I can recall with delight the first time I heard a banjo in a classical piece. It was the 1936 score to the Pare Lorentz film, “The Plow That Broke the Plains” by Virgil Thomson. In one of the movements of the suite extracted from the film score Thomson writes a set of variations on an American folk song, a practice he shared with his contemporary, Aaron Copland. The sound of the banjo was both jarring and charming and marked, for this listener, the first time hearing this vernacular instrument in a classical context. Then there was John McEuen, then of the “Nitty Gritty Dirt Band” including his transcription of the (familiar to young pianists) Sonatina by Muzio Clementi on one of their folk/rock/country albums.
So the release of these 24 Preludes for Banjo by Adam Larrabee, expertly played by John Bullard seems a natural next step. Bullard has previously released an album of Bach played on the banjo and seems intent on expanding the classical repertoire for his instrument. Here, rather than having transcriptions of music originally written for other instruments, we have music written directly for the banjo. Larrabee, an accomplished banjo player echoes Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier in this set of 12 preludes (with 12 more yet to be recorded to complete the set of 24).
Composer Adam Larrabee strikes a pretty amazing balance writing brief pieces in each of 12 keys, alternating major and minor keys for contrast and incorporating, as Bach did, baroque dance forms. He connects to the twentieth and twenty first century by using some post baroque dance forms such as waltz, barcarolle, and mazurka. He even manages to further blur the lines of genre by penning an homage to rocker Rick Ocasek.
Rather than being intimidated or overwhelmed writing music which will inevitably invite comparisons with Bach, Chopin, Shostakovich, etc. Larrabee never overplays his hand and sticks to short, simple forms devoid of unnecessary complexity. These are pretty much etudes on how to write for banjo and they provide a tasteful, entertaining set of examples that can serve as a great starting point for future compositions and future composers interesting in writing for this unusual folk instrument. I can’t wait for volume two.
The banjo, best known in both black and white vernacular or folk music, traces its origins to west Africa and come to this country as a biproduct of the transatlantic slave trade which began in 1619. Similar instruments can be found in other countries whose participation in the slave trade brought people who subsequently constructed these instruments for their personal use.
Now the utility of Bullard’s instrument is being consciously expanded and welcomed more fully into a place in a genre to which it had not originally been intended. It works.
While this album is not likely to cause as much of a stir as Bob Dylan did when he went electric in 1965 at the Newport Folk Festival it is revelatory in its own way. Of course Ravel and Bartok did not write for even acoustic guitar but they, like all western classical musicians, were very familiar with the art of transcription. Functional electric instruments wouldn’t come into use until the late 1940s. But the art of transcription (essentially a synonym for “Covers” as used in pop music) can be applied to any instrument and, at its best, transcription brings out perspectives in the music that were not obvious in its original incarnation. That is what is achieved here.
There are no liner notes but it appears that these musicians have done the transcribing themselves. And their backgrounds include having played guitar with the likes of Chris Cornell, Natalie Merchant, Rufus Wainwright, Joan Baez, Patti Smith, Ian Hunter, and others. Their facility with their guitar playing comes from (the more traditional role of the guitar) in rock/pop genres and here they apply this knowledge to playing classical repertoire which they came to love. Why can’t they have both?
A more pedestrian choice of repertoire for a debut might have been Bach inventions or Scarlatti sonatas (which worked remarkably well for Wendy Carlos) but these guys made what, on first look, seems very unusual choices. Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite (hardly that composer’s best known work) and 6 (of the 44) duos for violins by Bela Bartok (among the composer’s least known compositions). So I approached this release with a great deal of skepticism.
Well, the sounds they create, recorded so lucidly too, instantly won me over. This is a spectacular release and makes a very enjoyable listening experience. Their transcriptions provided a perspective that sent this listener back to the original compositions for another listen. I had a minimal familiarity with the Ravel and even less familiarity with the Bartok but the sheer energy of their performances combined with a real feel for the jazz roots that underlie the Ravel as well as a curious set of sounds chosen for the Hungarian folk derived Bartok effectively recasts these pieces in a very different perspective.
Like Bob Dylan, they thrust the modern electric guitar center stage and provide what will be for some, a jarring or disturbing experience. Purists may find these transcriptions sacrilegious but I suspect that many will be charmed and (perhaps their endgame) may find electric guitars to be anywhere from acceptable to revelatory as instruments which can do justice in the classical world.
Electric guitars are now pretty common in folk as well as rock and blues. Dylan gets significant credit for this and these guys seem to be aiming at a similar goal, that of bringing electric guitars into legitimacy in the performance of classical music. Whether this eventually happens remains to be seen but this is a mighty well conceived and executed effort and, in the end, it is a very fine piece of sonic art. Kudos to Jack Petruzzelli and Cameron Greider as well as to Sono Luminus.
One of the undeniable positive effects of the Black Lives Matter movement is exemplified in this amazing release. The Harlem Arts Festival, which ran from June 29 to August 24, 1969 (on Sundays at 3 PM) featured some profoundly important musicians (only one of whom went on to play at the fabled “Woodstock Festival” which ran from August 15-18, 1969 in Bethel, New York). This festival which was held on six Sundays in the summer of 1969 was documented in about 40 hours of footage which then languished in a basement for some 50 years.
Along comes Ahmir Khalib Thompson, known professionally as Questlove, an American musician, songwriter, disc jockey, author, music journalist, and film director. Along with restoring the original footage, Questlove, as director of this auspicious release intercuts contemporary interviews (mostly with people who attended the festival) with carefully chosen performance footage which contextualizes the concert series effectively making this release into a sociological as well as historical document which emphasizes the significance of the festival leaving the viewing audience to contemplate why such important footage had been left to languish in a basement for 50 years.
In fact there had been efforts to capitalize on the popularity of pop concert footage evidenced by Michael Wadleigh’s well documented Woodstock Festival which quickly became a defining document of the era. The fact that production funding was easily obtained for that film (for which the young Martin Scorsese and his frequent collaborator, Thelma Schoonmaker contributed their editing skills)is a matter of record. But the efforts failed and the concert footage of the Harlem Cultural Festival would not be seen until 2021.
A quick look at the lineup for the Harlem Festival (original poster on right) demonstrates the obvious blackness of the performers in direct counterpoint to the equally obvious whiteness of the Woodstock Festival (Quill, Country Joe McDonald, Santana, John Sebastian, Keef Hartley Band, The Incredible String Band, Ravi Shankar, Canned Heat, Mountain, Grateful Dead, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Janis Joplin with The Kozmic Blues Band, Sly and the Family Stone, The Who, Jefferson Airplane, Nicky Hopkins, Joe Cocker and The Grease Band, Country Joe and the Fish, Ten Years After, The Band, Johnny Winter, Edgar Winter, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Sha Na Na, Jimi Hendrix / Gypsy Sun & Rainbows). The only black musicians (ironically in a concert of predominantly blues based rock) at Woodstock were Sly and the Family Stone and Jimi Hendrix. And the audience at each of these festivals pretty much reflected the racial demographic onstage.
Questlove’s effort won “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” both the Grand Jury Prize and an Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival in 2021. It was released January 28, 2021 (Sundance) and June 25, 2021 (United States) and is currently streaming on Hulu.
Why am I featuring this pop music documentary on this modern classical blog? Well it is a contemporary release of music which has been and continues to be influential in our modern culture. A quick look at some of my previous blogs will reveal reviews of concerts and CDs featuring electric guitars, Hammond Organs, etc. And the repetitive figures and simpler harmonic structures endemic to “rock” have infiltrated the classical realm via minimalism.
We live in an age where the last two Pulitzer Prizes in music went to (very deserving) black composers, Anthony Davis (2020) and Tania Léon (2021). Maestro Davis once shared with me that he seeks inspiration studying the music of James Brown and doubtless there are many more such instances of “pop music” influencing “classical music” which I shall leave for musicologists to explore. But the bottom line is that this film brings to light the fact that there are some 40 hours of amazing concert footage that remains largely unseen and which contains marvelous and significant historical events (the final cut of the film reportedly only uses about 35% of the original film). The moment in which Mahalia Jackson hands the microphone back to Mavis Staples alone is a metaphorical “passing of the torch” from one generation to the next, a truly beautiful moment regardless of one’s race.
It is probably worth noting that the attempt to recreate the success of Woodstock with the December 6, 1969 “Altamont Speedway Free Festival” which was sullied by the tragic death of a concertgoer at the hands of the Hell’s Angels who had been hired to provide security for the event. By contrast, when the New York City Police Department refused to provide security for the Sly and the Family Stone segment of the Harlem Cultural Festival, the Black Panthers were engaged (rather more successfully) to provide security for that event. Read what you will into those facts.
One hopes that the release of Summer of Soul will result in the subsequent release of more of that concert footage from a more innocent (or naive?) time so we may see these fine young musicians near the beginnings of their wonderful careers (well, one could argue that Stevie Wonder was more mid-career at this point). Questlove’s directorial efforts backed by producers David Dinerstein, Robert Fyvolen, and Joseph Patel have brought to light this important cultural event placing it in its proper historical perspective in the development and performance of new music. Festival producer and filmmaker Hal Tulchin documented the six-week festival in 1969 and called the project “Black Woodstock” in hopes of helping the film sell to studios. After everyone turned him down, 40 hours of unseen footage sat in his basement for half a century. Sadly, Tulchin died in 2017.
I haven’t looked to see how many different cuts exist of the Woodstock Film but the 1994 director’s cut clocks in at 224 minutes and the latest CD release contains no fewer than 4 discs. Would that something similar will happen with the yet unseen film of these fine performers. The sort of “cancel culture” that helped keep this film in a basement for 50 years may be seeing its influence wane. Meanwhile there remains joy in both this film and in the anticipation of seeing more of this historic event, a vital part of music history and American history. Bravo Questlove!
Portrait of composer/performer Cornelius Boots from his website
If one pays any attention to creative music in the Bay Area the name Cornelius Boots will come up with some frequency. He is a good example of the rich cross cultural traditions which have flourished in this area. California was (and is) in many ways the ground zero of east/west collaborations and Boots contributes his unique take on music and on some unusual instruments. He is known for organizing the world’s first Bass Clarinet Quartet named, “Edmund Welles”. He characterizes himself as, “Pied Piper of the nerdy, strange and enlightened.” How California is that?
Boots has released a trilogy, virtually a manifesto, of his take on Shakuhachi, the Japanese bamboo flute, and our current musical/cultural proclivities. In particular he favors the Taimu, described as the “baritone brother” of the shorter, higher pitched shakuhachi which is seen/heard more commonly. The strange breathy sound of this instrument is widely known in traditional Japanese music and it is associated with Zen Buddhist traditions (Boots uses two different shakuhachis in this recording). Here is where I derive my title for this review. What Boots is doing is arguably cultural appropriation. That pejorative epithet is thrown about rather cavalierly these days but what this artist does in this trilogy is to cross the bridge from mere appropriation to incorporation. He has absorbed the traditional aspects of the instrument and is now at a point where he can inject his own musical consciousness into and through this unique instrument giving listeners a perspective heretofore unavailable. That is art.
Shakuhachi Unleashed Vol. I
There is a curious unity to this trilogy of albums which suggests a major reckoning by the composer as he draws musical conclusions filtered through the lens of his experience and the traditions of his chosen instrument. The unique playful cover art (by Nakona MacDonald) is one of the great unifying factors here. In fact these CDs are dense with ideas and are worthy of close scrutiny to reveal their richness and how well integrated they are into this production. Even the numbering of the tracks segregating each disc into a virtual “side A and side B” in the tracklist are a reference and homage to the days of vinyl records. And of course the big unifying factor is the music itself. All the music is the responsibility of Mr. Boots who also sings. The only other noise is made by percussionist Karen Stackpole whose stomping is credited.
This first volume (2016) consists of:
Side A: Darkness
Blacken the Cursed Sun (Lamb of God)
Heaven and Hell (Black Sabbath and Dio)
Until You Call on the Dark (Danzig)
Damaged Soul (Black Sabbath)
No Quarter (Led Zeppelin)
Side B: Salvation
Hymn to the She Dragon of the Deep
The Devil Points
Taste of Nothing
Year of the Gost God of the Flute
Behind the Wall of Sleep (Black Sabbath)
Shakuhachi Unleashed Vol. II
This second disc:
Run to the Hills (Iron Maiden)
The Wayward Meteor (Man or Astroman?)
Obscured by Clouds (Pink Floyd)
Baby Bear Drinks Tea
One Brown Mouse (Jethro Tull)
Green Swampy Water
Snake Dreams of Dragon
Sycamore Trees (David Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti)
Creature Within the Atom Brain (Roky Erikson)
Shadow of the Wind (Black Sabbath with Dio)
The Greening of Mount Subasio
Hung from the Moon (Earth)
Over the Hills and Far Away (Led Zeppelin)
Freebird (Lynyrd Skynyrd)
Shakuhachi Unleashed Vol. III
Here now is the latest release:
Side A: Kung Fu Flute
Chim Chim’s Badass Revenge (Fishbone)
Return and Enter the Dragon (Bruce Lee Movie Themes)
Death of the Samurai
Battle Without Honor or Humanity (Kill Bill movie music)
Big Boss (Bruce Lee movie theme)
Kung Fu and the Silent Flute (David Carradine theme music)
Hey Joe (Jimi Hendrix)
Rebel Rouser (Duane Eddy)
Side B: Buddhist Blues
Purple Haze (Jimi Hendrix)
Shine On You Crazy Diamond Part II (Pink Floyd)
The Mysteries of Harmony and Focus
You’re Gonna Find Your Mistake (James Kimbrough)
It Hurts Me Too (Elmore James)
Breathe (Pink Floyd)
There are wide ranging references and playful references like “shakthumunki (shock the monkey)” exist alongside music obviously important to this artist including traditional blues and a curious selection of blues’ baby, rock and roll as well as some very personal compositions. There is much to ponder here. There are references to prog rock, movies, Lovecraft, covers of some familiar tunes. References seem to exist here to beat culture as well as, more prominently, psychedelic culture. But no Grateful Dead? Well, that’s another thing to ponder as we follow the piper who calls us to join him.
This is, by my count, the third Tim Brady CD released by Starkland. The other two, Instruments of Happiness and Music for Large Ensemble, represent only a small portion of his output and I highly recommend exploring his other releases. You can find a listing on his web page here. Since being introduced to Brady’s work in the Instruments of Happiness album I have purchased and enjoyed several of his earlier CDs. Initially one necessarily wants to lump Brady in with the massed guitar masters such as Glenn Branca, Jeffrey Lohn, and Rhys Chatham. That’s a fine starting point but as one listens to Brady’s work it becomes clear that he has his own vision and that vision is shared with like minded artists. Some of those like minded artists are on this fine CD.
In some ways this is a sequel or a volume two to the Instruments of Happiness CD of 2016. Despite this being chamber music with only four musicians the nature of electric guitars is to make a bigger sound. It is always interesting to see how different artists work with a given ensemble configuration and that is the real thrill here. One track features Brady’s music and the other tracks feature Scott Godin, Jordan Nobles, Maxime McKinley, Gordon Fitzell , and Emily Hall. All are individual creations commissioned for this quartet. The liner notes are definitely useful but there is much to be gleaned from the ‘composers’ web sites as well, trust me.
The disc contains six works on 10 tracks and, like the earlier Instruments of Happiness release on Starkland, this is an interesting and revelatory sampling of the marvelous invention of these composers and the amazing range and utility of the electric guitar. If anyone questions the place of electric guitars in classical music this is a fine example of some of the potential and a teaser for the future as well. The vision is more like that of a string quartet (another ensemble that has managed to establish itself) seeking innovative composers for some portable music making.
Familiarity with the composers mentioned earlier (Branca, Lohn, Chatham) will provide the listener with a context but the work here is seemingly almost unrelated to their work excepting that they used electric guitars. This is a new generation of composers to whom, electric guitars were a given, not a new invention and whose use, increasingly ubiquitous in classical music, is simply one of their compositional options.
And now the music. The album opens with an homage to the late British composer Steve Martland (1959-2013) whose rhythmic, driving music resembles that of Michael Nyman but closer to a rock aesthetic. Martlandia (2016) by Scott Godin engages the listener (and will likely send him/her in search of Steve Martland CDs) with its long tone meditative beginning that acts like a slow introduction to a symphony of the classical era and then moves into faster quasi-minimalist sections that remind this listener favorably of some of Steve Reich’s work. This is practically a miniature symphony. It is an engaging piece and a loving tribute to the late composer.
Equal and Opposite Reaction (2016) is Mr. Brady’s submission to the album. It also opens with a slow section and then goes into the manic virtuosity that is typical of Brady’s work. I’m not saying he can’t write a decent slow movement, he can and does, but much of his work moves rather quickly and with a variety of guitar techniques in his expanded palette of sounds. Like all the works here the harmonic language is largely tonal and the development of thematic material owes much to classical compositional techniques though his rhythmic choices owe something to rock and jazz.
Jordan Nobles’ Deep Field (2016) is a tribute the the iconic Hubble Telescope. (If you haven’t seen at least one photo from Hubble’s catalog then you may have been in suspended animation for the last 20 years.) Suffice it to say that the Hubble’s images have inspired a great deal of artists and this is yet another example. This is one of the more meditative pieces on the album at its opening but, like the other pieces there are several contiguous sections.
Reflets de Francesca Woodman (2017) by Maxime McKinley is another homage. This time the subject is an American photographer Francesca Stern Woodman (1958-1981) who took her own life in 1981 and left a posthumous legacy. Aptly this is one of the more somber and disturbing tracks on the album. I’m sorry to say I don’t know her work but this tribute certainly sparks interest.
Going with that melancholy theme is the next track, Gordon Fitzell’s Bomb Crater Garden (2016) is the most avant garde sounding track (as well as the longest at 11:16) and the most exquisitely disturbing in its post apocalyptic vision. The piece has optional narration and video but the music gives the listener a pretty good idea of what those images and ideas are. So much for happiness.
Finally we have The Happiness Handbook (2016) by Emily Hall. Like Brady’s flexibly peopled ensemble of the same name the theme of happiness comes to the fore once again. As explained in the liner notes the notion of guitars as instruments associated with happiness is the concern. There are five movements varied in style that make this piece function like a little symphony. It is a celebration of the plethora of techniques and compositional possibilities of this modern guitar ensemble and will leave the astute listener ultimately in a happy place.
William Ballard Doggett, better known as Bill Doggett was born in Philadelphia in 1916 and was introduced to music by his church pianist mother. He played in a combo while still in high school and went on to work with a plethora of stars in rock, jazz, rhythm and blues amassing a string of hits but, sadly, seems to have barely been noticed on this the 100th anniversary of his birth. Where is NPR at a time like this?
Well, all is not lost. Fortunately his nephew and namesake Bill Doggett is doing justice to the memory of this important American musician. This younger Doggett is an archivist, lecturer, curator, strategic marketer, photographer, filmmaker, and arts advocate (his website is well worth your time). I am hardly as well prepared to provide more than an overview of this musician’s work but I feel obliged to do my small part in recognizing this man’s work.
Promotional poster for the September 28, 2016 centennial celebration curated by nephew and namesake, Bill Doggett.
Doggett’s list of chart singles:
“Be-Baba-Leba” (vocal by Helen Humes) (Philo/Aladdin 106) 1945 (#3 R&B)
“Moon Dust” 1953 (#18 R&B)
“Early Bird” 1953 (#21 R&B)
“No More In Life” 1953 (#20 R&B)
“High Heels” 1954 (#15 R&B)
“Honky Tonk, Part 1″/”Honky Tonk, Part 2” (King 4950) 1956 (#1(14) R&B/#2(3) Pop)
“Slow Walk” (King 5000) 1956 (#4 R&B/#19 Pop)
“Ram-Bunk-Shush” (King 5020) 1957 (#4 R&B)
“Soft” 1957 (#11 R&B)
“Leaps And Bounds, Part 1″/”Leaps And Bounds, Part 2” (King 5101) 1958 (#13 R&B)
“Blip Blop” 1958 (#11 R&B)
“Hold It!” (King 5149) 1958 (#3 R&B)
“Rainbow Riot, Part 1″/”Rainbow Riot, Part 2” (King 5159) 1959 (#15 R&B)
“Monster Party” (King 5176) 1959 (#27 R&B)
“Yocky Dock, Part 1″/”Yocky Dock, Part 2” (King 5256) 1959 (#30 R&B)
Bill Doggett photographed in France in 1980 by Lionel Decoster (from Wikipedia article)
The Hammond Organ is known for being the workhorse of modern classical as well as rock, rhythm and blues and jazz. It was Bill Doggett who became one of the early masters of this (then new) electronic instrument. While he was also a highly competent pianist, it was with the Hammond Organ that he had his greatest success. There is little doubt that his playing has influenced subsequent musicians who took on this instrument.
Here’s hoping that astute musicians and producers will take on the task of recognizing the work of the late great Bill Doggett. Toward that end here, from Wikipedia, is a discography of his work:
10 inch LPs
Bill Doggett: His Organ And Combo, Volume 1 King 295-82 (1954)
Bill Doggett: His Organ And Combo, Volume 2 King 295-83 (1954)
All Time Christmas Favorites King 295-89 (1954)
Sentimentally Yours King 295-102 (1955)
12 inch LPs (on King Records)
Moon Dust King 395-502 (1956)
Hot Doggett King 395-514 (1956)
As You Desire Me King 395-523 (1956)
Everybody Dance The Honky Tonk King 395-531 (1956)
Dame Dreaming With Bill Doggett King 395-532 (1957)
A Salute To Ellington King 533 (1957)
The Doggett Beat For Dancing Feet King 557 (1957)
Candle Glow King 563 (1958)
Swingin’ Easy King 582 (1958)
Dance Awhile With Doggett King 585 (1958)
12 Songs Of Christmas [reissue of King 295-89 plus 6 additional tracks] King 600 (1958)
Hold It! King 609 (1959)
High And Wide King 633 (1959)
Big City Dance Party King 641 (1959)
Bill Doggett On Tour [this is NOT a live album] King 667 (1959)
For Reminiscent Lovers, Romantic Songs By Bill Doggett King 706 (1960)
Back With More Bill Doggett King 723 (1960)
The Many Moods Of Bill Doggett King 778 (1962)
Bill Doggett Plays American Songs, Bossa Nova Style King 830 (1963)
Impressions King 868 (1963)
The Best Of Bill Doggett [compilation] King 908 (1964)
Bonanza Of 24 Songs [compilation] King 959 (1966)
Take Your Shot King 1041 (1969)
Honky Tonk Popcorn King 1078 (1970)
The Nearness Of You King 1097 (1970)
Ram-Bunk-Shush [compilation] King 1101 (1970)
Sentimental Mood [compilation] King 1104 (1970)
Soft [compilation] King 1108 (1970)
14 Original Greatest Hits [compilation; reissued as ‘All His Hits’] King-Starday 5009 (1977)
Charles Brown: PLEASE COME HOME FOR CHRISTMAS [this vocal album includes 4 instrumental tracks by Bill Doggett] King-Starday 5019 (1978)
12 inch LPs (on other labels)
3,046 People Danced ‘Til 4 A.M. To Bill Doggett [this is a live album] Warner Bros. WS-1404 (1961)
The Band With The Beat! Warner Bros. WS-1421 (1961)
Bill Doggett Swings Warner Bros. WS-1452 (1962)
Rhythm Is My Business (Ella Fitzgerald with Bill Doggett) Verve V6-4056 (1962)
Oops! The Swinging Sounds Of Bill Doggett Columbia CL-1814/CS-8614 (1962)
Prelude To The Blues Columbia CL-1942/CS-8742 (1962)
Finger-Tips Columbia CL-2082/CS-8882 (1963)
Wow! ABC-Paramount S-507 (1964)
Honky Tonk A-La-Mod! Roulette SR-25330 (1966)
The Right Choice After Hours/Ichiban 4112 (1991) Note: this is Bill’s last recorded album of original material; also released on CD.
A copy of this fine newly released CD was kindly sent to me for review a few months ago. First of all I must say that my delay in writing this review is due in large part to my difficulty in attempting to categorize my experience of the music. This is a very individual statement by a young musician from Greece, Panagiotis Pagonis (1989- ) who goes by the name, ‘Abstractive Noise‘ and whose work seems to be inspired by drone, minimalism, ambient, rock and perhaps classical sources as well as experimental literary narrative.
This is a self-produced concept album created in the composer’s own studio and it can only be properly appreciated over several close listenings. I would categorize this release as “experimental” though not wanting to scare anyone away because this disc makes for a comfortable listening experience, not the cacophonous assault that is sometimes encountered with the term “experimental”.
That said, the music develops slowly and requires some patience to appreciate the logic of its unfolding processes. The experimental literary narrative which is appended in the liner notes may be useful to some listeners but I did not connect with the mythological romantic fantasy nature of the narrative except that it provides some clue as to the passionate nature of the composer/performer and his inspiration. But don’t take my lack of connection as a negative critique. It is merely the personal experience of a fifty something reviewer listening to the product of an emerging young composer.
As you can see in the above photograph of the back cover and the photograph below of the unfolded package the cover art is quite beautiful and does seem to reflect some of the nature of the music within. It has a dark quality imbued with mystery and perhaps longing. It is a hybrid of musical styles which flows quite naturally from the composer’s pen (or perhaps more properly, from the composer’s various electronic processing programs which are, for many, replacing the traditional pen and paper).
unfolded view of ‘Abstractive Noise’s’ album
I am listening to it now as I write this belated review and finding that the music continues to take on deeper dimensions with repeated listens. It can actually work as well in a close listening as one would ideally do with a classical composition or in the background setting a mood. It is very well recorded with obvious careful thought put into the mastering which definitely adds to the quality of the listening experience. It is available through the composer’s web site as well as through Bandcamp.
It’s not the sort of CD I would put on my car stereo but it works very well in my living room as an accompaniment to writing or just sitting.
I know very little of this young artist’s background or future plans but I look forward to more from this musician.
On Sunday November 17th I attended one of the most unusual concerts in my experience. The performance of Rhys Chatham‘s ‘A Secret Rose’ at the beautiful Craneway Pavilion in Richmond was produced by Other Minds and the eclectic bay area new music bloodhound Charles Amirkhanian.
Charles Amirkhanian speaking briefly to introduce the performance.
Rhys Chatham is an American musician and composer who has spent much of his career in living in France. He was a part of the New York post-punk downtown music scene in the 70s working with musicians like Glenn Branca, La Monte Young and Charlemagne Palestine.
Sunday’s concert was the west coast première of this piece which is scored for 100 electric guitars, bass guitar and drum kit. It is sufficiently complex as to require at least 3 conductors in addition to the principal conductor (Chatham). In this respect it brings to mind the work of Charles Ives and Henry Brant. But this music resembles neither of these composers, at least not precisely so. Beginning with his work with drones and harmonics Chatham has developed compositional techniques and honed them to a point of mastery. The multi-movement work was microtonal, polymetric, aleatory/improvisatory, dissonant, melodic and enthralling. Did I mention that it was loud? No? Well loudness may be the most obvious aspect of this music but that loudness is organic to the music. The volume paired with the very live acoustics of the cavernous performance space elicited a wide range of harmonics which, through Chatham’s skillful techniques evoked a variety of timbres. (Complementary ear plugs were provided. I took a pair but did not use them.) I heard guitars, certainly and drums and bass. But at times it sounded like there were brass instruments and even vocals. (I swear I heard words being sung.)
Craneway Pavilion is a 45,000 square foot former Ford assembly plant that was remodeled for use as a performance space and conference center. Its size and waterfront location remind me of Chicago’s ‘Navy Pier’ on the lakefront. Craneway is on San Franciso Bay and faces south with a view of the bay bridge eastern span as well as views of San Francisco. The appearance is that of a large loft space with metal beams and a general industrial appearance. Its floor, walls and ceiling are surfaces that are highly reflective of sound and therefore ideal for this performance. As promised in the promotional materials the full moon rose in the east over the bay before the performance began.
Full Moon rising over the bay just before the performance.
Looking toward the seating and the stage in the performance space at Craneway Pavilion.
Chatham’s music was not about complexity for the sake of complexity. His compositional strategies required the complex goings on we heard on Sunday. The room itself became a sounding chamber itself amplifying, canceling and propagating the swirling harmonics that resulted from specialized tunings in addition to the other techniques mentioned.
The multiple movements ranged from drone-like structures to more rhythmically complex sections and even melody. Yes, melody. Chatham writes catchy melodies and motives that sound like they’ve been taken from one rock album or another. Sonic gestures evoked impressions of Ozzie Osbourne, Eric Clapton, and many others depending on your personal listening experiences. This music was ritual as much as expository. His techniques were not limited to rock music but extended to free jazz and classical techniques as well. Taken as a whole the piece was a multi-movement symphony, each movement sustaining its own argument in service of the whole. For the finale Chatham set aside his conductor’s baton and picked up his guitar, not for a solo as one might expect in an ordinary concert, but to participate in the ecstasy of performance.
It is tempting, if a bit cliché, to suggest that this ritual music stirred the ghosts of the past. While standing in the ticket line one gentleman said to me, “I walked out of a Jimi Hendrix concert in 1967 because it was too loud”. Almost immediately someone else said, “I was at that concert…”. Perhaps the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Pretty Things were stirred from their slumbers. They were certainly evoked. I don’t know if the aforementioned gentleman ultimately stayed for the performance but I suspect he probably did, maybe in honor of Jimi.
Chatham playing guitar in the finale of ‘A Secret Rose’
The crowd was several hundred strong ranging in age from about 5 to 85. Most appeared to be enjoying this loud and driving rhythmic composition. Some rocked or nodded to the beat. Some sat entranced and/or perplexed but attentive. At the end there was a standing ovation and, from Mr. Chatham, a welcome encore featuring seriously de-tuned guitars.
The encore piece was also captivating and inventive though certainly not as long. Chatham’s music is not easy to categorize or describe. Even having heard a fair amount of his music on recordings over the years I could not have anticipated what I heard at this concert. I now understand how some music cannot be adequately represented even by our best recording technology.
I’m not sure of the significance of the title but it does bring to mind William Butler Yeats’ book, ‘The Secret Rose’. Its stories steeped in Irish mythology are introduced by an opening poem which reads in part:
The implicitly condescending appellation “Guitar God” has been perhaps somewhat jealously applied to virtuosic guitarists in various popular rock bands. Whether your taste runs to Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix or Eddie Van Halen you cannot discount the technical skill of these and so many other rock/pop guitar players.
Rock and pop artists have distanced themselves from the classical music circles who initially disdained and even condemned their work. But that did not and does not mean that they eschew classical music. Many were initially schooled in classical performance technique and/or were provided a favorable view of some classical masterpieces.
Ian Anderson’s group ‘Jethro Tull’ utilized a movement from a Bach Lute Suite (taking a few rhythmic liberties) in their piece, ‘Bouree’. Roger McGuinn of ‘The Byrds’ acknowledged channeling Bach when he created the now instantly recognizable intro to their version of Bob Dylan’s ‘Mr. Tambourine Man‘. Rick Wakeman, keyboardist of the band ‘Yes’ as well as a solo artist peppers his work with snippets of classical melodies no doubt learned in his piano lessons that served him so well. Keith Emerson of ‘Emerson, Lake and Palmer‘ went as far as to write a piano concerto.
From the classical side of the aisle there have been composers who wanted to utilize some of the techniques and ideas of rock and pop within the context of their classical training. Stanley Silverman wrote an opera titled, ‘Elephant Steps’ which was championed by the ever eclectic Michael Tilson Thomas. (This piece deserves at least a second hearing and I hope that Columbia will some day release it as a CD.)
Leonard Bernstein, no stranger to popular musical theater, embraced rock and blues including such ensembles alongside the orchestra in major works such as his ‘Mass’. Similar, though less successful collaborations occurred when symphony orchestras were added to the production of albums by the likes of ‘Deep Purple and, more notably, ‘The Moody Blues’.
Many such collaborations have been and occasionally continue to be attempted but the end result most often appears to keep the division between classical and ‘pop’ rather separate. That is not necessarily a bad thing either. Philip Glass‘ work appears to have been pretty heavily informed by rock music. He played piano in a couple of tracks on one of the New York punk rock band, ‘Polyrock’. The driving rhythms of rock are endemic to much of Glass’ music. Steve Reich’s work as a jazz drummer seems to be evidenced in his intricate use of rhythm patterns in his music.
So while ‘pop’ musicians incorporated some of their classical training and influences and ‘classical’ musicians acknowledged and collaborated with their pop counterparts the classical aspects remained for better or worse more decorative than organic. Jazz became an organic part of many classical works starting in the 1920s. And, as mentioned before, rock influences have certainly found an organic role in the music of Philip Glass and, more recently in the music of Michael Daugherty.
Along came Glenn Branca, Rhys Chatham, Jeffery Lohn and their various collaborators. These musicians with strong roots in rock music began to explore what has become, in this writer’s opinion, the epitome of the organic implementation of classical music into the ‘pop’ medium. Using primarily guitars (in ever-increasing numbers) as well as drum kits and the usual accoutrements of rock bands these musicians began writing music that is definitely not pop or rock (neither does it actually resemble classical at times).
English: A self-portrait photograph by and of Rhys Chatham. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Branca who had worked with Jeffrey Lohn began writing his Symphonies in the 1970s. They now number 12 or 13. Working with multiples of guitars, modified keyboard instruments, alternate tunings and basking in the glory of loud he has created an arguably classical set of works grown out of clearly rock/pop beginnings.
Rhys Chatham, a trumpet player initially, worked with Branca and Lohn for a while and began to develop his own classical path within the rock ethic. Beginning with Guitar Trio (1977). And continuing into increasingly massive multiple guitar works he has created another distinct set of works that are clearly not rock or pop. He does not use the classical form titles like ‘symphony’ favored by Branca but these pieces like, ‘An Angel Moves Too Fast to See’ and ‘Crimson Grail‘ feature large numbers of guitarists which by necessity must be locally sourced. Even without classical form or titles these are clearly not pop or rock pieces. And perhaps they can’t be called classical either but they are certainly of symphonic proportion.
Both Branca’s and Chatham’s works have been recorded and I highly recommend the recordings. But these musics cannot be fully captured by current recording technology. The acoustics of the space in which they’re performed and the volume levels which elicit their own effects are best experienced live because of the volume levels and also because of the overtones which are elicited by the instruments in the performing space and more audible because of the overall volume and the characteristics of the listening space.
Such a rare opportunity awaits Bay Area audiences this November when Rhys Chatham comes to town under auspices of ‘Other Minds’ and the delightfully insightful and eclectic producer Charles Amirkhanian. They have engaged the architecturally and sonically fascinating space of the Crane Pavilion in Richmond (a few miles north of Berkeley and Oakland) with sweeping views if San Francisco Bay and enlisted many locally sourced musicians to produce the west coast premiere of Chatham’s “A Secret Rose” (2011) for 100 guitarists.
Official Other Minds logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Tickets can be purchased through the Other Minds website (www.otherminds.org).
This is a rare opportunity to hear a uniquely different music in a visually stunning and acoustically interesting space. Hope to see you there.
The practice of “covers” in pop music is part of the long tradition in music of making arrangements, variations, homages, etc. in response to a given composition. To be sure the majority of these efforts are, though well-meaning, mediocre or worse. But on the whole they can be quite fascinating and even revelatory. Ravel’s masterful orchestration of Mussorgsky’s ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’ is so well done that few people are even aware that the original is a piano solo work. The orchestration so enhances the original as to immortalize it and upstage the original version. Similarly The Byrds’ cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ has become the most recognized version of that song.
‘Undercover Presents’ is a concert organization which has been producing a very unusual set of concerts. Taking an album by a given artist and recruiting a different band/musician to cover each of the songs and then presenting both a studio recording and a live concert of the results. So far they have done Velvet Underground and Nico, Pixies’ Doolittle, Nick Drake’s Pink Moon, Black Sabbath’s Paranoid and, most recently, Joni Mitchell’s Blue. The musicians are all from the San Francisco Bay Area and that comprises a huge trove of talented and innovative artists. Their albums are available on bandcamp.com
I saw the production of Blue this past September and I will be there again this coming Monday having recruited some additional friends, “You gotta come see this!”
The first band, ‘Killbossa’ is inspired by the Brazilian art/music/political movement of the late 1960s known as ‘tropicalismo’ and is a combination of a variety of different musical styles including bossa nova, psychedelic rock, avant-garde and Brazilian popular music. They covered the first song on the album, ‘All I Want’.
Next up Bharathi Palivela, a singer with traditional Hindustani vocal training teamed up with San Francisco bassist and teacher Daniel Fabricant covering ‘My Old Man’.
Georgia native, now San Francisco based bluegrass singer with her banjo and band put their spin on ‘Little Green’.
‘Carey’ was given a reading by clarinetist, vocalist Beth Custer with her strongly jazz inflected ensemble.
Kitka is an all female a capella group specializing in eastern european style folk singing. Their a capella cover of ‘Blue’ was alone worth the price of admission.
Amy X Neuberg is an Oakland based singer, performer and tech wizard. With her voice and electronics she created a unique version of ‘California’.
Jazz/funk/hip-hop/R and B Jazz Mafia with Aima the Dreamer and Erica Dee did a raucous version of ‘This Flight Tonight’.
Cajun/blues/southern fiddler and singer with her band did a country blues version of ‘River’.
The Seshen is an electro-pop ensemble that, like the other musicians in this show, is hard to categorize. They did an ecstatic cover of ‘A Case of You’.
Katy Stephan and her group Classical Revolution ended the evening with ‘The Last Time I Saw Richard’.
All the musicians barely crowded on to the stage to acknowledge the standing ovation from the very appreciative crowd.
Whether you know the original Joni Mitchell album or not you can’t fail to find something exciting, eye-opening and enjoyable in these performances. The range of creativity and talent is staggering. The bands played with a subtle but effective visual display that unified their efforts and added another aspect to both the music and the performance. I’m sure Joni would be pleased.
Did I say that the ticket price includes a free download of the studio album? Well it does and it serves as a great reminder of a truly unique bay area experience. Maybe I’ll see you there.