Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Music as a process, gradual or otherwise

In 1968 Reich spelled out his new aesthetic in a terse essay titled "Music as a Gradual Process." "I am interested in perceptible processes," he wrote. "I want to be able to hear the process happening throughout the sounding music."

This philosophy differs starkly from the thinking inherent in Boulez's total serialism and Cage's I Ching pieces, where process works behind the scenes, like a spy network employing front organizations. Reich's music transpires in the open air, every move audible to the naked ear. Recognizable in it are multiple traces of the creator's world: modal jazz, psychedelic trance, the lyrical rage of African-American protest, the sexy bounce of rock 'n roll. But there's no pretense of authenticity, no longing for the "real." Instead, sounds from a variety of sources are mediated by the composer's personal voice.

The above is from Alex Ross's The Rest is Noise, which I am finally getting around to finishing. (If you're familiar with it, you may understand my reading strategy, which has been to savor the text over an extended period, rather than wolfing it down in a weekend or two.)

The quote got me thinking. Much of the material I write for the IJG is designed to be transparent, too. I hadn't thought of that in terms of audible processes, per se -- for me it's more about constructing things in such a way that the listener is thinking about the mechanisms that propel the music, and there's no sleight of hand. It's a bit different from, and even antithetical to, the idea of washing over your listener with a "narrative," or a seamless flow of polished and refined sound, in which the things that are going on under the hood are somehow less compelling than the ride you are taking. I've spoken of it before in terms of using art not merely to tell stories, but to tell how books are made.

Not sure if that is a comprehensible distinction at this level of abstraction, but that is basically how I think about it.

In any case, the really interesting question for me is whether this quality is, in part, dependent upon familiarity. Now that Reich's music is so much a part of the "art music" landscape, I wonder if anyone actually does still hear it in terms of "perceptible processes"? Does broad familiarity undercut the power of a completely open compositional strategy, to the point where however much the composer is trying to lay bare, all we hear is the surface sound?

[Photo credit: Al Pavangkanan]

Sunday, June 27, 2010

What it's like

Tonight my good friend Jeff redirected me toward the the wonder that is Amanda Palmer's blog. Specifically:

so anyway, to summarize….the tour was hard. but fucking wonderful.

so many people took care of us, shared their homes and beds, cooked for us, loved us. i slept in so many different bedrooms and beds and lost track of where i was half the time.


business-wise….we were (or i was) really cavalier about how we booked this tour, i gotta say.

i expected everyone would make the jump from the dresden dolls to amanda palmer to evelyn evelyn and that selling tickets wouldn’t be too difficult.

i was wrong. the general touring climate blows…it’s BAD out there, ticket prices are getting slashed and a lot of artists are playing to half-empty rooms due to the economy and the overgutted market since EVERY band and their moms are hitting the road to make up for the shortfall in record sales. and the weirdness of the show billing dented us…the shows were about half sold-out, which was actually pretty respectable…but it did teach me a damn fine lesson in marketing. we billed the show wrong; it should have been billed as an amanda palmer & jason webley extravaganza, with the twins as a support act, not the other way around. those who knew about the twins would have gotten what they expected, those only familiar with me & jason would have been strangely surprised by our weirdo stunts.

by the end of the tour, i was constantly kicking myself.

Which just about sums it up, as far as I'm concerned.

One corollary to the fact that digital technology has made a career in music more accessible than ever, which in turn seems to be dovetailing with a pretty wretched economic period: many who seem to be "making it," on the surface anyway, are actually struggling like mad. Much more than you might expect. There is often a lot of spin to obscure this perception (because who wants to be seen to be struggling?), but in all honesty the situation is pretty damned scary.

[Photo credit: Amanda M Hatfield]

Friday, June 25, 2010

A bomb made of cute

Apologies to those of you with a low tolerance for treacle, but I'm posting these as an addendum to this.

The new critter's name is Claudette (c/o my wife, who got the name from George of the Jungle). Get it?

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Why no blues wars?

I recently came across an interesting Jim Fusilli piece on the state of 21st century blues, and specifically on the dearth of new blues styles. A sample:

In early May, I traveled to Memphis to attend the Blues Foundation's 31st annual two-day gala, which included its Hall of Fame induction ceremony and awards banquet. Buddy Guy received a Lifetime Achievement Award. Pinetop Perkins, now 96 years old, turned up, as did 80-year-old Bobby "Blue" Bland and 78-year-old Hubert Sumlin. I heard folk blues, country blues, jump blues, Chicago blues, Delta blues, Texas blues, fast blues, slow blues, good blues and bad blues. What I didn't hear was new blues, and I flew back home no less relieved of my own blues over the genre's troubling future.

Today's blues music isn't only steeped in the past; it's anchored to it. During the performances before and during the banquet, I could trace to almost every song, instrumental solo or vocal style I heard its originator or its most celebrated proponent—and I'm far from an expert on the history of the blues. These tales of heartache, oppression and fleeting joy sounded all too familar.

According to Jay Sieleman, the Blues Foundation's executive director, most blues fans aren't looking for something new. "We all don't want the blues to be the same ol', same ol'," he said, "but it'd better be close."


In 2004, Skip McDonald, who works under the name Little Axe, released "Champagne and Grits," which mixed traditional blues with spoken word, drum loops, Indian percussion and a dab of reggae. It was the kind of album that could bring young listeners to the blues: Give it to a Citizen Cope or a Massive Attack fan and they'd feel at home. It wasn't well received by the blues community.

"I upset a lot of people," Mr. McDonald told me. "People are so traditional in their approach. It was a hybrid amalgamation, but the blues was my first stop."

The blues establishment seems to have little interest in reaching out to other musical communities. No rock, hip-hop or jazz artists with a musical debt to the blues were part of the activities in Memphis. Perhaps in turn, blues musicians aren't invited to participate in most major rock festivals: There were no traditional blues artists at this year's Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival, nor will there be any at the Glastonbury Festival in Britain later this month. At this weekend's Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival in Manchester, Tenn., only Trombone Shorty and Big Sam's Funky Nation, both from New Orleans, and the string band the Carolina Chocolate Drops, adhere to blues traditions.

Sound familiar? It probably does if you're a jazz fan, as we in the so-called "jazz community" seem to have this same debate every few months (here's the latest outburst). Some folks argue that the music should stay close to its "roots." Some argue that it should embrace newness of various sorts. Heated debate ensues. We call it the "jazz wars."

Jazz did not introduce this sort of internecine aesthetic conflict. Often couched in terms of the frustratingly arbitrary notion of "authenticity," similar debates have been flirted with by proponents of most genres. But jazz critics, fans, and musicians have raised such debates to the level of an art form (not to mention a brilliant form of marketing). And therein lies the reason for this post.

You see, I'm confused. Why does the notion of an all-out "blues war" lack the sort of staying-power that seems to drive the recurring "jazz war" meme? Why, for instance, did Fusilli's piece not prompt the firestorm of outrage that greeted a similar (now-infamous) piece by Terry Teachout last summer?

I'm tempted to say it has something to do with the blues' time-honored fatalism, the sense conveyed (by most exemplars of the genre) that nothing lasts forever, and that death is, in fact, an important part of life.

But that can't be the only reason.

[photo credit: kevindooley]

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Confuse me

Thanks to the evil geniuses at TCM, I was introduced to an amazing little film this weekend:

I won't even go into it. Words are horribly inadequate.

Of course, that didn't deter me from doing a little online research, which led to an interesting write-up over at Cinema du Merde, which in turn had the collateral benefit of reminding me of why I pursue weird cinema (or, for that matter, weird music) in the first place. This reminder was, in fact, highlighted as a "manifesto":

It's less about whether the movie is good, and more about whether it's enjoyable to watch.

We will never let a movie's cheesiness interfere with our engagement with its ideas.

Both of which seem noble aspirations to me. I'm particularly interested in the distinction between the "good" and the "enjoyable"; the former presumably refers to received notions of artistic value (i.e., what I'm supposed to think is "good"), while the latter suggests something more personal (i.e., art I actually enjoy, regardless of social sanctions for or against).

And yet it's more than that, too. In a world that reveres artistic mastery and critical omniscience, it can sometimes be refreshing and pleasurable to be drawn into something for no good, rational, compelling reason you can discern. Which is kind of where the reviewer at CdM takes his writeup on Darktown Strutters:

There is only one word that can describe this film: INEXPLICABLE. This is just one of the weirdest things I’ve ever seen, making me wonder who made it—and WHY—and who they thought they were making it for. This is a film that will make you say wtf? And then WTF?? And then W??? T??? F???

In this day and age, when most of us are a little careless with our "WTF?"s, it's nice to come across something that genuinely inspires that acronym. Because sometimes, being in a position where all you can do is genuinely wonder "what the fuck?" can be a healthy experience.

Why? Well, you'll never catch me promoting ignorance as a aesthetic framework, but by the same token, sometimes I think our mania for analyzing and understanding art can actually inhibit our experience of it. As Josh Sinton recently said of his Steve Lacy tribute band, Ideal Bread:

I’m playing these songs because I don’t understand the songs.

Honestly, who among us truly understands anything about the art we love?

Beginner's mind, baby.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Rock stars and athletes

Gazing at my twitter feed tonight, I quickly got the impression that there was some sort of important athletic event going on out in the world. I can't be sure, of course, as I've never been a big fan of organized (dare I say corporate?) sports, and I don't think I'd know a "Laker" from a "Celtic" if my life depended on it. (Yes, I know, this is a shortcoming of mine. Ironically, I remember falling in love with Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag" because of the version that accompanied a Commodore 64 video game called "One on One," which featured rather stiff avatars of Dr. J and Larry Bird, and which my brother and I played ad nauseum when we were kids.)

Anyhow, in the spirit of the evening's frenzy (which, apparently, Los Angeles was the primary benefactor of), I thought I'd riff on this little blurb, which I came across on Andrew Sullivan's (increasingly valuable) blog:

Athletes are typically associated with hard work and achievement; sports competitions are typically institutional and often government-sponsored events; and athletic competition thrives on order and rules. They are the champions of the values of organized society, which makes them excellent role models. As such, society will expect them to be well-behaved. Musicians, or at least popular musicians, are the polar opposite: their success is associated with creativity and inspiration, their excellence springs from innovation and subversion.

But most importantly, one of the greatest things that pop and rock stars sell is an anti-social image of extravagant hedonism or rebellion (and frequently both). Part of being a fan is to indulge in these things that aren't generally acceptable in polite society. This double-standard is not a bug: it gets to the heart of what it means, in the popular imagination, to be a musician and to be an athlete.

Even as I resisted this writer's categories, I found myself wondering, while reading, where jazz might fall in this imaginary continuum. On the one hand, one could argue that jazz has always been concerned with "hard work and achievement" (most jazz musicians aspire toward total instrumental mastery), and even, in a sense, "order and rules" (consider the rigors of jazz theory, or the pedagogical importance placed on the music's history). Certainly nowadays, jazz musicians often aspire to be role models for society, whether "society" is constituted on the micro-level of other jazz musicians, or the macro-level of culture as a whole.

And yet, while for me the idea of true subversiveness in music is bunk, I'd be lying if I said that I was originally attracted to the prospect of music-making because I was interested in some Calvinist work-ethic ideal, or because I wanted to belong to a historical tradition that I admired from the outside. I wasn't, and I didn't. I wanted to play music, and, in particular, jazz music, because I wanted to explore an arena in which it was possible to do things that "aren't generally acceptable in polite society" (not the least of which was a kind of generalized passion).

I don't know if that makes me less "authentic" as a jazz composer, but I do know that the things I admired in the recordings of the jazz composers who influenced me most (Mingus, Ellington, Monk, et al) had a lot to do with my perception that they too were outsiders, that their lives were perfectly idiosyncratic, and that they resisted codification.

It's not so much that they were anti-social (though one might be able to make that argument re: Mingus) and it's not that hedonism was a value for its own sake, as sometimes seems to be the case in popular music. Rather, what was compelling on the deepest level was the way these folks seemed to embody the spirit of "doing your own thing," with no apparent preconceptions about what that meant.

Not to mention: their music often contained a little more than a soup├žon of the mystical giant middle finger of resistance, aimed at a fucked-up world. And with the possible exception of someone like the immortal Muhammad Ali, I never got a whiff of anything that powerful from big-time sports.

[photo credit: basketball fans, shot by M31.]

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The art of the fill

Speaking of drummers, the most recent Hamid Drake / Bindu album is truly fantastic, and highly-recommended.

I don't think I can improve upon this John Sharpe review -- summed up in the phrase "it's a joyous ride" -- but every time I go back to this recording (which is wonderfully played all around, and includes primo contributions from trombonist Jeff Albert) I find myself thinking about what drummers do, and more specifically about the art of the fill. Because while Sharpe is right when he says of Reggaeology that "[g]iven Drake's extensive reggae back story, it's no surprise that the riddims carry conviction" -- for me it's actually the small bursts of energy that Drake occasionally uses to supplement and adorn the groove that fascinate the most.

Now, I'm no drummer. (The best I can say is that for one summer in fifth grade, I almost became one. Okay, and I played drums on the first studio recording I ever made. Oh, alright: and I have a drum kit in my basement right now that I can't wait to rock out on.) And perhaps I spent too many of my formative years in the rock world, where some songs are actually defined (or even eclipsed) by their drum fills. Think Phil Collins's "In The Air Tonight," or Led Zeppelin's "D'Yer Mak'r," or dozens of others -- truthfully, some of these would be so-so recordings if we could somehow take away their signature moments of transitional percussive interplay.

But that doesn't make a good fill any less impressive. It's not like a drummer can play just anything (and have it sound good) at those pivotal sections of a given song. And if he or she plays the wrong thing, the music's forward motion can be greatly hampered, even destroyed. Plus, you have to be real selective: no one wants the composition to be saturated with end-of-the-bar noodling, lest things start to sound too busy and predictable.

So we're really talking about brief set of fleeting opportunities that must be recognized and responded to with authority and a sense of beauty. (How long is the average drum fill? A few seconds? How many distinctive fills can a five-minute tune handle? Four or five?)

Honestly, is that situation all that different from this one?

General Dodonna: Well, the Empire doesn't consider a small one-man fighter to be any threat, or they'd have a tighter defense. An analysis of the plans provided by Princess Leia has demonstrated a weakness in the battle station. But the approach will not be easy. You are required to maneuver straight down this trench and skim the surface to this point. The target area is only two meters wide. It's a small thermal exhaust port, right below the main port. The shaft leads directly to the reactor system. A precise hit will start a chain reaction which should destroy the station. Only a precise hit will set off a chain reaction. The shaft is ray-shielded, so you'll have to use proton torpedoes.

Wedge Antilles: That's impossible! Even for a computer.

Yes! And that's really the point here: on Reggaeology, Hamid Drake repeatedly does the impossible.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

People want to be free

So, yeah, I guess I have now developed a full-blown infatuation with Italian cinema. It started (many years ago) with my love of Fellini; a love I was recently reminded of by the good folks at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. The IJG will be playing the Hammer in August, and as part of an early PR push, the organizers there quoted a bit of Kyle O'Brien's 2008 review of the IJG album, LEEF:

"If ever there were a perfect band for a Fellini film, this is it."

I have no idea whether that is actually true, but I sure hope so. And in any case, it's very flattering.

Of course, not all Italian cinema is made of the same whimsical stuff as a "typical" Fellini film. Fellini himself came to prominence on the heels of what seems to me to be the very un-Fellini-esque genre of Neorealismo, which, generally, errs more on the "emo" side of things.

But even at its most melodramatic, Italian Neorealism is great stuff. And delving into it in more detail has given me some insight into the balancing act that I'm ultimately after with the IJG. To wit: maybe I am more interested than your typical 21st century "jazz composer" in the somewhat "un-jazzy" aesthetic strategies of comedy, satire, irony, burlesque, and even nihilism -- all of which, it might be argued, distance the audience from the art in question (something that has raised the hackles of more than a few of our critics). But these interests are not (and never have been) at the expense of more "serious," "involving" artistic concerns, like beauty, pathos, or empathy. Because to jettison those things would just be silly.

The key is to figure out how to make it all fit together, in one effortless, complex package.

In any case, last night's selection was the classic Rossellini film, Rome, Open City, the screenplay for which was partially written by Fellini. It's a story set during Nazi / Fascist control of Italy, and as you might expect, it is equal parts depressing, moving, and maddening.

I do recommend this film, though I'm not going to write about it at length here. I will, however, share one more thing before wrapping up this post. After discovering that one of my favorite scenes from the film was not to be found anywhere online, I offer the following transcription. It is a rather disturbing exchange between two Nazi officers, concerning the torture of an Italian prisoner. Considering the way it unfolds, I have to wonder if Fellini was the one who inserted it.

Hartmann: Strenuous evening?

Bergman: Not very. But interesting.

Hartmann: Really? How so?

Bergman: I have a fellow who must talk before morning, and an Italian priest who claims the fellow won't, because he's praying for him.

Hartmann: And if he doesn't talk?

Bergman: Ridiculous.

Hartmann: If he won't talk no matter what?

Bergman: That would mean an Italian is as good as a German. That there's no difference between the blood of a slave race and that of a master race. What would be the sense of our struggle?

Hartmann: Twenty-five years ago I led execution squads in France. I was a young officer then, and I too believed that we Germans were a master race. But the French patriots chose to die rather than talk. We Germans refuse to realize that people want to be free.

Bergman: Hartmann, you're drunk!

Hartmann: Yes, I am. I drink every night to forget. But instead I see more and more clearly. All we're really good at is killing, killing, killing! We've strewn all of Europe with corpses, and from their graves rises up an unquenchable hatred. Hatred... hatred everywhere! That hatred will devour us. There's no hope.

Bergman: Enough!

Hartmann: We'll all die without the slightest hope.

Bergman: I forbid you to continue!

Hartmann: Without hope.

Bergman: You hear me? You forget that you are a German officer!

"Hatred will devour us." There are days when I wonder if that is the essence of the human condition.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

This drummer is at the right gig

This video has been all the rage with my Facebook friends lately. I must've seen it posted about ten times in the past week.

I get the popularity -- it's funny as shit -- but honestly I think the thing was incorrectly named.

Don't want to sound like a curmudgeon, cuz I truly am not interested in judging it from an aesthetic standpoint. But is this not the natural, logical outcome of a musical culture that overwhelmingly takes its cues from MySpace, American Idol, and Guitar Hero?

If you're in a band that unquestioningly thinks it needs headset mics, matching yellow jackets, and a gigantic American flag as a backdrop, then how could you possibly want any other drummer than this?

Let's not kid ourselves. Everything in this video is exactly as it should be. For better or worse.

Of course, maybe the whole thing is a satire. Sometimes it's hard to tell. I recently saw It Might Get Loud (featuring Jimmy Page, Jack White, and the Edge); this had its own problems with musical bombast (I found myself wondering: don't these guys ever take the masks off?), but there was a nice moment where the Edge, in discussing the over-the-top, self-indulgent nature of the 70s rock he grew up with, referred to the film Spinal Tap, which of course expertly lampoons that same era. His response to the classic mockumentary? "I didn't laugh, I wept. It was so close to the truth."

I wouldn't hold it against you if you had the same reaction to Rick K. and the Allnighters.

[photo credit: Newsbie Pix]

Thursday, June 03, 2010


I am not greedy;
I do not seek to possess
the major portion
of your days.

I am content if,
on those rare occasions
whose truth can be stated
only by poetry,
you will, perhaps,
recall an image --
even only the aura
of my films.

And what more
could I possibly ask
as an artist
than that your
most precious visions,
however rare,
assume, sometimes,
the forms of my images.

-- Maya Deren

I find it hard to believe that any artist would go through the exhausting process of creative work without at least some (however unacknowledged) desire for recognition.

Don't call it a lust for fame, necessarily (though for some of us, that's clearly what it is). Let's say instead that it's a rational hunger for some sort of external proof that the whole thing (i.e., making art) isn't just an elaborate onanistic exercise, and that we're not just screaming pointlessly into the void.

And yet, there is a way to have that hunger for connection, while still maintaining a sense of perspective; a sense, in other words, of how rare it is, on the strength of the art alone, to truly reach another human being.

Which is why I love the above Deren quote (ganked from the beginning of her film Meshes of the Afternoon). I especially like the the fact that it includes the words "perhaps" and "sometimes."

My gloss: every connection, no matter how fleeting or rare, validates the entire enterprise.

[photo credit: Daquella manera]

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

By chance and trembling

One must try to come up with new, unrecognizable techniques that won't resemble any previous ones, so as to avoid silly ridicule. One should build one's own world that would allow no comparisons and for which there would be no previous measures of judgment, which must be new, like the technique. No one must realize that the author is worthless, that he's an abnormal, inferior type that, like a worm, writhes and slithers to keep alive. No one must ever catch him being naive. Everything must appear perfect, based on rules that are unknown, and therefore, not judgeable. Like a crazy man, yes, like a crazy man. Glass on glass, because I'm unable to correct anything, and no one must realize this. A brush stroke on one pane corrects without spoiling the one painted before on another glass pane. But nobody must realize it is the expedience of an incapable, of an impotent. Not at all. It must seem like a firm decision, resolute, high, and almost domineering! No one must know that a stroke comes out well by chance, by chance and trembling. That as soon as a brush stroke comes out well, as if by miracle, it must be protected right away, and sheltered as in a shrine. But no one must notice that the artist is a poor, trembling idiot, a half-ass who lives by chance and risk, dishonored like a child, and has reduced his life to the silly melancholy of one who lives degraded by the impression of something lost forever.

So says Pietro during a crisis-induced painting spree in Pier Paolo Pasolini's Teorema.

Art is always a bit of a put-on, isn't it?

This is one of the things that always fascinated me about bootleg recordings: they offer a peek behind the curtain, and (often) a glimpse of a seemingly mighty creator as a "poor, trembling idiot."

Of course, one of the attractions of jazz (as far as I'm concerned) is that it manages, usually through improvisation, to integrate this behind-the-scenes roughness, this humble uncertainty about where a given piece is really going, into an overall artistic gesture that is actually more powerful as a result.

Or, as David St. Hubbins puts it:

The fact is that jazz is mistakes. You're playing a song, but you're playing it wrong. [...] Which is not to say we do not improvise. He'll take off, he will improvise like crazy, but it's all intentional. Jazz is an accident.

[photo credit: kwanz]