Tuesday, February 28, 2006

OHM video and the cult of Cage/Stockhausen

OK, so I take pride in my work... Ellipsis Arts has now put out the OHM video separately- that means if you had OHM version 1 without the video, you can now pick up this nice little extra that was included in OHM version 2. We have everything from cartoons to ballet to bizarre performance art to psychedelic graphics of the works of some of electronic music's greatest composers including John Cage, Milton Babbitt, Morton Subotnick, Iannis Xenakis, Robert Ashley, Holger Czukay and more...

Around the time that we were working on this, I was being interviewed about some of these modern composers and the topic of influences came up. Specifically, where did this music lead outside of the realm of modern classical music. I thought about that before for an EMP paper that I presented a few years ago but maybe there was some unfinished business that I hadn't considered. Performers like Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo, DJ Spooky, Spring Heel Jack and others obviously and explicitly were guided by this music as well as its relative, avant jazz. All of which was good, healthy and all even if it didn't always present the most memorable music that these performers had done.

In terms of influence though, it struck me that two names would keep cropping up when a pop/rock/techno artist needed to name-check a 20th century composer whose spell they were under: Cage and Stockhausen. Even rock fans who aren't familiar with classical music have heard those names, which is why I think they keep coming up again and again. It's safe to cite them because they are somewhat known quantities that people'll recognize and because they keep coming up again and again, you've got to be in good company when you bring them up.

But what does it mean to say that you're a fan of Cage or Stockhausen? For Cage, his work spans about seven decades and covers everything from piano etudes to string quartets to orchestra pieces to tape pieces. It also runs the gamut in terms of style with everything from "4'33"" (aka the silent piece) to "Williams Mix" (which is a sonic barrage of thousands of tapes). There are different periods of his work also. The same thing can be said of Stockhausen's catalog of works. There's orchestral pieces, electronic works, woodwind quartets, percussion pieces and recently, a helicopter quartet. Part of the wonder of these two composers is the breadth of their work.

So when someone says that dig Johnny or Karl, you might wonder what they mean exactly. Think of it this way: though there's many Beatles fans who'll dig everything they did, they're definitely not ALL going to say that they liked "Love Me Do" or "She Loves You" equally as much as "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" or "A Day In the Life" and even less will tell you that they honestly loved "Revolution #9" as much (unless they're a Cage or Stockhausen fan).

The reason that this bothers me is that a lot of other composers whose work should be well-known and have crept into pop and rock aren't going to get the props they deserve. This occurred to me also when I was recently writing a piece about Frank Zappa. Obviously, the guy wasn't jiving when he said that he adored Edgard Varese (just listen to Lumpy Gravy for proof). Listen to the wild tape interruptions on We're Only In It For the Money. Wonder where that came from? I wondered myself so I dug around and found that there were more influences at play: Vladimir Ussachevsky's minimalist early/mid 50's tape pieces (see Pioneers of Electronic Music on CRI Records), Gyorgy Ligeti's bizarre electronic pieces from the 50's (see WDR- Early Electronic Music on BV Haast Records) and Todd Dockstader's brutal early 60's tape pieces (see Apocalypse on Starkland Records).

Ideally, I'd more people outside of modern classical world to know more about these composers. I'm sure that they'd appreciate them more than they think and that today, they might sound a little less foreign than they did decades ago though truth be known, they still are a little outre. Just enough to give you the thrill of exploring an other-worldly realm...

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Neil Young's heartstrings

Even after listening to Prairie Wind a few times, I just thought it was a so-so Neil Young record- he'd done much more moving work when he was in his folkie phase, I thought. After seeing the recent Jonathan Demme movie Neil Young- Heart of Gold, I realized that I was dead wrong.

Performing the songs at the Grand Ole Opry with one of his alternate bands from Crazy Horse that dates back from the Harvest days, the songs gave off a beautiful but pained aura that I hadn't quite heard before. Even when he did a few songs from Comes A Time for an encore (with no less than 5-7 acoustic guitars backing him up), I also forgot how lovely that album was and had to dig that one up as well.

In the movie, Young only brandishes an acoustic guitar and occasional harmonica- no guitar rave ups here except for some engaging solos from Ben Keith's pedal steel. There's also great songwriter Spooner Oldham on keyboards (looking pained and worried himself in close-up shots) plus a female backing chorus (including Emmylou Harris and wife Peggi Young), male chorus, occasional horn section and gospel choir. But even in such a large configuration, the music still sounds homey and intimate, especially when Young talks to the audience about the songs. He talks of his father's dead, his daughter going to college, a guitar he's played that belonged to Hank Williams once but does so in brief clips that never sound mawkish.

After playing the new songs, he digs back to Harvest (which was in the spirit of what he's doing now and does include part of its band here) but skips most of his '80's and '90's work except for Harvest Moon (also in the same vibe).

As a treat, Demme himself was there after the film to answer some questions. He spoke of how the Ryman show was less than an hour and since they were filming it for a feature movie, that's not enough time. He coaxed Young into including more material from the oldies encore to fill in the gap along with brief interviews with the band at the beginning. To end off, he also talked Young into appearing alone on stage, singing "The Old Laughing Lady" (one of Demme's favorites) to an empty hall. Young said that he liked to stay after shows to observe the empty area anyway so he obliged. Demme cleared out the whole crew, even the camera guys so that it was only Young in the last scene with Demme as the only crew member left. Young would play the song as the credits rolled. Young finished the song and then got up to leave (still being filmed) but fumbled and had trouble opening his guitar case to put away his instrument. It seems that Young is used to his roadies and guitar techs to do that for him so he wasn't used to it.

Another story that Demme had about Young was from the movie Philadelphia. He filmed the opening sequence synched to Young's "Southern Man" and was hoping to get another kick-ass rock song from Young to use so that the movie's gay theme would draw in Young fans who wouldn't normally be into that. Instead, Young saw the movie and gave him a sweet, soft title song. While Demme was surprised, he found that he song worked perfectly for a sequence near the end. As it turns out, the same exact thing happened when he contacted Bruce Springsteen: he wanted a kick-ass tune and got a sweet song, which Demme accepted. Springsteen got the Grammy for that and said that it was for both him and Young.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Bring the (New York) Noise

When I wrote about the first volume of Soul Jazz's New York Noise series for the Village Voice, something struck me that there was something wrong about it. It was an interesting sampler where they were trying to make an aural map of the underground scene which included no-wave, disco weirdness and early rap. It just didn't fit together though- renting or buying a copy of Downtown 81 would give you a better snap shot of the time even if the story is negligible.

The second volume of NYN not only makes sense but it coheres though. It's probably because this time around, the label focuses on one piece of terrain from the late 70's/early 80's- the art-punk scene. Obviously, this wasn't the stuff of major label bidding wars and some of it was more interesting in theory than practice but listening to it today, you have to be moved by the willful weirdness that seeped through everything. It was a group of artists looking for their voices, not particularly proficient with their instruments and basically making a racket. In other words, they were real punks at heart.

Who really started the idea of a guitar orchestra, Glenn Branca or Rhys Chatham? You get a chance to decide, hearing them back to back. You also get to sample phase I of Sonic Youth in its true youthful days. There's also the kiddie-toy rock of Y Pant, the screaming pre-riot grrl fury of Ut (surely worthy of a compilation by now) and remnants of the no-wave scene that coalesced briefly at Don King (not the promoter) plus the sadly long forgotten soulful politicos of Mofungo (some of which were also in the Scene is Now) and early stirrings of future director and music nut Jim Jarmusch (who does beautifully under-stated films).

A fine tour of the time, a nice piece of music history and a reminder of what's missing in some of the NYC scene today. I'm ready for Volume 3.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Matthew Shipp sails

One of the many things that I like about pianist Matthew Shipp is that he's a wrestling fan. For real. He says that he doesn't like to do shows at the beginning of the week because that means that he'll miss WWE's Monday Night Raw. He also confers with saxist Sabir Mateen about twice a week on their favorite matches and wrestling superstars. Before any wrestling hata's get in a tangle, minimalist godhead La Monte Young also happens to be a fan too (not to mention Jad Fair, Cyndia Lauper, numerous rappers who name check their favorite WWE stars...)

There are other reasons to admire Shipp as well. When Thirsty Ear honcho Peter Gordon introduced him for a performance at the illustrious Steinway showroom in midtown Manhattan, he recalled that the first time he heard about the pianist was a recommendation from Henry Rollins who told him in his usual non-threatening way "YOU'RE GONNA LOVE HIM!!!!" HR was right and Gordon had Shipp curate the label's innovative genre-crashing Blue Series. After Gordon's intro, a small audience was treated to a half-hour improved piece- when I met Shipp just before the show, he laughed and said "I don't know!" when I asked what he was going to play that night. We were treated to intense Cecil Taylor chord clouds meeting with Thelonious Monk playfulness. By a strange coincidence, an impolite cell phone ring marked the end of his set.

Shades of his new album, One, crept up in the performance, especially "Arc" and "Gamma Ray." His other obsessions come through here in the titles: science and specifically astronomy. Also, like Monk and Taylor, Shipp has enough thoughtfulness to pull off a solo piano work well. Watching him up close performing helps you to appreciate, seeing literally how much of himself he puts into his playing- hearing the loud clicking of the keys, fingers fluttering, neck and head arched forward into the instrument. I've seen him at the Vision Festival, performing with stellar ensembles, including gadfly bassist William Parker, but his playing alone is a pleasure not to be missed.