Saturday, November 17, 2007

Hat trick

For some reason utterly beyond my comprehension, last week an IJG tune was once again used as bumper music on NPR's Talk of the Nation. By my count, that's the third time this has happened.

All of the tunes used in this way (Nov 7's "Anger Management Classes," and previously "Mwahaha" and "Void When Detached") originally appeared on our second album, City of Angles, released by Innova in 2002.

Wait, was it really 2002? Yeah, I guess it was. To me the album feels older than that, because (in my opinion, anyway) the vibe of the group has changed a great deal in the years since it was made. Some of the basic elements of our "mature sound" (if indeed that's where we're at now) were in place, but on the whole, I think Angles wears its influences a bit too shamelessly.

"Anger" is a perfect example of that, as a matter of fact -- to my ears the "9/8 within 9/4" vibe of the opening groove comes across as more-than-a-little-reminiscent of the "7/8 within 7/4" of Zappa's "Pound for a Brown." That was totally unintentional, I assure you -- but given where my head was at at the time, it's not surprising to me now that Angles is full of these little, uh, "raw" homages.

Once upon a time, "Anger" was also (I now recall) the "big closer" in our live show (a position that it seemed to occupy pretty effectively). But somehow that live excitement didn't translate to the recording studio; I have always felt that the album version was kind of pale in comparison. (As I continue to work on the new record I'm getting a better sense of just how cool a good live recording can be; like Carla Bley, I'm thinking that might be the way to go from now on.)

Anyway, you can still get City of Angles here. Um... I probably haven't done too good a job of selling it just now, but it's a pretty good album, I guess.

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I think I need one more Zappa reference for this week's blogging. So here it is:

Neophyte blogger Maria (of Maria's Music) recently posted a critique of the Howard Stern show. The subject was an episode in which Stern (et al) ridiculed the music of some non-mainstream group called called Zs. Apparently Stern receives music for airplay all the time, and the marketing genius behind Zs (that seems to be how they refer to themselves, though the pun hidden in "the Zs" (i.e., "disease") makes the addition of the article very tempting) realized that there was potential for some exposure. (Wish I had thought of that scheme.)

Despite my east coast origins, I've never been a Stern fan -- not because I've ever been offended by anything he has said (perish the thought!) but because most of the time I just don't think he's funny. (I do share his interest in all things prurient, philosophically if not specifically (there's no accounting for taste, ya know) -- but on the whole his act has never appealed to me.)

Anyway, during the first segment Maria links to, after listening to a bit of a Zs tune called "Woodworking" (a quirky, fun, abstract sort of piece without an easily-discernible pulse) one of Stern's on-air entourage (not sure who, since I don't really follow the show) chimes in with the following sage observation:

"That's like shitty Frank Zappa. Zappa would do that like in the middle of songs but he'd do it for like thirty seconds and then get back to music."

Translation: "I don't know what the fuck I'm talking about." Here's why:

I could of course have cited hundreds of other Zappa tunes that tread in (and indeed helped to establish) the same aesthetic terrain as Zs' "Woodworking." Whole Zappa albums even. Most of which are longer than 30 seconds.

In fact, Zappa's appearance on the Steve Allen show, circa 1962, playing the bicycle [I'd've inserted the YouTube clip here if they hadn't deleted it... probably at the estate's request, sadly] seems to presage this Zs moment on Stern. Those who haven't seen the Zappa/Allen clip should know that, like Stern, Allen had a habit of ridiculing artists he didn't understand:

None of this is surprising, I suppose. Re-listening to the Stern clips, I actually found myself laughing from time to time at the depths of the ignorance (Zappa would have called it "dumb all over" (and a little ugly on the side)). But it's funny in a way that should be of concern to anyone who gives a shit about music. For me the question is: are we talking here about ignorance in terms of a lack of specialized knowledge? (That would be frustrating but sort of understandable.) Or is it more of a personality trait / social phenomenon -- a kind of "willful philistinism"?

In other words, is this a problem of the pleasures of the music existing somewhere beyond the "lay ear's" ability to hear them? Does one need to be "in on" the methodology or the theoretical underpinnings in order to appreciate a Zs piece, or a Zappa piece, or a Cage piece, or an Ornette Coleman piece, or anything non-mainstream?

I just don't think so. To my ear, the pleasures of this large category of music ("non-mainstream" is an over-generalization, to be sure) seem, notwithstanding variances in personal taste, to be as plain as day. And I don't think I've come to that conclusion because I have a music degree -- because I don't. When I first got into so-called "avant-garde music," or "jazz," or anything beyond whatever was playing on Top Forty radio, all those years ago, it was because of a sound -- or, to cite Zappa yet again, a certain configuration of "wiggling air molecules." It was only after first liking it that I decided to seek out a better understanding of how it was made. But that knowledge, which came later, was not and is not essential to my enjoyment.

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Here is a bit of a transcription of Zappa's appearance on the Stern show, circa 1987 (the year I graduated high school, coincidentally). It's kind of ironic (in light of the above), and funny (in light of Zappa's apparent boredom with the interview). The maestro handles Stern's provincial buffoonery with a measured cool:

STERN: Was [Zappa's son Ahmet] named after [Ahmet Ertegun]?

ZAPPA: Yeah.

STERN: Are you serious?

ZAPPA: Yeah.

QUIVERS: Where else do you get a name like that?

ZAPPA: (laughs) It's a Turkish name.

STERN: Yeah? Well um... I never liked the Turks quite frankly.

ZAPPA: Yeah? Well that's the way it goes.

STERN: The hell with them. I mean, they never did anything for this country did they?

ZAPPA: I don't know, I'll look into it.

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