’ve reached at the climax of Dog Days. –Sam Reising, Community Platform Strategist and Grantmaking Manager

real enemies

Darcy James Argue: Dark Alliance
Performed by Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society

ALBUM: Real Enemies
New Amsterdam Records

Purchase via Bandcamp / Amazon / iTunes

Darcy James Argue brought a certain amount of swagger to the table just by forming an 18-piece big band in New York City. I’m pretty sure the first show I caught featuring his amazing crew of co-conspirators packed the stage so tightly that the bass player was effectively in the club’s kitchen—and they were still killing it! But what I really walked away thinking—and to even greater degrees after every performance I’ve heard since—is that Argue has a gift for attracting committed, remarkable players and feeding them a stream of witty and sophisticated material, a potent mix that excites the audience’s ears as well as their toes. With Real Enemies, his exploration of conspiracy-driven politics through the decades (originally designed as a theatrical event), his cross-era cuts are particularly incisive. –Molly Sheridan, Director of Content, and Co-Editor, NewMusicBox


Kris Davis: Tim Berne
Perform Kris Davis and Tim Berne

ALBUM: Duopoly
Pyroclastic Records

Purchase via Bandcamp / Amazon / iTunes

This improvisation featuring Kris Davis and Tim Berne, is from Kris Davis’s aptly named album Duopoly. The album consists of Davis playing one composed and one improvised duet with eight different musicians (the first half of the album is all of the composed pieces and the second half is all of the improvised pieces) in a package that comes with an audio cd and a visual record documenting recording session. While the individual playing throughout the album is wonderful, what really appeals to me about this track is the way in which the musicians play off each other to creates a piece whose structure I found to be complex and organic. –Brad Lenz, Development Manager

wild cities

Clint Needham: On the Road: Nothing Behind Me
Performed by Francesca Anderegg (violin) and Brent Funderburk (piano)

ALBUM: Wild Cities
New Focus Recordings

Purchase via New Focus / Amazon / iTunes

I was first drawn to Francesca Anderegg’s album Wild Cities having known her and the pianist during my graduate studies, but I was especially taken with the work, On the Road: Nothing Behind Me by Clint Needham. The first listen had me Googling for sheet music! The piece is a mixture of playful lightness and distant, far-off memories tinged with wistfulness and the fading sunlight. –Kristen Doering, Grantmaking Associate


Jennifer Bellor: Chase The Stars
Performed by Jennifer Bellor, Rasar Amani, Lynn Tsai, Ivan Ivanov, Samantha Ciarlo, Tammy Hung, David Chavez, Lindsay Johnson, Bennett Mason, Sean Carbone, Tim Jones, Kyle Bissantz, Summer Kodama, Jeremy Klewicki, and Bronson Foster


Purchase Amazon / iTunes

Since so many extraordinary recordings are released every year, it usually borders on the impossible to sing the praises of just one of them. But JCOI-alum Jennifer Bellor’s self-released Stay seems to be several albums at the same time. Equal parts jazz and contemporary chamber music, but also indebted to indie rock, hip-hop, and even golden age Broadway musicals, this kaleidoscopic collection of 13 originals is a wonderful demonstration of how to maintain a highly individual compositional identity without needing to take refuge in pre-post-genre musical silos. I love Moments Shared, Moments Lost (a 2016 duo for clarinet and pipe organ), and AfterHours (a 2014 drum set solo), but nothing probably sums up the dazzling eclecticism of this release more effectively than Chase The Stars, a 2015 setting of an Emily Brontë poem in which Bellor’s own operatic voice is accompanied by flute, bass clarinet, string quartet, piano, electric guitars, three percussionists, and a rapper! –Frank J. Oteri, Composer Advocate, and Co-Editor, NewMusicBox

Stream the full list:

NewMusicBox Mix: 2015 Staff Picks

Staff Mix 2015

Before we bid farewell to year that was, New Music USA staff members have surveyed the 2015 recordings crowding their desktops (real and virtual) and chosen some of their favorite tracks from the past twelve months for a special NewMusicBox Mix. Below you will find each track streamed separately with a bit of commentary on what made it stand out, as well as a continuous playlist of all of the tracks at the bottom of the post. Follow the links for further listening and to add the albums to your own collection.

These artists have very generously allowed the use of their tracks in this project, and we encourage you to support them by purchasing their albums and letting them know if you enjoy what you hear!

Happy holidays to all!


Tristan Perich: Telescope for 2 bass clarinets, 2 baritone saxophones, & 4-channel 1-bit electronics
Performed by Sara Budde, Eileen Mack, Argeo Ascani, and Alex Hamlin.

ALBUM: Telescope
Physical Editions

Purchase via Bandcamp

In 2015, Tristan Perich began releasing his “Compositions” series of recordings on his own label. So far the run includes four discs, each featuring a single composition scored for acoustic instruments in conversation with Perich’s signature 1-bit electronics. Plus, the sleek, chapbook-sized packaging also includes a fold out poster of the full score! It’s an incredibly compelling visual element that’s not often revealed to the listener and provides a poignant reminder of the composer’s presence in the audio mix.

Molly Sheridan, Executive Editor, NewMusicBox and Director, Counterstream Radio


TIGUE: Cerulean

ALBUM: Peaks
New Amsterdam

Purchase via Bandcamp

Tigue rocks. Literally. Last year they rocked the New Music Bake Sale, and they’ve got a growing following among non-new music types, too. This track is the most “Tigue” on their new album, and features a great big ritardando that makes you more excited.

Kevin Clark, Director of Platform


Du Yun: San
Performed by Matt Haimovitz, cello

ALBUM: Orbit: Music for solo cello (1945-2014)

Purchase via primephonic

While most of the world might think solo cello begins and ends with Bach, we know better. And thanks to the talented and adventurous Matt Haimovitz, we have a three-disc set of modern cello pieces to prove it. The repertoire on these discs spans a huge range and is a testament to his skill, musicality, and eclectic tastes. The track featured here is San by Du Yun, an atmospheric, and sometimes dark, journey for a lone cello through a forest of shifting electronic sounds.

Eddy Ficklin, Senior Software Engineer


Son Lux: Change is Everything

ALBUM: Bones

Purchase via Bandcamp

There is so much great music out there! I especially want to shout out to Jen Shyu, Steve Coleman, and Rudresh Mahanthappa for their recent releases. So how to choose? I went with Son Lux’s “Change is Everything” from the album Bones, for so many reasons—not the least of which was the focus of Ryan Lott’s newish band with Ian Chang and Rafiq Bhatia on inventing and reinventing, something I deeply believe in. The music is great, and the message of change seems perfect as we enter the new year.

Deborah Steinglass, Director of Development


Sarah Kirkland Snider: The River
Performed by Padma Newsome, DM Stith, Shara Worden, and the Unremembered Orchestra

ALBUM: Unremembered
New Amsterdam

Purchase via Bandcamp

Sarah Kirkland Snider’s arresting new song cycle, Unremembered, deserves to be listened to in order at least twice. But if you have to pick one track, listen to “The River.” Snider’s music moves swiftly, murmuring along, with a burbling vocal line and hand claps that catch the listener and indicate that not all is well on the banks of this river. It’s haunting, graceful melody will stay in your head long after you finish listening

Hannah Rubashkin, Development Manager for Institutional Giving

anthracite fields

Julia Wolfe: Flowers
Performed by the Bang on a Can All-Stars and Choir of Trinity Wall Street

ALBUM: Anthracite Fields

Purchase via Bandcamp

Julia Wolfe’s Anthracite Fields, which was awarded the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Music, is one of the most ambitious in her collection of works based on the lore of Appalachia. The oratorio harkens back to the plight of the coal miners in northeastern Pennsylvania and was created after extensive research Wolfe gathered from everything from oral histories to children’s rhymes. Anthracite Fields is a haunting and moving journey into the lives of those who inhabited the region at coal’s height as well as those who remain there today.

Sam Reising, Grantmaking and Social Media Manager

glass partita

Philip Glass: Partita VII. Chaconne, Part 2
Performed by Tim Fain
ALBUM: Tim Fain Plays Philip Glass: Partita for Solo Violin
Orange Mountain Music

This is the kind of recording that makes me hunt for sheet music. The Partita For Solo Violin, and especially “Chaconne 2,” showcases Philip Glass’s ability to work inside a form and create something new. Tim Fain’s performance showcases both the dance like, baroque rhythms and the minimalist harmonies of this incredible piece.

Debbie Milburn, Junior Software Engineer


Jason Eckardt: Subject
Performed by JACK Quartet

ALBUM: Subject

Jason Eckardt’s heavy metal and jazz backgrounds are readily apparent in the title track from his new album, “Subject.”  The piece, which is based on CIA interrogation techniques that manipulate senses, juxtaposes rapid and cacophonous phrases (expertly played by JACK) with periods of silence sometimes slashed with single chords, effectively hinting at (albeit certainly in a reduced way) the experience of that type of interrogation.

Brad Lenz, Development Associate for Individual Giving

african math

Martin Scherzinger: African Math (featuring Hallucinating Accordion and Mirror Notes / Slow Noises)
Performed by Tom Rosenkranz, piano; Jen Choi, violin; Chris Gross, cello

Album: African Math
New Focus Recordings

Some folks may find it odd that a classical piano trio is a group comprising a piano, a violin, and a cello and not simply three pianos, but they’ll be even more surprised when they hear the very non-classical sounding compositions on South African-born, NYU-based Martin Scherzinger’s 2015 CD African Math in which these instruments play music typically played on mouth bows in the Kalahari or on mbiras throughout Zimbabwe. This joyous music is a perfect soundtrack for Kwanzaa or whatever holiday you’re celebrating this December.

Frank J. Oteri, Composer Advocate and Senior Editor, NewMusicBox

NewMusicBox Mix: 2014 Staff Picks

Before we close the file on 2014, New Music USA staff members have chosen some of their favorite tracks from the past twelve months for this edition of the NewMusicBox Mix. Below you will find each track streamed separately with a bit of commentary on what made it stand out, as well as a continuous playlist of all of the tracks at the bottom of the post. Follow the links for further listening and to add the albums to your own collection.
These artists have very generously allowed the use of their tracks in this project, and we encourage you to support them by purchasing their albums and letting them know if you enjoy what you hear!
Happy holidays to all!

Staff Picks 2014

Ghost Quartet

Dave Malloy: The Astronomer
Performed by Brent Arnold, Brittain Ashford, Gelsey Bell, and Dave Malloy

ALBUM: Ghost Quartet
Blue Wizard Music
Purchase via Bandcamp
I love Dave Malloy’s shows more than is, strictly speaking, reasonable. It seems as if he throws himself into his sources with enough force that he breaks through the other side with everything he needs for a show in pieces on the ground around him. In the case of Ghost Quartet, Malloy’s brain seems to have gone down the rabbit hole of the murder ballad “The Twa Sisters,” which goes back at least to the 1650s. On his way back, Malloy brings you through Iran, a modern subway platform, a series of distilleries, and a very strange shop somewhere in, I think, the Pacific Northwest. It’s not that important. It’s just an awesome album and an awesome song.

Kevin Clark, Strategic Director for Public Engagement


Chris Kallmyer: this nest, swift passerine
Performed by wild Up

Populist Records
Purchase via Populist Records
Purchase via Bandcamp
I love that the recordings on this disc are live, not assembled with precision and science in the laboratory of a recording studio. And I love that they reflect a new music scene in LA that’s likewise exploding with life. The musicians’ human energy, digitized though it is, leaps through the speakers at you, even in the quietest, most curiously affecting track of the bunch: this nest, swift passerine by Chris Kallmyer.

Ed Harsh, President and CEO

Haas Kowert Tice: You Got This

Haas Kowert Tice: The Decade

ALBUM: You Got This
Purchase via Bandcamp
Brittany Haas (Crooked Still, Dan Trueman), Paul Kowert (Punch Brothers), and Jordan Tice (Tony Trischka) are three friends who also happen to be top talents in bluegrass music and beyond. There are so many interesting tracks to choose from on this album—their first of what I hope will be many—but my favorite track is “The Decade.” It’s a short and incisive cut featuring Haas’s extraordinary fiddle playing and excellent ensemble work by Kowert and Tice. It’s complex, yet visceral and immediate, which is what drew me to this style of music in the first place. I hope it draws you in too!

Ethan Joseph, Development Manager for Individual Giving

Gabriel Kahane: Villains (4616 Dundee Dr.)

ALBUM: The Ambassador
Sony Masterworks
Purchase via Bandcamp

With characteristic wit—musical as well as lyrical—Gabriel Kahane takes the listener on a tour of some of Los Angeles’s landmark addresses and the complex history on which they stand. The subject matter gives him plenty to meditate on—from the architects who designed the city to the slumlords who run it. In “Villains (4616 Dundee Dr.),” he plays a sharp verbal game that seamlessly mixes commentary on clerestory windows and cantilevered beach houses with a consideration of Bruce Willis’s hair line and the modernist leanings of Hollywood’s bad guys.

Molly Sheridan, Executive Editor, NewMusicBox and Director, Counterstream Radio

Ambrose Akinmusire - Ceaseless Inexhaustible Child, and Rollcall for Those Absent

Ambrose Akinmusire: Ceaseless Inexhaustible Child, and Rollcall for Those Absent
Performed by Ambrose Akinmusire, Cold Specks, Sam Harris, Harish Raghavan, Justin Brown, Charles Altura, and Muna Blake

ALBUM: the imagined savior is far easier to paint
Blue Note

I’ve been a fan of Ambrose Akinmusire’s music for a number of years now, having first heard him at The Jazz Gallery when I worked there. His second release on Blue Note, the imagined savior is far easier to paint, which came out in the spring of 2014, displays his maturation as an artist—the essence of his music, the uniqueness of his voice as a composer and trumpeter, was present from a very early age, but it has amplified as he’s grown and on this CD it’s also amplified by the presence of the exceptional musicians he collaborates with. It’s deeply personal and unmistakably his—honest, probing, emotional, thoughtful, communicative, uncompromising. At the same time, it resonates with our common humanity, and challenges us to feel, think, and act. I chose these tracks, Ceaseless Inexhaustible Child and Rollcall for Those Absent for their artistry and their timeliness.

Deborah Steinglass, Director of Development

Donald Womack: Breaking Heaven

Donald Reid Womack: Breaking Heaven
Performed by Seizan Sakata, shakuhachi; Asako Hisatake, cello; Reiko Kimura, koto

ALBUM: Breaking Heaven
Albany Records

While blurring and blending a wide range of traditions has been a defining trait of 21st-century American music-making, some of the recent music coming out of Hawaii—situated in Oceania halfway between Asia and the Americas—is a direct response to its multicultural history. For the past decade, Hawaii-based Donald Reid Womack has been creating a fascinating body of chamber music utilizing both Western and Asian instruments and has claimed that through writing such music he has finally found his identity as an “American” composer. Breaking Heaven, Womack’s trio for cello, shakuhachi, and 21-string koto, is a great starting point for listeners eager to hear the exciting sonic result of this synthesis.

Frank J. Oteri, Composer Advocate and Senior Editor, NewMusicBox

Battle Trance - Palace of Wind

Battle Trance: Palace of Wind: Pt. II

ALBUM: Palace of Wind
New Amsterdam Records
Purchase via Bandcamp

This track from Palace of Wind, the first album-length work from tenor sax quartet Battle Trance, showcases the collaborative and sonic possibilities of the instrument in a whole new light. Intricate fast lines interact seamlessly with more meditative sections, anchored by multiphonics and circular breathing, creating a hypnotic flow of sound that is like nothing else I’ve heard this year.

Hannah Rubashkin, Manager of Institutional Giving

A Coffin in Egypt

Ricky Ian Gordon: The Open Prairie

ALBUM: A Coffin in Egypt
Albany Records

A small gem of an opera that embraces intimacy and takes the listener (in the case of this recording) on a cinematic journey through one woman’s tragic life and indomitable spirit.

Eddy Ficklin, Technology Manager and Developer

Jacob Cooper - Silver Threads

Jacob Cooper: Silver Threads
Performed by Jacob Cooper and Mellissa Hughes

ALBUM: Silver Threads
Purchase via Nonesuch

As the title track of this stunning minimalist song cycle, Silver Threads is Jacob Cooper’s quiet and contemplative interpretation of modern-day lied. An album I often revisit, I’ve had the pleasure of hearing portions of the entire cycle performed live; the immersive experience his work elicits both in person and in recording never disappoints.

Emily Bookwalter, Grantmaking and Community Manager

A Far Cry - The Law of Mosaics

Ted Hearne: Law of Mosaics: Excerpts from the Middle of Something
Performed by A Far Cry

ALBUM: The Law of Mosaics
Crier Records

A Far Cry’s The Law of Mosaics pairs Andrew Norman’s Companion Guide to Rome with Ted Hearne’s The Law of Mosaics. The release cements the string orchestra as a force to be reckoned with, presenting the unique voices of both Brooklyn exports and allowing them to shine on one of the best releases of 2014.

Sam Reising, Grantmaking Assistant

57th Annual Grammy Award Nominations Announced

Grammy Awards
Sharpen your pencils, voting Recording Academy members. Nominations for the 57th Annual Grammy Awards were announced today.

In the category of “Best Contemporary Classical Composition,” nods were given to John Luther Adams (Become Ocean), Anna Clyne (Prince of Clouds), George Crumb (Voices from the Heartland), Stephen Paulus (Concerto for Two Trumpets and Band), and Roberto Sierra (Sinfonía No. 4).

John Adams’s City Noir (St. Louis Symphony, David Robertson, conductor) picked up a nomination in the “Best Orchestral Performance” category. In 27 Pieces – The Hilary Hahn Encores and Dreams & Prayers
(David Krakauer and A Far Cry) were nominated in the “Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance” category, as was Partch: Plectra & Percussion Dances (Bridge Records, Inc.) which was also nominated in the “Best Classical Compendium” category.

Kenny Barron, Chick Corea, Fred Hersch, Joe Lovano, and Brad Mehldau were each recognized in the “Best Improvised Jazz Solo” category. Landmarks (Brian Blade & The Fellowship Band), Trilogy (Chick Corea Trio), Floating (Fred Hersch Trio), Enjoy The View (Bobby Hutcherson, David Sanborn, Joey DeFrancesco featuring Billy Hart), and All Rise: A Joyful Elegy For Fats Waller (Jason Moran) were nominated for “Best Jazz Instrumental Album.” The L.A. Treasures Project (The Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra), Life In The Bubble (Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band), Quiet Pride: The Elizabeth Catlett Project (Rufus Reid), Live: I Hear The Sound (Archie Shepp Attica Blues Orchestra), and OverTime: Music Of Bob Brookmeyer (The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra) were nominated in the “Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album” category.

More on these and all the nominated recordings is available here. The 57th annual Grammy Awards will air February 8, 2015, on CBS.

Kingdom Come: Pere Ubu’s New Picnic Time

Blank Records Press Photo by Ebet Roberts

Pere Ubu Press Photo, taken at CBGB’s in 1977. Photo credit: Ebet Roberts.
(l to r) Tom Herman, Scott Krauss, David Thomas, Alan Ravenstine, Tony Maimone.

It has been some years now that I have been saying that the Pere Ubu album entitled New Picnic Time, from 1979, is the scariest album ever made, and perhaps the time has come now to back up this claim, to speak of the dark truths of New Picnic Time. Yes, I understand, there are a great many other scary albums out there. For example, there is The Flowers of Romance by Public Image Limited. That is a very scary album, based on a certain subjective notion of scary, which is that scary involves consciousness in the process of decay or confinement or miniaturization. Test Department were occasionally scary. Throbbing Gristle, definitely scary on occasion, and with some similarities of intent and mission with Pere Ubu. The first album by Einsturzende Neubauten, called Kollaps, plenty unsettling. Or what about some of those bands like Cannibal Corpse? They recorded a song called “Addicted to Vaginal Skin.” Well, actually, Cannibal Corpse is silly, and any band that features the heel-toe double bass drum sound is not capable of being more than silly. Or any band with that screaming thing, the death metal screaming pitch-shifted thing. Although I do in fact find Slipknot kind of disturbing. “Sister Ray,” by the Velvet Underground? Diamanda Galas’s Plague Mass? Yes, it can make the hair stand up on the back of my neck. (Although: I just noticed on iTunes that listeners who bought Plague Mass also bought Teenage Dream by Katy Perry.) Butthole Surfers? Legitimately terrifying on occasion, e.g., Locust Abortion Technician. You can come up with your own list. I will attempt to explain what I mean about New Picnic Time below, and in the process I will try to explain why music from the punk era is disturbing when, in fact, it’s a lot less intentionally menacing than Cannibal Corpse or Napalm Death.

So: it was the third album by the band (if you discount EPs and singles), and the second in the row to feature what was a rather stable lineup—David Thomas on vocals, Scott Krauss on drums, Tony Maimone on bass, Allen Ravenstine on synthesizer, and Tom Herman on guitar. The album that immediately preceded New Picnic Time was the album called Dub Housing, which by most criteria of the time was a masterpiece. It combined a quaint but relatively pure garage rock assault with tricky art rock restlessness, and then bits of pure sonic chaos as in the passages making especial use of Ravenstine’s synthesizer bleeps, which were not like anyone else’s, likewise Thomas’s unconventional vocal stylings, which had about them a bit of Appalachia and a bit of the twenties crooner. But what made Dub Housing especially indelible was the writing. The band played together with the seasoned tightness of musicians who had gigged a lot, and the compositions had a real group feel, as though generated collaboratively. Even Thomas’s vocals, not melodic exactly, often proceeded from (and even commented on) the music happening around him. On tracks like “Caligari’s Mirror” and “On the Surface,” Thomas is playful and sardonic, with a withering narratorial gaze. But on the title track, “Have you heard about this house?/Inside a thousand voices talk,/And their talk echoes around and around,/The windows reverberate,/The walls have ears,/A thousand saxophone voices talk,” he is more prophetic than sardonic. Or maybe it’s just the music, a saxophone wailing in the sonic distance and a backing vocal choir singing “We know” over and over. The song moves into a powerful crescendo, with some fine drumming by Scott Krauss. There’s something impenetrably dark about “Dub Housing,” in its haunted qualities; there’s something grim indicated beyond the confines of the song that is not in the song, but is felt in it.

New Picnic Time


If Dub Housing did not sell a lot of copies, which almost no album by Pere Ubu has done, it did nonetheless have a real impact, the way Double Knickles On the Dime did later, the way Pink Flag did, the way Slanted and Enchanted did, the way Entertainment! by Gang of Four did. It got under your skin. Okay, but surely this band, while teetering on the edge of something entirely non-commercial and wholly devoted to art, kind of wanted to sell a few records, too, or at least to have success on its own peculiar terms?

New Picnic Time was the rejoinder to any questions about what exactly Pere Ubu wanted, and the rejoinder was a mammoth stick in the eye. Gone, almost entirely, were the more user-friendly aspects of Dub Housing, and in their place we heard a willful insistence on experiment and double-crossing, but also expressive darkness. Let’s look closer.

“The Fabulous Sequel”

The first lyric uttered on the album is exactly contradictory: “It’s me again!” How could it be the narrator again if this is the first song? Unless the intention is to get right up in the face of the music-listening audience out there, the audience that found Dub Housing challenging. At the same time: the band is, to use a beleaguered term, smoking. Okay, it’s not a bad term, however beleaguered, because later in the song we have the couplet “Put out the cat/Put out the fire” sung over and over for a while. So there is a fire, which is the fire of burning down something, consigning domesticity to flames, which is the consumption of certainties in flame, which is the idea of rock and roll as an accessible, definable form, consumed in flames. The band is smoking, which means the groove is heavy, especially the groove that is about Tom Herman and Tony Maimone, locked in like they have in fact passed the last couple of years driving back and forth to New York City to play, and this groove is so catchy (note Scott Krauss’s rolls) that it almost dupes you into believing that Pere Ubu could be a good time kind of a band, because the groove keeps us from thinking about the spooky parts of the song. Part of what’s spooky is the fact that there are two lead tracks of David Thomas, the singer, going at the same time (“It was a tin can, it was a dream”), and these two tracks are not, it bears mentioning, singing harmony together (“Whistle in the dark/Whistle in the dark/Whistle in the dark/Whistle in the dark”), they are just flinging a lot of paint at the canvas and seeing what will stick. Thomas definitely could be improvising the lyric on the spot. Is he saying “Kick that dream” at the conclusion? And then there’s Ravenstine, who is playing something drenched in reverb that sounds like a Halloween sound effects recording from the early seventies, and just when you start to think that you like the song (while Thomas is singing “bye bye” for a while), it ends so abruptly that you

“49 Guitars and One Girl”

“It was a sound he heard/it was a funny thing to feel,” and what is the funny thing to feel on a record that is going to end with the apocalypse, with the Big Uncovering, especially since after singing the couplet, Thomas says “bubbles” several times, as if the excited way he is saying it could somehow suggest a bubble to someone who had never seen one? Don’t panic, don’t panic, which, yes, is like the injunction to relax. Being told not to panic almost always engenders incipient panic, and the panic in this case is spiritual, is the way that the linear thought, the verse/chorus way of thinking about things, is completely frustrated by Thomas/Ravenstine who play on this song like they are yelling randomly in your ear during a dinner conversation; nevertheless, “49 Guitars and One Girl” does not break down the entirety of rock music, not yet, although it starts. The bass seems to be playing a different composition from the rest of the band, and the synthesizer seems to be aping a two-year-old who has just been told no. What does “Yellow Walls” mean? Maybe that there were yellow walls in the studio that day? “All for the love of you” might refer to the one girl in the title, that emblem of rock and roll, the girl, or it might refer to the spiritual absence that is at the heart of the album.

Pere Ubu 1976-77. Pirate's Cove, Cleveland.

Pere Ubu 1976-77. Pirate’s Cove, Cleveland.

“A Small Dark Cloud”

There is something that is obviously synthetic under this cloud, the cloud named above, but which is meant to sound like a bird, or what a bird would sound like, a baby bird, if it were being dreamed by an inexpensive toy robot of Chinese manufacture, and this baby bird, or this flock, this nest of baby birds is present at the beginning of the song along with some timpani, or perhaps toms, and then a few luminous piano chords, suspended, and such is the action of the song until the vocals, wordless, and mixed back, erupt with what could be a theory of the entirety of New Picnic Time: “There’s a fly in the ointment! There’s a speck of a fly! There’s a fly in the ointment!” The bass comes in at 2:39, along with multi-tracked voices, keening, chirruping, not exactly coming clean with any discernible lyric. “Put out the cloth on the anthill.” Or: “We’ll sit around and sit around and sit around and wait.” And this could be some kind of demonic picnic, as referred to in the album title, which is also chanted here “Picnic time!” “Picnic time!” Which eventually gives way to the words “Don’t rock the boat!” sung by some massed chorus of David Thomases. But if it’s not a real picnic, what is it? The last song makes clear exactly what, but more on the last song when we get to the last song. It’s important from a musical perspective to remember that sometimes Pere Ubu went into the studio without any material, and “A Small Dark Cloud” feels like one of the songs—weighing in at a whopping 5:51—that was made up on the spot, but is no less ominous for all of that. The contribution of the bass, for example, so subtle, but so melodic, so destabilizing, is worthy of comment, and then Allen Ravenstine’s ability to make his very primitive EML synthesizer do some amazing things, some bird sounds, some industrial noise, some swooping stuff that was probably virtually impossible to get the device to do a second time, and in the pursuit of a very ominous theme, the fly in the ointment theme, he sounds on this cut very ominous indeed. Let us also note that almost no colloquial expression devoted to the idea that things will go wrong is as disturbing as: “There’s a fly in the ointment.” Partly because we sympathize with the fly, wriggling to its demise? Partly because ointment is one fucked up word? Would it be the same if there was a fly in the unguent? Would people know unguent well enough to use it in this kind of an expression? Actually unguent and ointment come from the same Latin, as I understand it—unguentem—but ointment comes via the French for same, oignement. What is the ointment doing in some place where it might attract flies? And is any smell as disturbing, in the abstract, as the smell summoned in the words “There’s a fly in the ointment”? The small dark cloud of this song is the small dark cloud of doubt about the outcome of things, which is a millenarian anxiety, but what is terrifying about this song is that, for the course of this lyric, there is no mitigation of the anxiety, just the dense, stifling, constricting fear.

Pere Ubu 1978-79. Location unknown.

Pere Ubu 1978-79. Location unknown.

“Small Was Fast”

Later on, when Pere Ubu imploded for a good stretch, David Thomas was in a period when he resisted rock and roll, even disliked it volubly, and New Picnic Time vacillates between a love of the incredibly perfect band sound that was this group of players, and pieces that are like an arsonist in the house of the popular song. This is one of the former songs. It has the beautiful rhythm section of Krauss/Maimone/Herman, and they are playing something that sounds like rock and roll, and over this there is some falsetto Thomas (“I waited for you!”), and some synthesizer noise. It is somehow plausibly punk and plausibly art-oriented, until the big organ chord at 1:21, which sounds like it was overdubbed without listening to what had already been recorded, and this in turns gives way to something like a chorus—the words “I want sleep! I want sleep!” As if New Picnic Time were not recorded inside of sleep, and were not a depiction of the inside of a dream. And to reinforce this, the song abruptly stops at 2:50, and there are some very reverberant children’s toys, or perhaps a dog toy, squishable in the mouth of some dog, and the sound of wind, and Thomas singing “I waited for you,” which means waited for what exactly? For a person or personages to come? For a millenarian remission of facts of this earthly life? The rhythm section returns for a few sprung iterations, and then “Small Was Fast” collapses into an uncertainty about how to close itself.

“All the Dogs Are Barking”

“You gotta have happiness, you gotta have happiness, you gotta have home, homes, you gotta have heart, head, you gotta have hands, you gotta have horns, you gotta have heart, you gotta have hope, you gotta have happiness, you gotta have . . .  help, you gotta have help, you gotta have . . .”  Even in the most recondite and unusual of bands—and there are few more so than this—there is the moment in which one must employ the one-four chord progression, and this is the song that does so on this grim document, and there are no drums, and Tony Maimone would seem to be playing the prepared piano, and Scott Krauss is on shaker, and there are no dogs barking, despite the title of the song, and it’s all happening—whatever it is that’s happening—in the guitar, and the organ, and the improvised lyrics, in the piling up of disbelief, because there’s not a moment in the litany above when you believe that this singer, this lyricist, has any of these things, the things he is after, or is perhaps never in danger of having these things (“Help!” he says matter-of-factly), and so the dogs are barking over some kind of emergency, they are the dogs barking at sirens, inaudible to the human ear, the cry of things to come, the cry of a supersonic immanence of destruction and judgment . . .

“One Less Worry”

And so: “Here it goes, somebody . . . help . . . ” because the album has not gotten onto its feet, is still in need of help, and the lyric here is mainly concerned with the inability of the song to start, as though the band cannot be bothered (“How’s it look? Not too good!”). Not that one, not that one, not that one. Sort of a reggae groove here, not real reggae, but the sort of groove by a band that was listening to the deep sounds of Lee “Scratch” Perry, and almost everyone was listening to Lee “Scratch” Perry in those days, but it’s likewise as if Thomas is daring the band to keep going, while he utterly disdains the necessity of song composition. In fact, the song starts with negation, nope nope, and what is being negated? The rock and roll idiom is being negated, but also the consistent or unitary or confident lead singer, in possession of a consistent or unitary or undisturbed point of view, which is mainly the province of the rock and roll song (“pretty bleak . . . pretty bleak”), or as though he is commenting on the band’s project as a whole. And it’s odd, when you bear down on the Thomas of more recent years, how vulnerable, how completely in danger of some kind of emotional collapse (“I don’t think about it anymore, no more, not that one again, not that one again”) this Thomas sounds. Maybe it’s just the slightly warbly jazz-age crooner about his voice that makes this the case, but on this song, the desperation catches up with, and eventually overwhelms the attempts of the band to complete its work, even though its labors are appealing.

“Make Hay”

Tom Herman was the first to go after New Picnic Time, and I will get to some of the reasons why later on, but “Make Hay” is the song on which he best shines. It’s therefore possible to imagine that he wrote much of the music here, which is part psychedelic and part surf rock, but coming as it does, after the grim, ominous mess of “One Less Worry,” which should probably be called “One More Worry,” it’s sort of too little, too late. Moreover, this song is sequenced near the trio of songs that end this album, in which almost all human hope is scraped away and replaced with nothing but the expectation of annihilation. This song is therefore anomalous. Tom Herman was a beautiful guitar player, and when the band hired Mayo Thompson, next, to be its guitar player, their sound changed utterly, acquired a certain R&B influence, and, dare I say it, a little jazz, and this is the end of the most rock and roll period of Pere Ubu, and it was largely rock and roll because of Herman’s dependable grooves, against which the artier and more recalcitrant agents in the band could bash their heads. Herman, in this period, made it possible for people to think they were still listening to rock and roll and not sound art, or minimalist electronic music, but David Thomas had more appetite for generic destruction, and so this is the last time Herman was allowed to bust out and play. Hail and farewell.

Pere Ubu 1978. Xerox from lost photo session, London

Pere Ubu 1978. Xerox from lost photo session, London.
(l to r) David Thomas, Tony Maimone, Alan Ravenstine, Scott Krauss, Tom Herman.


And now things get really scary. The title alone is pretty terrifying in any pop song in which you are willing to pay close attention, the farewell being one of the tropes of the deeply suicidal person, but if you pay close enough attention to any farewell, or the way in which kids think about the word goodbye, that the word is a cudgel that is going to be used upon them, then it is a deeply upsetting word, and Thomas seems to know what he means by the title, and by the repetitions of the lines: “This does not seem to be a very happy person.” The words are mumbled, really, and somewhat occluded by some organ and some Allen Ravenstine noise, but the message is there for anyone who wants to listen closely—the imminent farewell (“Useless,” “Give up,” “Come home”) that creeps in and out of the creepy, reverb-drenched organ. What we have here is not an unusual chord progression for Pere Ubu, whose “Humor Me” from The Art of Walking was a slightly more up-tempo version of a similar mood, and that song summoned the death of the band’s original guitarist, in which the refrain, “Humor me! Humor me! Humor me!” meant just the opposite, but this is later on, and there is more giving up involved. So to what is the narrator saying goodbye? Not a person, I would contend, but, rather, to an entire culture and an entire time, to an entire way of being and seeming in, for example, the Midwest of the United States of America, whose flaming rivers and dilapidated factories are the stuff of the backdrop that is Pere Ubu (they named one live album Terminal Tower, after a building in their hometown). So this is about letting ago, which is about religious vision, but the thing about religious vision is that it is lonely, and so the David Thomas who would have some truck with a millenarian vision, an apocalyptic, is trying to believe he needs to be this lonely, comforted only by a power that you can’t put your hand on, or even talk to, not in an constructive dialogue-oriented way. He’s trying to talk himself into it, into leaving behind all of this stuff, this Cleveland, around him. He both believes and, in the context of the album and in the band’s group dynamics, doesn’t believe, and the album wants it both ways: the end of everything, and the intense regret about letting go over everything. Religious vision. Probably kills more people than it helps.

“Voice of the Sand”

The lyric here is based on a poem by Vachel Lindsay, I believe. The song, such as it is (for it clocks in at 1:29), consists of almost nothing but analogue synthesizer noise over which Thomas whispers, and I mean whispers, close-mic style: “This is the voice of sand/the sailors understand/There is far more sea than sand/There is far more sea than man.” Then some more synthesizer noise. Like the kind of stuff you would hear on an album of early electronic music from the sixties. Really beautiful, not musical in any conventional way, and of a piece with the annihilation of the Thomas lyric, which is about the absolute insignificance, numerical and otherwise quantitative, of all that man is when considered in the panorama of creation. It’s a very short piece, involving only Thomas and Ravenstine, who was perhaps his only ally in the band at this moment, and it will make your skin crawl if you really listen to it. In a good way. It’s impossible to listen to this and not feel yourself in the ocean of the insignificance it’s selling.

“Jehovah’s Kingdom Come”

Pere Ubu May 5 1978. Brussels, Theatre 140. Photo Credit: Marcus Portee

Pere Ubu May 5 1978. Brussels, Theatre 140. Photo Credit: Marcus Portee

Which brings us to the apocalypse. The apocalypse is so fraught with peril, and the behavior of particles during the apocalypse is so strange that all the reliable facts become unreliable as you approach it, and so, for example, even the name of the song in question is thoroughly contested. Or: on New Picnic Time, this last song is called “Jehovah’s Kingdom Come,” and the implications here are pretty clear. Later, on the compilation of the early albums Ubu called Datapanik In Year Zero, the song is listed as “Kingdom Come,” which peels away some of the doctrinal heavy-handedness of the other title. But: on the Ubu Projex web site (as of February 2012), in which David Thomas exerts a fair amount of justifiable sway (being the only original member left in the band), where lyrics to all the Pere Ubu albums are catalogued, the song is not included on the New Picnic Time page at all under either title, and is instead called “Hand a Face a Feeling.” And the lyric, as inscribed therein, leaves out the refrain on the song, which is simply “Jehovah’s Kingdome Come,” and to excise this portion would seem to me to miss some of what the song is about, though I am also very interested in Thomas’s recalibration of the song from this late date. And so to consider mining the unreliable: the way I have heard it, Herman and/or Maimone wrote the music to this track (and since Herman is credited with the organ on the album, it would make sense to suppose that the track, which has plenty of organ, is his), and they thought they had a pretty good rock song, maybe one of the best the band had written in a while. Then David came back with the lyric—which is nothing but one big long invitation for the End Times that Thomas was imbibing in his Jehovah’s Witness period, “These are the best times of all”—and Herman decided he would leave on the spot. An oversimplification, maybe even a fabrication, or a reading of the album’s themes back against the lives of the principal actors in the story, and that is never entirely fair. But let’s say it has some marginal accuracy. Thomas’s temporary adherence to the Jehovah’s Witness movement must have caused a fair amount of dissension in the ranks. Herman left, and the band, as it was, was over. The Jehovah’s Witnesses have reckoned on the end of this world many times, that’s the short version of this particular belief system, and have constantly had to renegotiate the date of the end. At the time Thomas would have “joined,” however briefly, in the late seventies, the church was in something of a crisis, because predictions about the End Times at all, which the leaders of the movement had believed were imminent in 1975, had failed to bring about any End Times. Unless you happen to believe that Cleveland in the late seventies was some kind of representation of apocalypse. This is an album about preoccupation with the end, and this is the song that crystallizes and makes apparent that preoccupation with the end—the eschaton, as David Foster Wallace called it—and a preoccupation with the end is terrifying in all cases. No wait, that’s not it. If a preoccupation with the end were terrifying, then a lot of contemporary evangelical nonsense would be terrifying, and it’s not. I don’t find the hellfire vision of a Pat Robertson or a Jimmy Swaggart terrifying. I find it ridiculous, unsupported scripturally, and I don’t believe they believe it either, because they are primarily motivated by the accumulation of power and the monetization of that power. On the other hand, the millenarian movement that, in 2011, predicted the imminent end of the world, which then caused a bunch of evangelicals to give up their jobs and abandon their possessions, and so on, that I do find terrifying. What is terrifying is the entirely self-destructive belief, and the kind of imagination that gives to this vision a fertility, a kind of imagination that is primarily a sort of isolation. And Jehovah’s Witnesses, who shun people who leave the faith (Thomas must have been heavily shunned at one point), and who do not consort with the outlanders of American culture, are heavily isolated, and experience a real ideological constraint in their daily lives. All of that outside stuff, the seductions of what happens out here in the world, must feel considerably threatening. David Thomas believed in the line he was being sold, and unlike Patti Smith, who drank a little bit of the same Kool-Aid, or so I am told, around Wave, and Michael Jackson, who was also observant, Thomas made a recording from inside the belief, because he was vulnerable in this way, human in this way, and because he understood something about art, something that Patti Smith no longer understood by the time of Wave, something Michael Jackson, or Dave Mustaine, for that matter, never understood, namely that art is about consciousness. So “Jehovah’s Kingdom Come,” and indeed all of New Picnic Time as a whole, is about the inside of this belief, the psychology of the millenarian, the apocalyptic, and the doubt that must adhere to millenarian conviction, doubt that the ideological system is accurate. In this case, the doubt, and the belief, are coincident with garage rock, with Cleveland, with some of what punk was about, a sense of the militancy of outsider art, a sense of the aggression of rock and roll, the purpose of rock and roll. And, as in high art, the result is a complex of feelings, not a simple feeling, and for me, the best word for that complex is: dread.

What it was the end of, actually, was this band. Nothing else, really, although many things change. Cleveland changes. Whatever punk was in its infancy changes, and the guys in the band get older and move on, become airline pilots or what have you. But New Picnic Time was the end of a certain idea about Pere Ubu, because, in truth, it’s impossible to go any further in this direction than this album. There are other albums like this, Trout Mask Replica, let’s say. Or Metal Box. Or Suicide. Or A Love Supreme. Where everything you have done you have now done, and there’s no going on, unless you dramatically reinvent. Many of these albums are significantly scary, scary because they risk everything artistically, but for me New Picnic Time towers above the other scary albums, because the subject matter and the absolute lack of compromise in the approach are one and the same. Pere Ubu had little to lose, they were willing to lose what little they had, and they lost it, at least for a time. They even lost each other for a while. And at the time almost no one understood what was here, even the people who liked this sort of thing. It has taken me years to fully understand this album myself. And as with most great albums, each of those years was worth it.

Rick Moody is the author of five novels, three collections of stories, a memoir, and, most recently, a volume of essays, On Celestial Music. He also plays and writes songs in The Wingdale Community Singers. He’s at work on a new novel.