Sunday, September 19, 2010

Who died and made you Dean?

Silly critics. So often, they write beautifully, but when you scratch the surface, you discover that they really have no idea what the fuck they're talking about.

I was recently reminded of Robert Christgau's infamous rating system (an adaption of which is currently in use by at least one other critic I like) when it was helpfully quoted by 43 Folders:

An A+ record is an organically conceived masterpiece that repays prolonged listening with new excitement and insight. It is unlikely to be marred by more than one merely ordinary cut.

An A is a great record both of whose sides offer enduring pleasure and surprise. You should own it.

An A- is a very good record. If one of its sides doesn’t provide intense and consistent satisfaction, then both include several cuts that do.

[… further explanations, then …]

A D+ is an appalling piece of pimpwork or a thoroughly botched token of sincerity.

It is impossible to understand why anyone would buy a D record.

It is impossible to understand why anyone would release a D- record.

It is impossible to understand why anyone would cut an E+ record.

E records are frequently cited as proof that there is no God.

An E- record is an organically conceived masterpiece that repays repeated listening with a sense of horror in the face of the void. It is unlikely to be marred by one listenable cut.

And as I re-read this, I wondered: what does this system really tell us, except for the fact that Christgau has a robust sense of humor and a knack for a memorable turn of phrase?

Robert Christgau's infamous rating system, boiled down to its essence:

An A+ record is a record I love the most.

An A is a record I love a little less than an A+.

An A- is a record I love a little less than an A.

[… further explanations, then …]

A D+ is a record I don't like.

A D is a record I like even less than that.

A D- is a record I like even less than that.

An E+ is a record I like even less than that.

An E is a record I like even less than that.

An E- is a record I like least of all.

I don't know, I guess I desire deeper explanations.

Also, one other question: why stop at E-, Bob? You've got the entire freakin' alphabet to work with.

[photo credit: Hillary the mammal]

Thursday, September 16, 2010


Christian Scott (who I like), quoted here, and seeming to channel Emperor Joseph II:

“I think the trumpeters who play the fewest notes have the most distinctive voices. Maybe that’s why those other guys play so many notes—because they haven’t found their voice yet.”

Too many notes? Too few notes? Who cares! Just play the right notes.

[Photo credit: misocrazy]

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Go Beth Go

Hey you! It's Beth Schenck on the Jazz Session, talking about her fantastic new record with the always excellent Jason Crane.

If you don't know who Beth is, you should. (Hint: she has played a lot with the IJG.)

Here's an excerpt from a press release I wrote for her a few months ago:

Brooklyn-based saxophonist and composer Beth Schenck is proud to present the release of her debut album, What Shock Heard. An introspective, plaintive, and quietly bold recording, Shock documents a set of compositions written during what Schenck calls “an incredibly turbulent time in my life.” In addition to the leader on alto and soprano saxophone, the disc showcases the talents of guitarist Matt Wrobel, tenor saxophonist Bill McHenry, drummer Jeff Davis, and bassist Eivind Opsvik; it was recorded live to tape by Andy Tomasi.

The word “shock” in the album title is simultaneously apropos and misleading. The music contained within can indeed be surprising; the melodic contours are sometimes jagged, and the performances are raw. Schenck has stated that she did not want to create a “slick” recording (Shock was recorded without a single overdub or edit) and the resulting sound is that of unprocessed emotion. But it is this same emotional content, effectively conveyed despite the absence of a specific context or back-story, which also makes this music frank, beautiful, and, in the end, strangely peaceful. There is a repetitive, hypnotic intensity to many of the compositions. Many are also constructed episodically (somewhat rare for a small group recording), adding to the sense of an underlying narrative. One might argue that the result is the sound of a soul in crisis and, ultimately, redemption.

Go listen to the music.

[photo credit: Steve Noreyko]

Friday, September 10, 2010

Don't Shoot (I'm a Man)

I've written about Devo before, so some of you may know that though I came to them sort of late (something that is also true about Zappa), they have since become one of my favorite bands.

Still, I was little scared to check out the new album, because, as Marc Masters put it in his Pitchfork review, "there are a few bad omens hovering around Something For Everybody. It's been two decades since Devo last attempted a full album of new music--and 1990's Smooth Noodle Maps wasn't memorable." These seemed to me to be reasonable fears. In any case it has taken me a few months to get around to actually listening to SFE.

Turns out I disagree with much of the rest of Masters' assessment. (That's not surprising when it comes to me and Pitchfork reviewers, alas.) To my ear, most of the good songs on this album are stacked toward the beginning, and the clunkers ("Human Rocket," "Sumthin'," "Step Up," and "Cameo") kick in after track five, not before.

More importantly, I'm not prepared to dismiss the album as "self-parody" or overly "self-conscious," as Masters comes close to doing. (I'm not even sure I understand what "self-parody" would be, if the self in question is a parodist in the first place. How does one parody the act of parody?)

To me, a more productive way to look at this album is to consider what happens when parody effectively becomes the thing it is parodying. Parody on its own implies an omniscient narrator, commenting on something from a perhaps loving, but also superior, critical, and ultimately safe distance. But when parody is taken to its logical extreme, the power relationship is reversed. We're left with failure, because the thing being parodied has proven to be impervious.

I can't help feeling that SFE is chock full of the sound of this dynamic, the sound of Devo being absorbed into the very commercial monster it once mocked from a distance. (What else could explain the presence of autotune on the album?) It's actually kind of scary to listen to, as the parodist's autonomy seems to disappear in a pit of consummate self-abnegation (perfectly symbolized in this case by the very Freudian cover image of a Devo power dome being eaten by a beautiful woman).

If we should all just disappear
The skies and waters will clear in a world without us

The lucky ones are gonna be the first to go.

That is art as a mirror, alright, but it's a mirror that is unafraid to show us the very ugliest part of ourselves (which, the album seems to suggest, is the idea that our society has become parody-proof). And there is almost no sense of a protected vantage point outside the whole mess.

Is it aesthetically "beautiful"? Probably not. Is it effective, or compelling, or powerful? Definitely.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Things to see and hear

Please excuse the shameless self-promo for a second. First, a new song over at the other blog.

Next, these:

It's all pretty raw, I guess. As they say, it takes a little time to turn an ocean liner around.

Video c/o Tany Ling and Matt Lichtenwalner.

Featuring Damon Zick, Evan Francis, Brian Walsh, Mary-Sue Tobin, Cory Wright (reeds), Dan Rosenboom, Kris Tiner, Josh Aguiar, Mike Richardson, Ian Carroll (brass), Damian Erskine, Dan Schnelle (rhythm section), Jill Knapp, Tany Ling (vox), me (piano, conducting, compositions).

Monday, September 06, 2010

Music as a mirror, or not

Some of you know that I drag my agnostic ass to church every Sunday in order to play for a congregation of very tolerant Lutherans ("tolerant" because they know I'm a godless bum, and yet they keep asking me back). The truth is that I actually enjoy this gig, at least in terms of the musical challenges it presents.

Anyway, I was leafing through the introduction to one of my organ books this past Sunday, and I came across this commentary:

... because the prelude, if it is well written and well played, reflects the order and design present in the entire universe and also the Holy Spirit's continuing creative gifts to man, it proclaims God's presence. A prelude is therefore not meant to create a mood.

I have heard this idea before, but never so boldly stated. Music meant to reflect "the order and design present in the entire universe"? That's a lot to ask. (Also: what order?)

I have toyed in the past with the idea of trying to create music that was an idealized version of what the world could be. Some kind of perfect utopian expression (which was, incidentally, what I thought the classical composers were really after, too). In a sense, this is the idea of music as a balm, what Robert Frost called "a momentary stay against confusion." It's escapist -- not that there's anything necessarily wrong with that.

I have long since abandoned that project in favor of writing music that was reflective -- not reflective of some kind of mythical "order," but rather reflective of the deeper truth of a vast and compulsory chaos.

Sorry, that's just how I see things.

[Photo credit: LollyKnit]

Thursday, September 02, 2010

"How are book previews limited?"

Well, I'll tell ya. What they say here is this:

Many of the books you can preview on Google Books are still in copyright, and are displayed with the permission of publishers and authors. You can browse these "limited preview" titles just as you would in a bookstore, but you won't be able to see more pages than the copyright holder has made available.

But wait. "Just as I would in a bookstore?" That's actually not true. I could read the whole damned book in the bookstore if I wanted.

[photo credit: Valeriana Solaris]

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Madness for texture

Somehow my recent Internet activity led me to this:

As I watched this video for the first time, I found myself re-enacting what has become a familiar pattern for me. For the first 10-20 seconds, as I came to grasp the conceit, I was very, very entertained. I may even have laughed out loud. The whole thing seemed terribly clever, and I settled down in preparation for a fully enjoyable three minutes or so.

And yet my enjoyment dropped precipitously as I realized that my understanding of the conceit was really all I needed to know about this particular piece. Everything else was just an expression of that conceit, and the resulting work was something I could just as easily have daydreamed, with the same level of enjoyment. Of course Gomer Pyle was going to be voiced by Mickey Mouse. I understood that instantly, and in the wake of that understanding, actually viewing it was a disappointment.

I'm not presenting this experience as evidence that I am some sort of uber-sophisticated audience member. I'm not proud of what I have just written, actually. I was a bit frustrated with myself for not being more willing to enjoy the craft of the piece for its own sake, for not marveling at the technical execution that made it possible. (It's easy to forget that this sort of creative dubbing exercise is in fact marvelous, at least compared with what was possible for amateur filmmakers, say, twenty years ago.)

But, FSM help me, this is where I'm at with art these days. I'm always looking for the underlying idea, with the hope that it is not only good enough to grab my interest, but good enough to sustain some sort of development. The textures that are layered on top of that idea are almost irrelevant to me. They are just the vehicle by which the idea is presented. (Thus, in terms of writing for a big band, I consider my own tunes "successful" only if they can survive translation to a substantially reduced ensemble, or even a single piano rendition. If they can, I know the underlying ideas are sound.)

On the other hand, most of digital culture seems driven by a madness for texture. And sometimes I wish I could just get with that particular program.

[Photo credit: dog ma]