Tag: experimental

Sounds Heard: Some American Albums

In the wake of the many “Best of 2013” lists floating around, I wanted to highlight some recent album releases worthy of your time and attention. I didn’t select them for this reason, but it occurs to me that they each say something interesting and distinct about what it means to make American music right now.
William Winant—Five American Percussion Pieces (Poon Village Records)

Winant has been a champion of contemporary percussion music for decades and can boast a personal connection to most of the composers represented on this album—Lou Harrison, Michael Byron, Alvin Curran, and James Tenney. This is a fascinating snapshot of mid-to-late 20th-century American percussion music, including pieces as early as Harrison’s Song of Quetzalcoatl (1941) and as recent as Curran’s Bang Zoom (1995), with works from the 1970s by Byron and Tenney filling in the gaps. The recordings themselves span many years, too—Byron’s Tracking I was recorded in 1976, while Tenney’s Never Having Written a Note for Percussion was recorded earlier this year. Taken together, these works lend the album the feeling of a retrospective in miniature, spanning most of Winant’s prolific career as a performer.

Song of Queztacoatl is the lone ensemble piece, and a curiously strident one for Harrison. It alternates between aggressive sections driven by unpitched percussion—tom-toms, bass drum, an insistent snare drum—and more melodious passages inhabited by bell-like muted brake drums, glasses, and cowbells. The Willie Winant Percussion Group (Todd Manley, David Rosenthal, Daniel Kennedy, and Winant) really captures the feverish energy here, and they play with an astonishing unity of purpose—if not for the many layers going on, you might be forgiven for mistaking this for a solo work.

Byron’s Trackings I for four metallophones toys with density; clangorous textures elide into skittering runs and back again. Curran’s Bang Zoom for 13 tuned cowbells immediately conjures up Balinese gamelan music, but without the frantic pace and tempo shifts. Winant maintains a steady, resolute tempo here, bringing out the emergent melodic patterns with incredible clarity.
Tenney’s Never Having Written a Note for Percussion is a bit of an anomaly here, consisting of a single tam-tam roll that crescendoes and diminuendos over the course of nine minutes. Again, Winant’s patience and precision gives the piece a magnificent arc, as disparate layers of sound from the tam-tam emerge and recede one by one.

The record concludes with another Lou Harrison piece, Solo to Anthony Cirone for tenor bells. It is understated, tantalizingly brief, and a perfect epigram for the album as a whole. One striking thing about the entire collection is its strong focus on melodic writing (with the exception of the Tenney). Running counter to prevailing stereotypes, it makes a strong case for melody as a central concern of 20th century percussion music, and Winant is an ideal ambassador for this message here.

Scott Worthington—Even the Light Itself Falls (Populist Records)

Scott Worthington’s Even the Light Itself Falls also looks back to the 20th century in a way, recalling the sparse, gentle textures of Morton Feldman’s music. Scored for clarinet, percussion, and double bass, Worthington’s piece unfolds at a remarkably patient pace—the bass does not even enter until several minutes in. The ensemble et cetera (Curt Miller, clarinet; Dustin Donahue, percussion; Worthington, double bass) plays with noteworthy restraint and control here. Miller’s playing is the most immediately ear-catching, with plaintive yet precise variations in vibrato. Nearly an hour and a half long, it is tempting to put this album on as background music, but the rewards for active listening are plentiful as well.

Various Artists – Rounds (the wulf. records)
Purchase directly from the wulf. records
There have been countless free concerts of experimental music at the wulf., a local Los Angeles venue. Rounds is the first release on the organization’s recently launched recording label, and it’s a very interesting choice for a first album. As the title implies, each composition is in fact a round, a melody that overlaps with itself. Of course, this immediately conjures up memories of nursery rhymes, but while many of these pieces do trade on a certain childlike simplicity, the composers also find diversity and depth in these limitations. Most tracks are a capella, though occasionally an instrument or two will double a line for extra support. There are bluesy inflections in Daniel Corral’s Your Storm, raucous nonsense syllables in Eric KM Clark’s Rhythmic Round, clever numerology in Jessica Catron’s Four 3 And, ominous chromaticism in Larry Polansky’s Scarlet Tanager, and so on.

The performances feature a beautifully heterogenous mix of trained and untrained voices, giving individual lines a timbral uniqueness that adds both clarity and character. It also connects the experimental tradition to folk music traditions—in particular, it reminds me of the Sacred Harp tradition of choral singing in the American South in its rawness and realness.

100 Guitars Rock West Coast Premiere of Rhys Chatham’s A Secret Rose

On November 17, 100 electric guitarists gathered with their instruments and their amps on stage at the Craneway Pavilion—a former car assembly plant situated on the San Francisco Bay in Richmond, California—for the West Coast premiere of Rhys Chatham’s A Secret Rose. Written in 2006, A Secret Rose had only received two prior performances, undoubtedly due in part to the scale of the venture: musicians for this performance, which was presented by Other Minds, traveled from Europe, South America, and at least a dozen states across the country to be part of this guitar orchestra performance, conducted by Chatham.
West Coast Premiere of Rhys Chatham's A Secret Rose
What does an orchestra of 100 electric guitars sound like? Chatham has been exploring the many possible answers to this question for three decades, starting with his 1983 work An Angel Moves Too Fast to See. Built in five movements over approximately 75 minutes (with a short tuning break), A Secret Rose fulfills one’s expectations of 100 electric guitars playing simultaneously in the same 45,000 square-foot room—that is, tongue-lollingly loud shredding that triggers involuntary head bobbing—but Chatham covers far more ground than that, and the use of volume is not simply for volume’s sake. The influence of Chatham’s early work with La Monte Young exploring tunings, drones, and overtones emerges in sections where the fundamental is so strongly established that a broad range of aural images emerge hallucinogenically in the air through the overtones: people chanting and yelling, swarms of insects, giant revving motors, dog whistles, and an airplane all made cameos in my mind’s ear.
West Coast Premiere of Rhys Chatham's A Secret Rose
The musicians for A Secret Rose are divided into three groups, each with a section leader (in this case, David Daniell, Seth Olinski, and Tobin Summerfield); each group is further subdivided into two smaller groups. Holding the masses together were Chatham, dressed in a proper suit and tie at the center podium playing the part of the conductor with a baton, and the three section leaders stationed on the sides—cuing, clapping, yelling, fist-pumping, and paper-waving to help keep the train on track. The conducting team was supported impressively by bassist Lisa Mezzacappa and drummer Jordan Glenn, who provided a steady foundation and energetic drive throughout.

Chatham has said, “There’s nothing like the sound of 100 guitars playing quietly,” and he explores this sonority in the third movement, thinning out the texture and having individual musicians play single pitches. Chatham left his conducting post and walked among the musicians, triggering pointillistic mini-bursts of sound as he passed. As the nebula of aleatoric pitches amassed, a giant celestial harpsichord seemed to emerge, with the fingers of the guitarists as the plectra—perhaps unsurprising, given that Chatham’s first instrument as a child was a virginal.

Other sections drew strongly from Chatham’s rock background, with homages and references to myriad styles and artists scattered throughout—each person I spoke to afterwards heard a different selection of influences embedded within the piece. The second movement was at times downright tuneful, a series of giant-scale rock instrumentals; at other points, it presented a great vibrating wall of sound that you could feel on the skin. Chatham set major and minor chords grinding upon each other across the sections, all the more unsettling at a heightened volume. Multiple concurrent meters were frequently used, creating the sensation of a behemoth machine with a variety of differently sized gears, moving itself forward with an immense amount of energy and effort. Despite the near unanimity of orchestration, the textural variations that Chatham found made for a constantly shifting and surprising listening experience.

A Secret Rose was a special presentation by Other Minds, led by the San Francisco Bay Area’s experimental music evangelist Charles Amirkhanian. In June, Other Minds hosted a performance of Chatham’s seminal Guitar Trio at The Lab in the Mission (covered previously in NewMusicBox here) as a preview to A Secret Rose. At an event later that week, a lengthy conversation between Amirkhanian and Chatham was videotaped and posted in chunks on Vimeo. One excerpt, in which Chatham talks about going to his first rock concert ever—which happened to be the Ramones at CBGB—is posted above. Other Minds does an extraordinary job not just archiving the organization’s activities but also making those recordings available to the public. A full recording of this performance of A Secret Rose is scheduled to be posted at RadiOM when it is available.
West Coast Premiere of Rhys Chatham's A Secret Rose
As the guitarists were tuning after the quietly plucked third movement, I commented to my companion that it wasn’t quite as loud as I had anticipated, since free earplugs were available at the front desk when we arrived. The final movement removed any disappointment on that front: with the full ensemble pounding on one minor chord for minutes on end, overtones began screaming like banshees in the cavernous space of the pavilion, and 100 variations on how rock guitarists move and sweat while shredding came on display. As a final gesture, Chatham himself took up his guitar and turned to the audience, faced up to the skies and fell to his knees, providing that moment of punk rock catharsis that we all had been waiting for.

The Art of the $100 Guitar

Video presentation by Molly Sheridan
Image of signed guitar courtesy Steve MacLean

Nick Didkovsky and Chuck O’Meara had something of a running joke going when it came to expensive guitars. The men would often taunt one another via email, trading ads for various high-priced instruments as they came up for sale alongside the suggestion that the recipient consider making the big ticket purchase. So Didkovsky says he was surprised to open “Subject: The Guitar of your Dreams” and find a link not to a $100,000 Fender, but to a nameless electric guitar going for $100 on the respected vintage guitar site Elderly Instruments.

“Maybe three or four of us should buy it together and share it,” Didkovsky fired back, but the joke turned onto a serious conversation, and he and O’Meara sent out a few emails to colleagues to gauge interest in a possible project. “By the next day, and this is no exaggeration, we had 25 guitarists on board who said ‘I would love to do a track with this.’ And we didn’t even own the guitar yet.”

On Oct 20, 2010, they made their buy. “It’s a very unique object,” Didkovsky explains, pointing out that the instrument’s one surviving pickup resembles an old radio. There is no brand name on it; though many have opinions, no one is really sure of its pedigree. And it has seen some wear and tear. “It’s replete with failures,” he admits. “You have to meet it on its own ground.” It’s the antithesis of guitar fetishism—it’s attractive because it’s so cheap.

Since that initial pitch, a wide spectrum of guitarists have responded to the siren call of the $100 Guitar Project, the players arriving through a network of friends and colleagues. No curatorial bar was set, no competition encouraged, no stylistic walls erected. It has been a community exercise, each musician taking ownership of the instrument for a week, encouraged to come to the project without preconceived ideas and to simply explore whatever the guitar suggests to them. Each participant is asked to record a short composition “that honors the guitar in some way,” then sign the guitar’s body (it now hosts archeological layers of signatures) and pass it on, often in person. After 65 participants opted in—enough music to fill a double CD release—the project stopped accepting more names. Bridge Records will release the complete set of recordings in December 2012.

“It’s really the story that is so beautiful about this,” says Didkovsky. “People have been very generous and that exchange has been spectacular.”

Tracking the $100 Guitar Map

Oh, the Places You’ll Go: Tracking the $100 Guitar

Much like the initial call, Didkovsky sent out word that a NewMusicBox story on the project was being filmed (see video above) and, on less that 24 hours notice, he and five of the project participants crowded into his Midtown practice space in New York City for a chat.

Mark Solomon quickly honed in on the element of nostalgia that pervaded the project in his mind. “What touched me about this particular conception is that every guitarists on the planet remembers their first guitar; it’s like your first love. And it’s generally a piece of crap—a $100-ish instrument.”

Blowing up that idea of the uniquely personal experience with the guitar, Bruce Eisenbeil pointed out that the resulting compositions will give listeners the chance to explore the styles of all kinds of musicians. “This one instrument is being used as a mode of expression. What is it that informs all of these people at this time? How do they make music? Why do they make music?”

Still, was this a gimmick, a serious art project, or did it encompass elements of both?

Caroline Feldmeier wasn’t shy about admitting that she was “crazy, crazy obsessive” about her composition. “I received the guitar from Nels Cline. So I knew there was a very high bar, and I definitely wanted to produce something that would be consistent with the high level of talent that is part of this project.”

Jesse Kranzler agreed, pointing that he “had to take it seriously to some extent,” since he was more accustomed to working alongside bandmates than playing alone in a solo context. Still, he acknowledged, “it’s kind of hard to take it too seriously when it’s such a fun, light-hearted project.”

Distilling down the enthusiasm in the room for the scope and talent the project encompassed, Joe Berger said plainly, “I think it’s going to be one of the most talked about guitar projects when it comes out. I’m certainly going to be talking about it.”

For his part, Didkovsky seems to have recovered his investment and then some. “Putting it out in the world, letting networking take it over, seeing it tumble from hand to hand, player to player, and without guiding it too much seeing what came out…It’s enriched my life tremendously.”

The Social Contract

“A social contract attaches to words: if we don’t use them correctly, we may as well be talking to ourselves.”—James M. Keller, “Word Imperfect” (Opera News, December 2011, pp. 39-41)

“Always play the expected and the listener gets bored and leaves. Always play the unexpected and the listener gets lost and leaves. But combine the expected and the unexpected and a journey is created that the listener will want to join.”—Jonathan Segal, The Disharmonic Misadventures of David Stein (2011)

Accidental Abstract Expressionism

This seeming abstract expressionist painting, created probably unintentionally from the random tearing away of a series of superimposed advertisements that over time had been glued on a billboard, shows how normative the once radical but now iconic creations of artists like Pollock and Rauschenberg have become.

I’ve been fascinated by cultural artifacts that experiment with normative expectations ever since I learned that such things existed. There was no gradual curve to warming up to such things in my case; it was pretty much instantaneous. In fact, when I was much younger I didn’t really appreciate the standard repertoire of classical music and only acquired a taste for it after being totally enthralled by composers like Ives, Cage, Stockhausen, etc. Similarly with jazz, I came to folks like George Russell and Cecil Taylor long before I got excited about Louis Armstrong or Lester Young. To this day, despite my efforts at eschewing experiential limitations resulting from personal taste, I still much prefer psychedelic, prog, or post-punk to any kind of mainstream rock music. And so it normally goes for things other than music—I’m usually instantly attracted to early 20th-century abstraction, stream of consciousness prose, concrete poetry, and on and on.

Part of the appeal of things that defy expectation is their ability to surprise. The first encounter with such work is guaranteed to be somewhat disconcerting and can often result in total bewilderment. Rather than this being off-putting to me, I often feel a total adrenaline rush while attempting to mentally process something that seems either incomprehensible or otherwise disturbing. Of course, repeat exposure to these initially jolting experiences eventually makes them normative as well. But then the joy becomes figuring out how such things were put together and what precisely made them so unusual. Somehow it can feel less exhilarating to encounter things whose secrets can be gleaned in the first go round, but then again seemingly obvious things often reveal deeper layers on closer inspection, and discovering such can make the return exposure an even more satisfying engagement.

However, a full century has passed since the now seminal experimentation that seemed to have sprouted at the same time in all of the arts. Artistic efforts that continue along similar lines to any of those once ahead-of-their-time efforts or even subsequent experimental watersheds now can smack of somehow being normative themselves. Creating an abstract painting in the year 2012 is no longer revolutionary; neither is composing a 12-tone, indeterminate, minimalist, or microtonal musical composition. Also the hindsight of a post-modern view of the past eradicates a clear linear narrative for artistic evolution and reveals that throughout history there had always been avant-gardes, often coexisting with what was subsequently deemed to be any given era’s zeitgeist. Embracing such a perspective makes attempts at contemplating what could possibly be ahead of its time in our own time something of an exercise in futility. Indeed, in our post-history/post-“anything goes” aesthetic climate, it often feels like it’s impossible to be revolutionary. And so ironically, newer works can frequently seem less challenging than things created before almost all of us were born.

Yet it also seems—at least on a creative level—that despite the difficulty in creating something that’s “new,” it might be even harder to create something (no matter what its form or stylistic inclination) that is capable of communicating and making a real connection to whoever experiences it. As artists, might making something people will want to encounter again be even more imperative than making something new? It seems like the sweet spot, if indeed there can be one, is to make something that is simultaneously in a new language but which could also be a language that people will be able to, as well as want to, converse in immediately after exposure to it.