Jan 122017
 

Seiji Ozawa, left, and Haruki Murakami. Credit Nobuyoshi Araki (NY Times)

Absolutely on Music is the kind of book that makes you want to go find the music for yourself… These conversations left me wanting more, in the best possible way. They made me want to go sit with a friend in the living room, listening to records, one after another, late into the evening. —Carolyn Ogburn

Absolute Music
Haruki Murakami & Seigi Ozawa
Knopf, 2016
352 pages; $27.95

“…all I want to say is that Mahler’s music looks hard at first sight, and it really is hard, but if you read it closely and deeply with feeling, it’s not such confusing and inscrutable music after all. It’s got all these layers piled one on top of another, and lots of different elements emerging at the same time, so in effect it sounds complicated.” —Seiji Ozawa, Absolutely on Music

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Absolutely on Music, by novelist and music aficionado Haruki Murakami and legendary conductor Seiji Ozawa (translated by Jay Rubin) is the best kind of eavesdropping. Although the book is (not inaccurately) described as series of “conversations,” the topic throughout is music, and the conversations appropriately become Murakami’s interviews of Ozawa regarding his long and storied career in the aftermath of diagnosis of esophageal cancer. Ozawa explains that “until my surgery, I was too busy making music every day to think about the past, but once I started remembering, I couldn’t stop, and the memories came back to me with a nostalgic urge. This was a new experience for me. Not all things connected with major surgery are bad. Thanks to Haruki, I was able to recall Maestro Karajan, Lenny, Carnegie Hall, the Manhattan Center, one after another…”

Murakami (b. 1949) is best known as a novelist, including Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (1985) The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles (1994) and 1Q84 (2009-2010). He has received many awards for his work, including the Franz Kafka Prize and the Jerusalem Prize. He has published several collections of short stories and many works of nonfiction, including Underground, about the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway, and What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. Music often plays a strong role in Murakami’s writing. Scholars have long been drawn to exploring the musical worlds evoked in Murakami’s novels; they’ve created playlists  and written dissertations (and created more playlists. There is even a special resource on Murakami’s website that provides references to the musicians, songs, and albums mentioned in his writing. The biography of Murakami written by his long-time translator, Jay Rubin, is titled Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words.

“How did I learn to write?” Murakami asks. “By listening to music. And what’s the most important thing in writing? It’s rhythm.”

Murakami’s and Ozawa’s daughters were friends, but the two artists only knew one another casually. They never spoke of their work to one another until Ozawa became ill with esophageal cancer in December, 2009. Because Ozawa had to limit his work, Murakami noted a new eagerness when they met to turn conversations to the topic of music, noting that it might have been the fact that he was not talking to a fellow musician that “set him at ease.” The task of publishing these conversations came from a story Ozawa told Murakami about Glenn Gould and Leonard Bernstein’s 1962 performance of Brahms’ First Piano Concerto. Murakami writes, “’What a shame it would be to let such a fascinating story just evaporate,’ I thought. ‘Somebody ought to record it and put it on paper.’ And, brazen as it may seem, the only ‘somebody’ that happened to cross my mind at the moment was me.”

Seiki Ozawa (b. 1935) began conducting as a boy in Japan when a rugby injury sprained his hand too badly for him to continue his piano studies. His skill soon brought him to the United States, where in 1960 he won first prize for student conducting at the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Tanglewood festival. The young Ozawa studied conducting under legendary conductors such as Herbert von Karajan and Leonard Bernstein, who both figure prominently in these conversations. He went on to serve as the music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra for 29 years, and as the principal conductor of the Vienna State Opera. He has received many honors and awards, including a Kennedy Center Honor and two Grammy Awards.

It’s interesting to note that the collection opens with a discussion of who is really in control during a performance of a concerto: the soloist or the orchestra’s conductor? Murakami initiates these interviews not with Ozawa’s own recordings, but with a discussion of Bernstein’s well-known disavowal of the interpretation of the Brahms First Piano Concerto as performed by Glenn Gould and the New York Philharmonic in 1964. Bernstein spoke to the audience prior to the performance, saying:

I cannot say I am in total agreement with Mr. Gould’s conception, and this raises the interesting question: “What am I doing conducting it?” [Audience murmurs, tittering.] I’m conducting it because Mr. Gould is so valid and serious an artist that I must take seriously anything he conceives in good faith, and his conception is interesting enough so that I feel you should hear it too.

Gould often performed with tempi so eccentric that it was difficult to regulate his interpretation together with that of the orchestra. It was this that prompted a discussion between Murakami and Ozawa as to which artist, conductor or soloist, was really in charge of a performance. But in this dialogue of two renowned artists, Seiji Ozawa and Haruki Murakami, who is in charge?

Though it is Ozawa’s history, the book ultimately belongs to Murakami. The comparison to Glenn Gould is an apt one, I feel, for Murakami’s prosody is, like Gould’s musical syntax, both engaging and strongly idiosyncratic. The language is unmistakably Murakami’s throughout. The syntax and rhythm of the words (at least as translated by long-time Murakami translator Jay Rubin) could be lifted straight from the page of any Murakami novel. I kept feeling as if a cat were gazing silently from the other room. If you are a fan of Murakami’s prose, then you will enjoy this book as well.

The conversational settings (the book consists of six conversations, separated by shorter “interludes”) are described only in the loosest terms. The first conversation, for example, takes place in Murakami’s home “in Kanagawa Prefecture, to the west of Tokyo.” Albums and CDs are pulled off the shelf to play as they talk, but the shelves themselves are never described; it’s as if they are being pulled from thin air. There’s something of the animated drawing about these conversations, the way that the suggestion of a particular recording prompts an immediate search for music. In the example here, the search is immediate. Though we haven’t any idea where the two are seated (or if they are seated), no sense of the room, or the light, the time of day or night, the mention of Lalo’s piece for orchestra and solo violin initiates a small flurry of activity:

Ozawa: “We [the violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter and Ozawa] Lalo’s Spanish something-or-another. She was barely twenty years old at the time.

Murakami: Edouard Lalo’s Symphonie Espanole. I’m sure I’ve got a copy of that somewhere.

Rustling sounds as I hunt for the record, which finally turns up.

Ozawa: This is it! This is it! Wow, I haven’t seen this thing for years.

Here, too, you get a sense of the way in which Murakami, the first-person author, enters the page as himself rather than via the transcriptionist of his own words. He’s “Murakami” except when making “rustling sounds” as he searches for the record he has in mind, which “finally turns up.” Those details—unexplained rustling, the “finally turns up,” which insists on being read with a kind of drama whose merit is uncertain—is classic Murakami.

There’s no doubt, however, that Murakami knows his stuff. As Ozawa himself puts it in the book’s afterward, “I have lots of friends who love music, but Haruki takes it way beyond the bounds of sanity. Jazz, classics: he doesn’t just love music, he knows music.”

One of the most fascinating aspects of this dialogue comes through the two very different ways in which they’ve each come to know the music that they love. For Murakami, his knowledge of music comes through avid and detailed listening to recorded music, supplemented by live performances when possible. As he admits, “a piece of music and the material thing on which it was recorded often comprised an indivisible unit.”

Ozawa, on the other hand, is far less familiar with recorded works, even his own. His knowledge of music comes from his study of it. His first encounter with Mahler was through reading a score: “I had never heard them on records. I didn’t have the money to buy records then, and I didn’t even have a machine to play them on.” The music itself was revelatory, “a huge shock for me—until then I never even knew that music like that existed…I could feel the blood draining from my face. I had to order my own copies right then and there. After that, I started reading Mahler like crazy—the First, the Second, the Fifth.” The first time he ever heard Mahler performed was as Bernstein’s assistant at the New York Philharmonic. Because of the way in which he learned the repertoire, Ozawa, unlike Murakami, was less familiar with the range of recorded performances of any given piece. Murakami is struck by what he calls “the fundamental difference that separates the way we understand music.” He finds that difference between a music-maker and a music lover to be an almost-literal wall, “especially high and thick when that music maker is a world class professional. But still, that doesn’t have to hamper our ability to have an honest, direct conversation. At least, that’s how I feel about it, because music is a thing of such breadth and generosity.”

The first conversation revolves around a variety of recordings of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto. A 1957 performance with Glenn Gould and the Berlin Philharmonic under the baton of Herbert von Karajan is compared with Gould’s recording with Leonard Bernstein and the Columbia Symphony Orchestra (composed of members of the NY Philharmonic) in 1959. The two then listen to Rudolf Serkin’s recording of the same concerto with Bernstein in 1964, which is taken at such a rapid tempo that Ozawa exclaims in astonishment, “It’s kind of an inconceivable performance.” They listen to another recording on period instruments, or the actual instruments for which Beethoven would have been writing: Jos van Immerseel performing on the fortepiano, rather than the modern-day piano, for instance. (Oddly, neither the orchestra nor the conductor is named.) This performance provokes the kind of observation that will delight the serious student of music, or anyone who enjoys thinking about sound: Ozawa says, almost as an aside, that in this period-instrument recording that “you can’t hear the consonants.”

Ozawa: The leading edge of each sound.

Murakami: I still don’t get it.

Ozawa: Hmm, how can I put it? If you sing a-a-a, it’s all vowel. But if you add consonants to each of the a’s, you get something like ta-ka-ka, or ha-sa-sa. It’s a question of which consonants you add. It’s easy enough to make the first ta or ha, but the hard part is what follows. If it’s all consonant—ta-t-t—the melody falls apart. But the expression of the notes changes depending on whether you go ta-raa-raa or ta-waa-waa. To have a good musical ear means having control over the consonants and the vowels. When the instruments of this orchestra talk to each other, the consonants don’t come out.

Murakami next brings out the 1982 recording of the piece with Rudolph Serkin again at the piano, and Ozawa himself conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Here, we’re privy to Ozawa’s self-critique—“Now, this is ‘direction.’ Hear those four notes? Tahn-tahn-tahn-tahn….I should have done more of that.”—and his suggestion that Serkin, who was now late in life, realized that it was probably “his last performance of this piece, that he won’t have another chance to record it while he’s alive, and so he’s going to play it the way he wants to. Period.”

Finally, they listen to Mitsuko Uchida’s 1994 recording with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra under the baton of Kurt Sanderling. Earlier, the two have discussed the use of silence (the Japanese use the word ma to describe this quality) and the way in which Gould uses ma so naturally in his interpretation. Now they find a similar quality in Uchida’s playing, the silent intervals, her “free spacing of the notes.”

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No.3 / Mitsuko Uchida, Seiji Ozawa. Saito Kinen Orchestra

This concept of ma comes back as Ozawa describes to Murakami the conductor’s role in bringing the orchestra in following a break in the sound:

Murakami: When you’ve got an empty moment and you have to glide into it, the musicians all watch the conductor, I suppose?

Ozawa: That’s right. I’m the one responsible for putting it all together in the end, so they’re all looking at me. In that passage we just heard, the piano goes tee…and then there’s an empty space [ma] and the orchestra glides in, right? It makes a huge difference whether you play tee-yataa or tee…yataa. Or there are some people who add expression by coming in without a break: teeyantee. So if you do it by kind of “sneaking in” as they say in English, the way we heard, it can go wrong. It’s tremendously difficult to make the orchestra all breathe together at exactly the same point. You have all these different instruments in different positions on the stage, so each of them hears the piano differently, and that tends to throw off the breath of each player by a little. So to avoid that kind of slip-up, the conductor should come in with a big expression on his face like this—teeyantee.

Murakami: So you indicate the empty interval [ma] with your face and body language.

Ozawa: Right, right. You show with your face and the movement of your hands whether they should take a long breath or a short breath. That little bit makes a big difference….it’s not so much a matter of calculation as it is the conductor’s coming to understand, through experience, how to breathe.

Each conversation focuses very loosely on a topic, but the strength of this book is found in its soaring, tangential details. The second conversation revolves around Ozawa’s performances of the Four Brahms Symphonies with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the manner of organization within orchestral groups today, particulars of instrumentation in the horn section of Brahms’ First Symphony; Brahms evokes Ozawa’s mentor, Hideo Saito. Ozawa’s Saito Kinen Orchestra was formed to mark the 10th anniversary of the great conductor’s death. The third conversation revolves around Ozawa’s experiences during the 1960s as he moves from New York Philharmonic, where he was assistant to Leonard Bernstein, to working with the Chicago Symphony, to three recordings Ozawa made with the Toronto Symphony of Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique.

Seiji Ozawa conducts Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique, Toronto Symphony Orchestra 1967. 1st Movement: Rêveries – Passions.

In the fourth conversation, the two discuss the works of Gustav Mahler, a composer who’s work wasn’t widely performed until Leonard Bernstein championed his works in the 1960s. Of course, Murakami explains, one of the reasons Mahler wasn’t performed was that his work, like the works of all Jews, was “quite literally wiped out over the twelve long years following 1933, when the Nazis took power, to the end of the war in 1945.”

This is a fascinating dissection of both the composition and orchestration of Mahler’s nine symphonies and a history of the performance styles that were used over the decades that Ozawa has been conducting them. The emerging prevalence of recordings actually changed the performance styles; as recording moved away from recording the overall sound, focusing instead on individual instruments, so too did the tendency of orchestras to aim for a more transparent, detailed performance. The whole chapter on Mahler is one of the richest in the book. Yet, here’s Murakami, breaking in again to note Ozawa “eats a piece of fruit.”

Ozawa: Mmm, this is good. Mango?

Murakami: No, it’s a papaya.

Other times, Murakami’s interruptions are to provide poetic interpretation that comes in surprising passages, however lovely his descriptions may be. For example, while listening to the third movement of Mahler’s First Symphony, Murakami notes that “the clarinet adds an indefinably mysterious touch to the melody, the strange tones of a bird crying out a prophecy deep in the forest.” The line here, not unlike the mysterious touch of the clarinet, is surprising only because it is so rare; it’s a language from another time. In this book, the magic comes from two skilled craftsmen talking about their work with curiosity and affection.

The fifth conversation revolves around Ozawa’s experiences conducting opera, both staged and in concert performances. He recalls being “booed in Milan” at La Scala. Murakami presses him, asking twice, “Do you think there was some resistance to the idea of an Asian conducting Italian opera at La Scala?”

Osawa replies, “The sound I gave Tosca was not the Tosca they were used to.”

“Back then, weren’t you the only Asian conducting at a first-class European opera house?”

“Yes,” says Ozawa. “I suppose I was.”

That the two men are both Japanese, conversing in Japanese, is an issue that glides just below the surface of the conversation. Many times, Ozawa credits his lack of English fluency to explain why he simply didn’t notice the political waters in which he swam as a young conductor in New York and Europe. When he recalls the days in which Ravinia, the prestigious music festival outside of Chicago, was an all-white establishment (in the context of bringing Louis Armstrong to the festival), neither acknowledge that his very presence contradicts the memory of “all white”.

The final conversation centers on the Seiji Ozawa International Academy Switzerland. It’s a summer chamber music program that works with promising young musicians in small ensembles and extraordinary master instructors such as violinist Pamela Frank, cellist Sadao Harada, violist Nobuku Imai, and violinist Robert Mann. It’s a program designed around the very principles Ozawa learned from his first teacher, Hideo Saito.

Reading Conversations on the subway, or a cafeteria, or a picnic table in the late autumn sun, I could usually call to mind some of the music under discussion from memory, down to the scratchy sound of cracks in the vinyl, the thick humidity of the needle tracing silence between movements, as if it were playing just a the limit of earshot. But when I sat down to write about the book, I felt compelled to search out the actual recordings. I found many of them on Murakami’s website, which (as I mentioned earlier) contains playlists of works referenced in his other books. Other pieces, though not all, can be found online. These conversations left me wanting more, in the best possible way. They made me want to go sit with a friend in the living room, listening to records, one after another, late into the evening.

—Carolyn Ogburn

 Carollyn Ogburn

N5
Carollyn Ogburn

Carolyn Ogburn lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina where she takes on a variety of worldly topics from the quiet comfort of her porch. She’s a contributing writer for Numero Cinq and blogs for Ploughshares. A graduate of Oberlin Conservatory, UNC-Asheville, and UNC School of the Arts, she recently finished her MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts and is currently seeking representation for her first novel.

Dec 082016
 

Composer David Smooke and toy piano Composer David Smooke and toy piano.

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The toy piano will be the first thing you notice. (Toy piano? I asked. Yes, I was told. Not miniature. Toy. ) Composer David Smooke (1969) plays the toy piano, inside and out, and in doing so transforms the way you’ll think about sound.

The toy piano, even when it’s played like a piano, doesn’t sound like a piano. It sounds like childhood itself: tender, vulnerable, plastic hammers tapping metal rods, absent the rich overtones that accompany a larger piano’s notes. A typical adult hand looms, enormous over its keyboard. The performer must crouch, knees to chest, on a miniature piano bench, in order to play it.

And then there’s the way Smooke exploits the possibilities of the instrument: removing the piano’s lid, he tears into the metal bars that the piano’s hammers are meant to strike, pulling at them (bowing them) with strings or wire, strumming them gently with the back of his fingernails; or rubbing the soundboard with pieces of metal. In conversation, Smooke is soft-spoken, thoughtful, and quick to laugh. He currently teaches at the prestigious Peabody Conservatory, and has taught on the faculties of Ohio University, the Chicago College of Performing Arts of Roosevelt University, the Merit School of Music, the University of Chicago, Columbia College Chicago, the Birch Creek Music Performance Center, and the Sun Valley Summer Symphony Workshops. It’s clear he has a deep fondness for his work with students, and a gentle gift for supporting them without leading them off their own way.

We’d initially scheduled our conversation for the first week in November, planning to talk by Skype from his office in Baltimore to my own in Western North Carolina. Smooke’s latest CD, “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death” had just been released in October, and features the Peabody Wind Ensemble, Karl Larson, loadbang, the Lunar Ensemble, and Mike Parker Harley as well as Smooke himself on toy piano. The title piece is a concerto written for toy piano and a wind ensemble (played here by Smooke with the Peabody Wind Ensemble and its conductor Harlan Parker.)

Smooke had sketched out a preliminary list of discussion topics—interesting, provocative topics posed by the nature of his compositional structure and techniques—but by the time our conversation occurred, the U.S. elections were over and our political landscape dramatically, irretrievably, altered in ways that we’re still struggling to address. As we arranged a time to talk, Smooke wrote “I feel like any conversation needs to revolve around why we’re doing art in today’s world….”

David Smooke: There is really nothing else to talk about these days, is there?

Carolyn Ogburn: I don’t think so. And yet, I couldn’t help but notice when I was preparing that you actually wrote about this back in 2010.

David Smooke: I did?

Carolyn Ogburn: You did! You had a student who came to you asking why, of all things that were going on in Schumann’s time, composers were writing about their individual love difficulties rather than addressing the political upheaval of that time. You wrote: “During a time of intense crisis I find myself questioning the utility of experimental music within society. We spend countless hours honing our craft, and yet we can’t heal an open wound or build shelter. Of course we have Churchill’s famous (yet apocryphal) quote in response to a proposal to cut arts funding during World War II, ‘then what are we fighting for?’ Still, our art appears to pale in the face of a disaster of these proportions.”

David Smooke: That’s really funny! I don’t remember writing about that at all, but it sounds like the sort of thing I would say.

Carolyn Ogburn: And now?

David Smooke: So, I teach class on Wednesday, first-year undergrads, and all of last Tuesday night I was thinking, what do I say to these undergrads in the morning? I really had to think through, what am I doing? What are they doing, what are we doing, and what can I convey to the students, some sense of music being important or not important at this time. If it’s not important we should just get out, and if it is important, how do we talk about it?

And I guess what we ended up with was just the idea I think so much of what’s going on these days is that people just don’t hear each other from either side, and we’re kind of denying the humanity of people they see as the other, that’s clearly what’s happening with the All Lives Matter response to Black Lives Matter….but it also is part of what makes it so easy for people on the left to dismiss the people on the right who do feel abandoned in our society. The arts can allow us to bridge that divide and to communicate with each other in a way that’s meaningful.

David SmookeDavid Smooke

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I think people often mistake accessibility for simplicity.

Carolyn Ogburn: So, one of my own fascinations is communication as a social phenomenon. One person explaining their truth is not communication, at any level. So then, I guess maybe the question comes back to the accessibility of art. Something that’s often said about arts in general is that they’re not relevant, they’re not meaningful. How do we bridge that divide while maintaining that aesthetic that actually says what the artist wants to say.

David Smooke: Yeah, well, when you talk about accessibility…I think people often mistake accessibility for simplicity. Accessibility should be more about making things available. Making the art, literally, accessible. I’ve seen time and again just where people are absolutely moved by difficult art that they have access to, that approaches them, that meets them, in their home.

And especially with music! I mean, look at death metal, punk music, music that plenty of people love, in all sorts of different communities…so how is my music harsher than Metallica? In a way I wish it was! But there’s something about, there are aspects to the rituals around the Metallica concerts that make it more accessible to people without necessarily making it easier.

Carolyn Ogburn: That’s a good distinction. Maybe the frame, the packaging?

David Smooke: In classical music, that’s something we’re always talking about. We have all these rituals that are necessary for silence. I mean, silence is necessary for acoustic music but they (the rituals) really serve to make music inaccessible to most people.

Carolyn Ogburn: Don’t you think there is something about elitism that is not all bad? It allows certain conversations to be had…

David Smooke: Well, there is such a thing as expertise! I think there’s a healthy way of looking at elitism, and there’s an unhealthy way. Where the whole idea of…you know, I would rather be operated on by someone who has a certain amount of training before they open me up. But then where I think the whole idea of expertise can be misused is, a lot of people use it to say, Itzhak Perlman is a better musician than Dr. Dre. And I’m not sure that you can really say this.

Carolyn Ogburn: And in terms of expertise, when confronted with political situations, it seems to me that a political response would be one that’s firmly placed within your area of expertise.

David Smooke: Yes.

Carolyn Ogburn: Did that make sense?

David Smooke: Yes. What you’re saying is that for me to make a salient political response, I can’t sit and argue with people over which climate studies are the best ones, but I can present art in a way that can make a difference.

David Smooke with a tiny birdcage

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On Hierarchy

Carolyn Ogburn: Do you think there’s also something political about the form of music itself? And by that I mean, many times music is presented with various amounts of hierarchy. I think about music in the church in this way…One tone, from which emerged polyphony, then melody with supporting base, reflecting changing power structures. And there’s also a way that music has of allowing, or even demanding, a variety of voices occurring all at once, on a stage.

David Smooke: Well, you just raised two interesting issues.

Carolyn Ogburn: Oh, good!

David Smooke: So hierarchy is everywhere in music, especially in western music, so much of the basis of music is hierarchal. From about 1750 through the 20th century, composers were using a system they called tonality. The first time someone tried to define tonality, the way that he defined it was to say “tonality is hierarchy.” And, of course, meter is also hierarchy.

In the 20th century, going away from those systems was phrased politically. Composers talked about it politically. Composers talked about emancipating dissonance from its function. Its (dissonance’s) function was its need to resolve, so to free it, literally, literally freeing it, was emancipating it from its hierarchy.

So you have hierarchy in the music itself, but you also have hierarchy in the way the music is presented. In an orchestra, you have a conductor, and everyone has to look to the conductor and the conductor’s interpretation. Which also goes to the each member of the orchestra has to bring their own expertise, but they’re subsuming their own expertise under the expertise of the composer and conductor. They think of themselves as servants within the hierarchy.

That’s the sort of thing that my music’s trying to get away from. following that more 20th-century notion of tearing down those walls. I do a lot of improvisation, totally free. I will sit down with a bunch of people, and none of us will have any idea what anyone, including himself, will do. This prompts a whole series of responses which can turn into…anything…which really is the most egalitarian way of making music.

But I’m also a composer, who writes notes and gives those notes to other people to interpret. Which goes back to all of those issues. A lot of music on the CD is music I wrote, give to other people. So other people take the music, they go and learn the music, they come back to me and say, I’ve made this choice, what do you think? And I give them my opinion, I like that or I didn’t like that.

There’s a famous—phenomenal—composer, his name is Haas, who came out in the New York Times as a dominant, and he and his wife talking about their relationship where he’s a dominant, and she’s a submissive. (She’s also a writer and a BDSM educator.) She’s very aware of all the political ramifications of that, and she also happens to be African American, and it happens to be the (white) male that dominates the (black) submissive woman. I guess it kind of goes back to the dominant composer thing of the composer being the one who rules the submissive performers.

So I guess I bring that up only to point out just how fraught all these relationships can be.

Carolyn Ogburn: And in a way, the fact that you’re thinking about this, composing and performing with a certain amount of self-consciousness about the fraughtness of this relationship, does that transform that relationship in some way…

David Smooke: Yes, exactly.

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21 Miles to Coolville

Carolyn Ogburn: I was really struck by “21 Miles to Coolville,” both the music and the video piece you made for it.

David Smooke: The video was taken from an older, live performance. But the piece itself is on the new CD too.

Carolyn Ogburn: I was thinking about what the political statement was in that piece. I think the visual, and how the visual was described, that this was a part of the country that has come under scrutiny in the last few weeks, meaning rural, or Appalachia (which is where I’m from) and the way in the piece, as the wonderful joy of the road trip kind of settles, you get to Coolville and Coolville is not what you expect.

David Smooke: So, I was living right near the sign (21 Miles to Coolville) and of course it’s a joke. I mean, Coolville! But also I was teaching there, and most of my students were from there, from the general area. And they were lovely, just lovely, the sweetest kids, who were so ready to learn and work hard and have their minds blown, and just meet ideas. And we had SO much fun in the classes. And yet in the community—in Athens, Ohio itself—I always felt very much like an outsider. Not among my students, who could not possibly have been more welcoming. But in the community…I mean, I’m skinny. I don’t think there was a single person my height who weighed less than 50 pounds more than me, just like I so stood out in my skinny-ness. And I stood out in my Jewishness. I felt both an outsider, and someone who was very welcome.

I was very aware that this is where these people who I really adore came from, and yet going there it was also clearly a place that had seen better days. So trying to feel, as an outsider, being careful not to be condescending, which is so easy to do and so often felt. Every interview I’ve ever seen with Trump voters has described this phenomenon, this feeling of being condescended to. But also trying to recognize that this town at one point was probably really thriving and that time had passed. And there were still things there that were well taken care of, but other things…so really just trying to see it as it was, rather than idealizing it in some way, poor Appalachia or…

Carolyn Ogburn: Would you call that political?

David Smooke: A year ago I would not have, and now…absolutely. Absolutely. It’s funny because so much of American art is based on this notion of Appalachia. It’s at the center of our idea of America. But when art takes place in Appalachia it seems to take one of two forms. Either an idealized form of America, or “Oh, look at the poor people.” And either way…these are people. I mean, now, just looking at people, Appalachian people, just as regular people seems like a political statement.

Carolyn Ogburn: Is your choice of instrument in any way a political statement? Because it’s kind of punk.

David Smooke: I mean, I grew up a punk and goth, right? So…yeah…Just so you know, I’m kind of looking that way because have a toy piano sitting right there, and I keep looking at it…

So again, it’s one of those things that’s yes and no, I think of it as this kind of idealized childhood that no one I know actually had. It seems representative of childhood possibilities, to take that use it in a way that both recognizes and subverts that. So often with these childhood instruments you see, like, toy piano played slowly and everything becomes eerie, or childhood singing with a lot of reverb becomes a horror trope. But literally, it’s deconstructing the instrument to see what else it has in it. So it’s taking this toy and making it sound like a crying beast, so in that sense, yeah, mining the depths, and I guess that’s mining the depths of childhood, but I think it’s a more roundabout sort of politicism.

Carolyn Ogburn: I don’t know that that’s less political for being roundabout…

David Smooke: Well, I try to be careful. It’s hard in art because there’s a fine line between art and agitprop, or propaganda. When the political statements become too clear or too specific, it can often become less effective because it becomes then very specific to that moment.

Carolyn Ogburn: How did that conversation with your students go, on that Wednesday morning?

David Smooke: It was one of those things where it was absolutely necessary…when I have these conversations, I never try to answer. It’s more raising the questions, put out there, to them, if they have things they want to do, come to me and I’ll help them. I had a similar conversation with my grad students. But I think right now everyone’s trying to think just how they’ll respond. I think it will take a while.

Carolyn Ogburn: It sounds to me to that you’re creating a safe container for people’s feelings, and hinting that music may have a place in this process.

David Smooke: And also recognizing that it’s a question whether or not music has a place in this process. And all these years, I don’t know that. There aren’t any good answers for how to create art that’s political and good art.

Carolyn Ogburn: And yet these conversations are so important to have. Especially, I think, the conversations that don’t have answers. How do you explore that?

David Smooke: So, for me, a lot of it begins at home. My wife is a fiction writer, Elise Levine. She’s absolutely brilliant, and thinks through things incredibly deeply. Her ideas are so important to me and to help me formulate my own ideas, going back and forth with each other on these things. And I have a lot of friends who are not musicians. One of the things I love about Baltimore is the arts community here, so we talk to artists and writers and musicians and everyone brings their own things to the table. And then also I think the key thing is to not to expect to get answers but just to follow through with questions and see where things lead. To help the people who are trying things but also to recognize that there’s never one thing that’s ever going to be an answer.

Carolyn Ogburn: Do you think an individual comes up with an answer for him or herself? Like, maybe these talks are less about a shared response than a manner of working through what an individual response might be?

David Smooke: Absolutely. And that’s also tied to teaching, because in any classroom, everyone will perceive material differently from everyone else. There’s never any single way of looking at things. I have a student that I’m working closely with who is giving concerts where the proceeds all go to food banks. I have another student that I’m working with who did an opera about the youngest person ever executed in the US. And these are all important projects, right? I mean, I would never write that opera, I would never think to do concerts supporting food banks, but food is important, and talking about these issues of American history are important, and we need every one to be doing their own thing and to be finding their own way through it. That’s the thing! There’s just so much work to be done in our own society.

Carolyn Ogburn: There’s so much work to be done and the work needs us all…

David Smooke: Exactly. And it needs people who are going to put their heart and soul into that aspect.

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“Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death”

Carolyn Ogburn: You’ve just put out a new CD called “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death” whose title piece is based on the collection of miniature crime scene models created in the 1940s by Frances Glessner Lee. How did you come across the Nutshell Studies?

David Smooke: So, they’re in Baltimore, and when we moved here, a friend said, “You’ve got to check these out.” I was already working with toy piano by then, and I thought, this is just too good of a title to pass up. But we were here for about 5 years before we actually went.

Carolyn Ogburn: I’m fascinated by the scale. The tiny piano you play, and the tiny models of death…

David Smooke: To me, it goes to everything that’s about what I do with the toy piano. The dollhouses, or dioramas, are children’s things that aren’t for children at all. They serve a very clear, scientific and meaningful purpose. So that very much mirrors the way I try to use the toy piano,

Then the fact that the scenes that are both bucolic and lovely, but simultaneously horrific, depending on what aspect of it you’re looking at. Going back to the way certain sounds on the toy piano are so nice, or then mining these other sounds. And this expansion of…well, you’ve got this very small instrument that has to be amplified, because in this context (the piece is a concerto for toy piano and wind ensemble) it never would have been heard. You’ve got all of these people playing these instruments that have hundreds or even thousands of years of instrumental technology behind them that have been absolutely perfected, and they’re all then put underneath this toy. So it’s expanding the toy, and contracting everything else.

Carolyn Ogburn: Do you think about that as political?

David Smooke: You know, Carolyn, I think these days everything comes back to politics. Everything is vulnerable. I guess it never wasn’t, but I think it’s more important to think through these implications, and to make these implications clear. And so, yes, talking in a visual way, right? It’s very much about perspective and scale, that idea of the small becoming large, the large becoming small, but everyone being unified, working together towards this thing, and dissolving, and all these kind of different interpersonal relationships. It’s exploring interpersonal relationships, which these days feels very political.

Carolyn Ogburn: Yes…

David Smooke: I mean, I keep coming back to this idea of agitprop. There are certainly great examples of political art.…this composer David Little, who has been writing Soldier Songs, Dog Days, absolute political statements that certainly has meaning that goes beyond it. And then there is art that we wish were outdated! Like, Guerrilla Girls and Feminist Uprising should feel outdated, but art institutions are slow to change and it doesn’t feel outdated. So I don’t want to go against the idea of making clear political statements. I mean, Bertolt Brecht still works.

But for me, I guess it goes to what I like in art. I tend to like things that are a bit more obtuse, they give up their secrets a bit more slowly. Where you might get one thing at first, and it might lead to another thing and another thing. One person will look at it and say, it’s clearly making this statement, and another may say, No, I think it’s making this statement. Ideally, it’s making both.

Carolyn Ogburn: I wanted to ask you about structure.

David Smooke: Ooooh! I love talking about structure.

Carolyn Ogburn: So music is a temporal form, and you talked about using the trail. and then you’ve got the alphabet series…you’ve got these restraints, that are not the sonata form or the 12-tone series or the fugue. So, tell me about structure.

David Smooke: (laughs) Tell you about structure.

Carolyn Ogburn: Sorry, yeah, I guess that’s a bit broad…

David Smooke: No, no. I just, it’s just that we could be here until morning and I could still be going another five days…So going back that question you raised earlier about hierarchy. Tonal music is all about exploring the hierarchy in a very specific way. You mentioned sonata form: sonata form is based on the drama of having this pitch that you begin with, dramatizing the motion away from the pitch, and dramatizing the return. It’s very much a journey away from and back to that note as being the drama. So when we get into more recent music, we don’t have that idea of dramatized motion toward or from that note anymore. When I was younger I really very much liked that idea of linear structure, having a structure that begins somewhere and would take a listener through from point A to point B…C….D…., and I could pull you along, walk you along that line. And that’s just not as interesting to me anymore. The same way I like ideas that can be interpreted many different ways, I like structure that has something that can be held onto but that doesn’t feel inevitable, but instead it feels surprising. A lot of movies I like have that sort of structure. Gus Van Sant, these experimental works, My Own Private Idaho, or Gerry, which are formally all over the place, and that idea in a movie or fiction, that it’s not necessarily linear. And so my music plays with that. Even without tonality, there can still be a sense of climactic moments, or music that goes to a specific spot.

But sometimes that gets boring. Not everything needs to build to something, or go to somewhere. So with structure these days I’m trying to explore various ways of moving through time and space with the idea that yes, things are related and interconnected, and the interconnections don’t necessarily don’t need to go from A-Z and if they do, it might be for a reason that’s placed on top of it.

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‘A Baby Bigger Grows Than Up Was’

.Carolyn Ogburn: One of the pieces you’ve included on this new recording (‘A Baby Bigger Grows Than Up Was,’ based on an alphabetized story by the Baltimore-based writer Michael Kimball written under the pseudonym Andy Devine) is a story written entirely in alphabetized words, many of which are repeated multiple times.

David Smooke: That alphabetized story is a great example. I think that there is some sort of extra story structure beneath it. The part on the CD is just a small excerpt; the whole piece is an hour long. When you look at the whole story…for example, the word Dad is only said once, but the word Mom is said 100 times. And so you start to get the sense of these relationships, and it does go somewhere even though the story isn’t linear, but the form of it is absolutely linear, in a way that’s absolutely meaningless.

I have a piece that I’m writing down right now that’s my experience of a trail that’s right near my house. I literally recorded myself running this trail and that will provide the background structure for the piece. The idea of the run is something that I’ve been wanting to do for years, because when you’re running on a trail, on the one hand it’s absolutely linear, you’re literally going from Point A to Point Z. But on the other hand, what happens on the trail, along that path, is unpredictable and random. I guess that’s where the structure comes from; it comes from the experience of the natural world. You’re out on a trail, and you don’t know what kind of bird you’re going to hear when you round the bend, or you don’t know what tree you’ll see. Your experience from moment to moment is entirely predictable, because on the one hand you’re putting one foot in front of the other and you know where you’re going; and on the other, moment to moment, it’s entirely unpredictable. And even when you hear a bird calling, and you know, oh, that’s a mocking bird, and it’s going to make that sound four times, it doesn’t always do it the way you expect.

Carolyn Ogburn: And you don’t know what that means, because we can’t interpret bird song in that way.

David Smooke: And the sounds as you’re moving through it, some birds might be moving towards you, or away from you. And there might be crickets, and you might be moving towards the stream, or away from the stream. And all these things, linear and nonlinear things, we’re okay with that experience. So the constraints, when there are constraints, tend to be very much about here is the path, but in a way that in a moment on the path, anything can happen.

The other thing I’m working on right now, the main focus, is doing more solo performance, creating longer structures so that I can go tour. (Laughs) You know, “Have toy piano. Will travel.” I’ll be playing various places over the next few months, New York, Boston, San Francisco, and I’m working on a few others. It goes back to that whole hierarchal thing. I’ve been feeling more comfortable lately being in the music rather than handing things off to people and saying, Go and do it.

Carolyn Ogburn: Are those two different hats to be the composer rather than the composer/performer?

David Smooke: Well, yes and no. There are ways in which they’re very similar. The structure is very similar, but the way I create the piece is very different, because when I’m writing a piece for other people to play, I’ll write it out with pencil, then put it into a computer, and go back and forth, and each time it feels like the end of the world because it takes so long to craft everything, but when I’m writing something for myself to play a lot of the crafting of it is just exploring the sound and seeing how it feels. There’s a lot more flexibility in the moment.

But, you know, I got to work with great people on the project (Nutshell Studies). It’s amazing to me to live in a world where people spend their lives learning their instruments to such a level where they can do anything, and they want to be part of projects where they have to do things that they don’t normally do. And also Scott Metcalf who recorded all of it was just absolutely amazing. This music that just rolls around in your head for awhile, to then to have it sound as good as it does amazes me. And I hate to say “as good as it does” but I guess the best way to put it is, I don’t like the sound of listening to my own music. Once it’s done it’s done. I just like to get it out of my desk and move on to the next thing. But now every time I listen to it, I’m just amazed by the artistry on it. I feel very lucky to be part of a community where people put their effort into something like this.

—David Smooke and Carolyn Ogburn

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Carolyn Ogburn

Carolyn Ogburn lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina where she takes on a variety of worldly topics from the quiet comfort of her porch. She’s a contributing writer for Numero Cinq and blogs for Ploughshares. A graduate of Oberlin Conservatory, UNC-Asheville, and UNC School of the Arts, she recently finished her MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts and is currently seeking representation for her first novel.

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Oct 082016
 

Camilo C

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Camilo Carrara (1968) is a musician based in Sao Paulo, Brazil whose work refuses to be categorized. His recordings range from classical to popular and jazz, and anywhere in between. Though he’s often described – accurately – as a guitarist, he plays, arranges and composes for many instruments, including 12-string guitar, mandolin, electric guitar, and other strummed instruments. He is also a teacher and a Sound Branding Consultant. He has done more than sixty solo and ensemble recordings, and his performance career spans three continents. He’s played concerts in Italy, Portugal, Switzerland, USA, Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Venezuela, and throughout Brazil. He teaches guitar at the annual National Music Festival in Maryland, and has been the guest artist and soloist with orchestras throughout Brazil and worldwide.

Carrara also works as a producer, particularly in his long-time work with the HSBC Christmas Concert, one of the largest holiday events in Brazil. Since 2011, he has been the arranger and producer of this concert. At the heart of this event is a children’s choir, 160 children who are the victims of violence or who are orphaned. Carrara has a degree in classical guitar from the University of São Paulo, and is finishing a Masters Degree in Strategic Marketing Management at the São Paulo University School of Economics and Management. He teaches at Faculty Cantareira in São Paulo, and at the Music in the Mountains Festival, in Poços de Caldas, Minas Gerais.

One of the most interesting things about this conversation for me was Carrara’s commitment to creating music that communicates to a broad listenership, and the limitations of a single identity.  This is based in part on his background growing up in Brazil where his father was imprisoned and tortured as a result of his political convictions. Carrara spent nine months of 1989 traveling and busking throughout Europe, and was present in Berlin when the wall between East and West Germany was torn down. His career seems to suggest that the walls between traditionally separate musical traditions may not be as permanent as they may seem.

Camilo Cararra By Tiago Sormani 2

Carolyn Ogburn: As I learned more about you for this interview, I was struck by how many interests you have. It seems to me that in general people – professionals of the music field or any other manner of profession – are required to be specialists these days. But your career has blended popular and classical performance (on guitar, mandolin, and other stringed instruments) as well as teaching, composing and producing, and you’re studying for a graduate degree in marketing. How do you answer the question, “What do you do?”

Camilo Carrara: Carolyn, how interesting you start our conversation with this question. In fact, after studying strategic marketing management for over 2 years, this is an issue for me. After all, it is part of the strategic marketing technique to define well what is the focus of your business and what products you sell. For anyone who is an artist and only moves in the world of arts, sometimes talk about product and market gets to be a heresy. But it doesn’t need to be so.

In fact, I consider myself all that you listed above and depending on the situation, on the context, I respond differently. Sometimes I say that I am a musician. Sometimes I stand as a solo guitarist. But I am also a multi-instrumentalist (mandolin, electric guitar, 12-string guitar, cavaquinho  — typical Brazilian instrument used in choro and samba), composer, arranger, improviser, teacher, and music producer. I also work as a music expert on causes court involving copyright and as Sound Branding consultant – the discipline that creates and manages the sonic identity of the brands.

I usually feel good doing many things, despite knowing that this can be risky, professionally speaking. Doing many things have a price and returning to the issue of strategic marketing, I know that my challenge is to communicate all these multiple skills to the public without it look like I’m an imposter (exaggerating a bit), or it seems that I do not know how to do anything well done. The issue of communication is one of my biggest challenges today.

I consider myself very fortunate to have had a very consistent musical training and at the same time I know many of my limitations. All I do is the result of hard study and work and it is very gratifying to be recognized by my peers and also by the general public. In fact, I think it was because of this sort of “more general profile” that I was invited to participate in the National Music Festival in Maryland, in the last five years.

What should be a very short and quick response …

CO: (laughing) I think many artists can relate to your answer…we do many things, I think. Though not always with as much expertise! Do you think there is a push these days to be more diversified as a musician? And – since you’ve been at this for a while, have you noticed any changes in that since your early years as a musician?

CC: I found it curious that to reflect on what it means to be a diverse musician, it reminded me of a great Brazilian literature professor, Alfredo Bosi, with whom I had classes at the university, at the time I was a linguistic student. He spoke a few times about the phenomenon of “repetition” and “novelty.” And this is very interesting and beautiful. According to him, the repetition causes the sensation of comfort as the novelty causes alert feeling. That is, learning to dose these two phenomena is a matter of life. We need both to live. Thinking specifically within the framework of creation, in the framework of the creative world, this is a central issue for composers, writers, painters, etc. But it is also a very useful way to think about demand and understand how the market works: almost everything we do is in order to fulfill the wishes and needs.

I have the feeling that diversity is linked to the concept of the novelty. If contemporary classical composers are looking for other solutions to attract public, for example, it means that they feel that the public is starved for news. Or that they are tired of repeating. In this sense, I see the resemblance to my student days. There has always been this kind of movement: the musicians seek to know what are the interests of the public or the public demand for what is interesting musically.

Curuminho
by Camilo Carrara
Composition for dance performance.
Inspired by Igor Stravinsky’s “Petrushka”
CO: You produce the annual NSBC Christmas Chorale, one of the largest Christmas events in Brazil involving literally thousands of people. How did this get started?

CC: This event attracts thousands of people every year and was created 25 years ago. It is especially beautiful because the center of attention is a children’s choir. These are children who receive special attention or because they were abandoned or victims of some type of violence. It is a work done with great care throughout the year. Musically speaking the concept is orchestral. It was developed by the conductor of the choir Dulce Primo. She is an amazing person and brought a lot of sophistication for a considered popular presentation. The interesting thing is that she managed to mix very well the influences of classical music with what is richer in Brazilian popular music. It is the meeting of polyphony and the richness of Brazilian rhythms.

My role in this event is to be arranger and producer. It’s a big challenge. I write the orchestral arrangements, record instruments and edit the audio. I take care of all the steps to (record and create) a CD. Several months of preparation to (be heard by) an average of twenty thousand people a day. They estimate that four hundred thousand people attend the show every year. I also study this event from the point of view of the impact of marketing. The concert is sponsored by a major bank and can be considered one of the largest brand content event in the world. It is an amazing way for brands to create emotional connections with their customers and the general public.

Camilo Cararra, by Pappalardo

CO: Many of us outside Brazil have been watching your country with great interest as we read news stories of political and economic turmoil. (Outside the Olympics, of course!) I read with interest an article from the Guardian that you’d shared titled “The End of Capitalism.” Artists, of course, have a unique responsibility – that is, quite literally, the “ability to respond” – to social upheaval like that we are experiencing today. I guess my question is, how do you see the role of the musician in times of social unrest?

CC: I think that when artists manifest themselves politically they have the advantage of hearing. These are people who have more access to the public and it can make a difference in practical terms. The common people, especially in poor countries, are heavily influenced by artists. It is an important question of responsibility and should be considered.

The other big issue is related to the quality of political positioning. Not every artist thinks critically about politics. It should be, but is not. It is very common to see artists talking a lot of nonsense. Of course, there are the “privileged heads,” the artists who are very well prepared intellectually and politically. These figures can make an important difference in the course of history. If I’m not mistaken, this article you refer to “The End of Capitalism” came against what I was studying at the time. (It) deals with the shared economy, a subject that interests me especially. I do not think we are seeing the end of capitalism, but a transformation. It is no longer possible that in the twenty-first century, (there) still exists misery. This has to end quickly.

CO: Speaking of social unrest…Whenever I read your bio, the year of 1989 which you spent traveling the world is almost always mentioned. This must have been a very important year for you, and it certainly was important globally, as the Berlin Wall fell, and the cold war drew to an end. Do you want to talk some about how this year affected your growth as a musician?

CC: It was a very special year in my life and coincided with some very important events historically. In 1989 I was an itinerant musician, traveling for nine months throughout Europe. I had the luck and privilege of celebrating the Bicentenary of the French Revolution in Paris and witnessing first-hand the fall of the Berlin Wall. I was also in Budapest, near the Romanian Revolution, when the people overthrew the Communist regime of Nicolae Ceauşescu. I could feel the energy of transformation, but without the historical dimension that I have today. I was 21 and had been raised in a left-wing political environment. My father is a communist and was imprisoned and tortured during the dictatorship. I went to Berlin thinking to know the Eastern part. I was very curious to see firsthand how it worked a communist country. And I got to spend a whole day in the eastern part. Of course, it was very little time to form an opinion. But I remember that I felt the contrasting atmosphere, the simplicity of the people. Culturally, in just one day I could go to an amazing concert at the Berlin Staatskapelle and also bought an incredible amount of sheet music, something unimaginable in Brazil at that time. It was very striking and exciting.

A few days later I was surprised by my German friends who came home elated with the news of the fall of the wall. We went to the street and spent many hours in the crowd. A pity I could not speak German. I felt I was losing the details. But some things impressed me a lot to see. I remember it was very shocking to see long lines of East Germans enter the big brand stores such as BMW, Mercedes, or even sexy shops. It was very impressive. At that time West Berlin was stunning and shiny. The city shone. I had the feeling of seeing those pure people being contaminated by lust. It was really crazy!

CO: Do you find any resonance between 1989 and the present moment?

CC: Thinking about it, that kind of transformation started with the change of the socialist paradigm may even be associated with this new model of capitalism in which rethinks the limits of profit, especially in terms of sustainability. We can not admit the misery nor admit the destruction of natural resources. Nowadays any revolution is possible because of technology. The connectivity already enables it. Ultimately we are talking about a social pact on important issues for everyone. No wonder that the great fortunes of the world are collaborating (regarding) key issues such as hunger and education. See Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. The Brazilian billionaire Jorge Paulo Lemann, richest man in the country, is revolutionizing education in the country. These are just a few examples.

CO: When many Americans think of Brazilian classical music, we might be limited to a few well-known figures, such as Villa-Lobos, or Laurindo Almeida. Who are we missing?

CC: We have an interesting musical history as the formation of a Brazilian musical identity, which could be defined as the synthesis between European, African and indigenous cultures. Villa-Lobos (1887-1959), is undoubtedly the great Brazilian composer of all time. (He) can be considered the inventor of a Brazilian sound. If the country has a unique sound, Villa-Lobos was responsible for it. The amazing thing is how his work is so little known, even here.

It is unfair to leave to point other very important composers, but I think for a first survey of Brazilian composers, I would highlight, in chronological order, composers with symphonic approach:

Carlos Gomes (1836-1896)

Henrique Oswald (1852-1931)

Alberto Nepomuceno (1864-1920)

Francisco Mignone (1897-1986)

Radamés Gnatalli (1906-1988)

Camargo Guarnieri (1907-1993)

César Guerra Peixe (1914-1993)

Hans Joachim Koellreutter (1915-2005)

Gilberto Mendes (1922-2016)

Willy Correia de Oliveira (1938)

Marlos Nobre (1939)

(And in) popular music:

Chiquinha Gozaga (1847-1935)

Ernesto Nazareth (1863-1934)

Pixinguinha (1897-1973)

Tom Jobim (1927-1994)

Laurindo Almeida, who made his career in the US, (was) part of our team of guitarists/composers who transited between choro and samba (bossa nova). Just name a few: João Pernambuco (1883-1947), Dilermando Reis (1916-1977), Garoto (1915-1945), Bola Sete (1923-1987), Baden Powell (1937-2000), Guinga (1950).

Which of course makes me want to ask – who were your primary influences, as a young musician?

At first, I was very influenced by my father’s musical universe. In spite of being a communist, (he) was a creative director in advertising and a poet. At home, we listened (to) jazz, classical music and Brazilian popular music (Tom Jobim, Chico Buarque, Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Milton Nascimento, Jacob’s Mandolin, Pixinguinha, Ernesto Nazareth).

I started studying classical guitar at the age of 10 and through college, I was very influenced by my main teachers of the instrument: Celia Trettel, Paulo Porto Alegre, and Edelton Gloeden. From a young age, I wanted to be a concert guitarist. My musical roots (were) very focused on interpretation, in the study of interpretation. In the search for refinement of sound, the articulation of voices (polyphony), understanding of the musical text: phrases, musical form, etc. I knew well the most significant repertoire for the instrument. I played and listened to many composers who are better known within the guitar universe. Just to name a few: Alonso Mudarra, Fernando Sor, Francisco Tárrega, and Leo Brouwer.

In addition to composers, I was greatly influenced by the great interpreters. At that time, I remember my idols were Julian Bream, John Williams, Manuel Barrueco, Assad Brothers and Brothers Abreu, for example. I heard very (many other) instrumentalists, like Glenn Gould, Jean-Pierre Rampal, James Galway, Nelson Freire, Martha Argerich, Daniel Barenboim, Mstislav Rostropovich. I could say that these were my musical roots.

— Camilo Carrara and Carolyn Ogburn

 

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Carolyn Ogburn

 

 

Carolyn Ogburn lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina where she takes on a variety of worldly topics from the quiet comfort of her porch. She’s a contributing writer for Numero Cinq and blogs for Ploughshares. A graduate of Oberlin Conservatory, UNC-Asheville, and UNC School of the Arts, she recently finished her MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts and is currently seeking representation for her first novel.

Jul 042016
 

photo: Barbara Weissberger, 2016Eric More, photo: Barbara Weissberger, 2016

The thing that’s always interested me in music as an art form, and what it delivers reliably that I don’t get from other art forms is: when you hear something and the hair on the back of your neck stands up, or a shiver runs down your spine or you forget to breathe for a while, and you feel chills…that’s what I’m talking about. That experience, that’s what I mean by Sublime. — Eric Moe

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Eric Moe (1954) is a contemporary American composer and pianist whose work rests quite comfortably upon the traditional classical concert stage. It’s also work which is filled with a lively post-modern intelligence that dazzles and surprises. His musical compositions teem with lyric moments, never far from laughter, or bright-eyed despair. Consider, for example, On the Tip of My Tongue, his sonata for bass clarinet and synthesizer, which invites the listener both to feel the pulsing rhythm of the performer’s tongue against the reed of the instrument, as well as the stammer implied by the title idiom; or listen to some of his percussion works, such as Danger: Giant Frogs, or Gong Tormented with their evocative titles (the first from a sign Moe spotted, and remembered; the second a fragment from Yeats’ Byzantium) and their thrillingly intimate clamor. He’s alert to the textures and timbres he skillfully skeins through the framework he’s created, as well as the implied context of the listeners’ own association with the instrument; see, for instance, I Have Only One Itching Desire, which draws from drummer Mitch Mitchell’s work with Jimi Hendrix. Like a practiced storyteller, Moe can launch a series of subtle echoing patterns before surprising the listener with abruptly garish amusements, or follow a line of jazz-inspired riffs to a sudden, wrenchingly vulnerable, conclusion.

Eric Moe’s OBEY YOUR THIRST, excerpt — Mari Kimura, violin

From Harmonic Constellations: Works for Violin and Electronics

Moe is a skilled pianist and performer as well as a composer. His music conveys a physical awareness that the piano is both a string and a percussion instrument. He’s also an avid hiker, at home in the outdoors; like many of his Romantic predecessors, much of his inspiration comes from the natural world. Edmund Burke famously distinguished between the Sublime and the Beautiful. Of these two, Beauty has garnered the most praise, but it’s the Sublime that sustains Moe’s interest. Of course, as has been famously observed, it’s but a short step from the Sublime to the Ridiculous, a hazard which, Moe might suggest, could enhance the experience. There’s often a playful sense of danger about his work, nothing of the sartorial remove that’s so often the case with postmodern work.

It’s not surprising that Moe should be linked with another postmodernist, the masterful David Foster Wallace, whose short story, “Tri-Stan: I Sold Sissee Nar to Ecko,” Moe used as a libretto in his sit-trag one-woman opera TRI-STAN. Like Wallace, Moe seeks for new ways in, to write music that will both express and convey the depth of emotional experience in a way that’s genuinely meaningful to audiences today. Like Wallace, Moe’s music is always reminding us, “Alas, we no longer get to say ‘Alas’ with a straight face…”

I met Eric and his wife, the artist Barbara Weissberger, in residence at the Ragdale Foundation, where this interview was conducted as we strode across a muddy prairie at dusk.

Carolyn Ogburn: When we talked about doing this interview together, you suggested the Sublime. That might seem like an oddly dated word to use for your music, which I find anything but dated: it’s intense, fresh, consistently surprising, smart and frequently funny as hell. Can you tell me more about what you mean by Sublime?

Eric Moe: The thing that’s always interested me in music as an art form, and what it delivers reliably that I don’t get from other art forms is: when you hear something and the hair on the back of your neck stands up, or a shiver runs down your spine or you forget to breathe for a while, and you feel chills…that’s what I’m talking about. That experience, that’s what I mean by Sublime.

As a performer you want to induce that, to bring an audience to that, and as a composer trying to make that happen – well, it’s quite a nifty trick, when you can pull it off. And so, I was interested in that.

CO: Well, how do you do that? That nifty trick…?

EM: I think the reason why music is so much better at inducing the Sublime is that it’s so much better (than other art forms) at organizing time, in a very controlled flow. I mean, sure, when you’re reading a novel, things happen in a sequence, but the exact timing of the words: that’s determined by the reader, whether it’s being read aloud or silently…. In the visual arts you’re scanning a 2-D work or a sculpture, it’s very dispersed, you can’t really control how events unfold. And you really can do that with music.

And as a result I think you can tap into that experience of the Sublime more readily because it has a lot to do with surprise –

CO: Ah! See, I did not expect you to say that! (laughter) And that can provoke laughter out of – well, is it humor? is it surprise? I really found myself laughing out loud when I was listening to your music earlier today. But why was I laughing? Why do we laugh at musical devices: Is it because I know that there IS a joke? To signal that “I’m in on this” – or is a laughter that’s a burst of surprise? But it is funny!

EM: Well, I think humor is also dependent on surprise. When you said, “The ridiculous and the sublime” – I mean, those are pretty closely related actually. Because, you know, for a joke, you expect one thing to be the outcome and the punchline reveals that there’s a twist –

CO: –something outsized, something out of proportion. How do you do that?

EM: Oh, we have our ways…(laughs) I like to set up rhythmic landscapes, where you expect things to roll along a certain way. And then I like to pull the rug out from underneath. That moment of “Ooooh…!”

CO: But, when you talk about surprise – as a composer, that has got to be planned, but as an experiential…you can’t set out to encounter the sublime. You can prepare yourself, but – it’s not a contrivance. That’s part of it, right – it’s out of your control?

Well, yes, there are a couple of definitions – well, historically, there are various definitions, but two of them imply the surprise element.

Longinus, or Pseudo-Longinus, was the first to write about it. His treatise, in the first century CE, something like that, his writing was lost and rediscovered by Boileau in the 17th century. He talks about the sublime as being like a thunderbolt. And his examples tend to be jarring metaphors that verge on the ridiculous. And in fact, if you just push them a little more, they DO become ridiculous.

CO: The Sublime as extreme? That was a big Romantic obsession, for sure. Ideas, being pushed kind of…over the edge…So, when you are talking about humor and surprise, is that a covert way of disclosing the mouse marimba behind the scenes?

EM: (laughing) No, no…I didn’t think expectation, or suspense…I mean I always knew that you toy with feelings of expectation, and you either satisfy or you frustrate, and you can produce a lot of tension or power that way. I didn’t know why that was so, why that could produce Sublime effects, until I started reading the works of this musicologist/cognitive psychologist named David Huron who dissected the whole apparatus of expectation and anticipation. He makes a very compelling argument that any organism, evolutionarily, has a huge advantage of survival if it can predict the future, and how well it predicts the future. So we’re evolved to anticipate outcomes. And then, when something’s coming up, we feel a rise in the tension. As we reach that moment, the moment when something happens, we have an instinctive response as we know whether our prediction was accurate or not. And after all that is done, much more slowly, we have a conscious appraisal of what just happened.

For example, a snake crossing the path, like it did when I was hiking in Yellowstone with Barbara one year, and I – well, I just jumped. I didn’t think about it; no thinking involved there. But then I looked at the snake: it didn’t have rattles, it wasn’t poisonous, and then I wanted to look at it. So – it’s unexpected. I had an immediate response: I’d failed to anticipate (the snake) so I had a negative feeling about that. I had a bolt of adrenaline, and so I jumped. Then, after I jumped and I could see that the snake wasn’t a poisonous variety, this initial response was followed by “Oooh, that’s pretty cool. What kind of snake was that?”

CO: And was that interest sort of proportional to your level of surprise, do you think?

EM: Yes, yes, I probably enjoyed the snake more having gone through that business ahead of time. it’s kind of a complex stew of …whatever kind of neurotransmitters are flooding your system. That’s how surprise parties are supposed to work, right? They’ve actually videotaped people – the victims! – at surprise parties, and at the moment of the surprise there’s this look of terror (unless, of course, they knew it all along and they have anticipated it) and then after that, it’s supposed to be very pleasurable. For people with a strong startle reflex like me, it would – I would never get over being pissed off – but most people, I think, get over that surprise and then enjoy the party much more. So I think you can exploit something like this in art music because it has complexity built into it…

For most people, utter predictability is also very pleasurable. Tension is built up but we really know exactly what’s going to happen, and we get it, and it’s fine, no surprises, that’s good, and we can feel good about that.

CO: You do a good job of establishing a language that’s accessible from the start; it sets up expectations for the listener from the start, which is good, right, because if you don’t then…there’s less context for surprise.

EM: There’s a couple of kinds of expectations. There’s what they call schematic expectations, which is based on all the pieces of music you know about or have heard and you have a set of expectations based on that. And then you have expectations built on the specific piece you’re listening to, which are called veridical expectations. I think both of those work in a piece of art music.

But it’s more powerful when you can engage the schematic expectation. So if you’re evoking a Latin beat or a rock and roll riff, then you’ve got a certain set of expectations tied in with that.

For instance, in TRI-STAN, my big one-woman opera, a setting of a story by David Foster Wallace, there’s a cool moment where a skewed but very recognizable quotation of Isolde’s Liebestod is nearing its grand climax. I pile on a quotation of the Man From U.N.C.L.E. theme (this is all implicit in DFW’s text, by the way). And then, just as you’ve absorbed that’s going on, I throw on top a progression from the intro to the last movement of Mahler’s 6th. Big, big tension. And what happens next? The drum set rips into a boogaloo beat, and the piece goes careening toward the gruesome/funny climax of the sit-trag. So I’m messing with schematic expectations, but at the same time, this spot of time is foreshadowed by smaller things earlier in the piece. So veridical expectation is involved as well, and is in happy conflict with the schematic.

Eric Moe Photo: Barbara Weissberger, 2015

Eric Moe
Photo: Barbara Weissberger, 2015

CO: You use such intensity of rhythm in your music. But at the same time, there’s an emotional content that’s kind of overwhelming at times. That one piece, Gong Tormented. The loneliness. I mean, I could have easily been projecting – but you don’t know, without words –

EM: I think we access (emotions) most directly without words. In that case I wasn’t setting out to write about loneliness, but it’s a serious piece…there are the sounds of the instruments themselves; the rhythm doesn’t exist in a vacuum. There is always lots of pitch information in the various instruments. I notated that (pitch information) with some degree of precision.

CO: When you feel that shiver down your spine – who are some of the people who make you feel that way?

EM: Oh, well, Beethoven. He didn’t invent it, but he was certainly pursuing it. All of the great composers have their moments. Mahler, or Wagner, for instance, do it with pure volume of sound; with huge volume one minute and a solo instrument the next. Bud Powell does it through sheer velocity and rhythmic exuberance. Judith Weir, with grim pitiless humor and flawless timing. David Del Tredici, by casting longing glances back at 19th century evocations of the Sublime. Igor Stravinsky, not afraid to have the goofy, surreal, and exalted in the same piece (see Oedipus Rex). And so on.

CO: Like a shift in the landscape?

EM: Yes. And I would say, you know, nature plays a large role in my thoughts of the Sublime. I’ve got a lot of titles that are inspired by the natural world. I spend a lot of time outside…it’s a source of Sublime moments. I like to think about the difference – what’s the correspondence between looking down a 3000-foot vertical drop and one of those great moments in music that I like. The physical response is actually quite similar. “Holy shit!” (laughs)

There’s an anticipation as you’re getting to the top of a mountain. You have a sense of what it’s going to be. But it’s always really surprising. It’s never exactly as you imagined. And it’s always more than your brain can cope with. A panoramic vista, or when you can’t process the depth of field that you’re looking down through.

CO: Because of scale?

EM: Yeah. In mountains, yes. In music, sometimes it’s scale – like in Mahler, or Wagner. You’ve got a 5-hour piece, and suddenly you find the moment that the whole piece has been leading up to, and it’s literally a huge moment. It’s all been orchestrated. Literally and figuratively…

CO: Mahler was a big hiker wasn’t he?

EM: Yes, he spent the summer in the mountains. But what we’re really talking about, getting into the Burkean Sublime, where he (Edmund Burke) was talking about associating it with this feeling of terror at the immensity…

Wait, let me get this. I always travel with this.

“The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature is astonishment, and astonishment is that state of the soul in which all its motions are suspended with some degree of horror.”

I just love that quote. And people these days are very critical of that, that idea of the sublime, they prefer Kant’s which is just the inability of the imagination to wrap itself around anything, and that’s certainly part of it. But the experience in music and a mountain landscape that I get is certainly more akin to that (quote).

CO: All the predictabilities are suspended – inertia. having been in motion suddenly not. Astonishment, and with some degree of horror…I think both the word horror, and the word astonishment – they meant something at that time, don’t you think? Different than they do now…

EM: Looking it up, I find that the Latin meaning of horror is “a bristling, a shaking, trembling as with cold or fear, terror,” which corresponds nicely with the kind of frisson that the Sublime evokes in many people. The psychologist/musicologist Huron that I was talking about goes further and actually connects surprise and astonishment with the flight or fight response, saying that with the interesting claim that laughter as a reaction to the unexpected is based on the flight response, that laughter is based on panting. Supercharging your oxygen capacity so that you can outrun your competitor, and that laughter is the aestheticized version of that. And that the sense of the sublime and chills is like a cat fluffing itself up, making itself larger, as a means of defending itself against an unexpected source of danger.

CO: What do you think?

And to me, neither of those definitions goes anywhere near explaining why we have the degree of auditory acuity that we have, the fine pitch differentiation. We have ridiculously more than we would need for language, much more than we would ever need for survival skills.

CO: Really? I’m surprised at that.

EM: Like for survival skills, it would be useful to hear much higher pitches, and lower pitches, than we actually can. but within the narrow range that we can hear. we can make out very fine difference in pitch. You can split a half-step into at least 12 parts and still make out the difference in pitch.

Rousseau thought we were singing before language was developed. And you hear children talking that way. They’ll sing the language.

CO: Your undergraduate degree was in music composition, as well as your graduate work. You must have known for a long time that you wanted to be a composer. What drew you to composition?

EM: I didn’t start writing music until I was in college. Before then, I sort of sight-read my way through Western music literature – not just piano music; I was also reading scores, hacking through best I could; songs, opera to some extent – and I started with Bach. Bach was my first love. Then I moved up, pretty much in chronological order: Beethoven, Brahms, Bartok, Schoenberg…and then at some point I was running out, and I was hungry for more. And I wasn’t entirely satisfied with what there was, so, at that point, I figured it was time to write it myself.

CO: It sounds like you’re talking about playing your way through – like a voracious reader – but as a pianist, that’s not what one did. One would get the next piece one wanted to play and you would perfect it….

EM: That’s why I didn’t go to a conservatory… (laughs)

CO: But reading your way through, that must be how you got a sense of the composer’s language, of the composer himself as a person, rather than just the magnificence of any given piece…

EM: I like context. I do that when I’m reading writers too. If I find something that I’m reading that I like, I’ll read everything that person has published everything I can get my hands on…

It’s important to have context. I hate anthologies for that reason. The best whatever of 1997…it’s like, who cares? It’s hard for me to get excited about reading (things like that…) Unless you know the writers that are being excerpted, it’s far less interesting for me than getting the whole picture of the creator’s work, so as to have more to relate it to.

CO: Like establishing expectations in order to cultivate room for surprise?

EM: Yeah, that’s true. There’s sort of the grand schematic thing of the culture at large, then the ones specific to that story, and this sort of fills the gap between those.

CO: You’re clearly an avid reader. But it was music that you were called to tinker around with.

EM: That’s because writing is really hard. I don’t know how anybody does that. It’s just …tortuous…Words. Words! You write them and then everyone knows what they mean. They’re so hard. And also, then they mean something. Then you’re just…(laughs) You can’t just create a grand emotional effect and leave it to the listener to puzzle over the “why”. It’s interesting to read late Romantic writers on music and see how much range of semantic meaning they’ll ascribe to the same piece. I’ve had wildly divergent responses to pieces of mine – I remember one piece that was “so violent and tragic” to one listener and equally “energetic and joyful” to another.

CO: I want to get back to land. I just talked to two composers, both of them immersed in thoughts about climate collapse. Do you find yourself responding to that in your work?

EM: Well, yeah. I’m actually working on a piece with the tentative title of Buffalo Jump. Based on what the Blackfoot and other Plains tribes would do before the Spanish introduced horses to the New World: they would drive a herd of buffalo off a cliff, counting on the terrified herd to blindly follow the spooked lead animals; and it seems that as a species we’re – out of fear and being herded out of our interests and short-sightedness…

CO: When we talk about surprise in your pieces, so far there’s been a sense of thrill about it. But when we’re talking about buffalo riding off a cliff…

EM: Well, there’s one thing I should mention about the Sublime. The terror? It involves surviving. (laughs) It’s that appraisal stage, which is: I’m okay, this is a piece of music. 

CO: Then what do you do when you’re facing this – giant thing coming? For example, we were talking earlier about your hikes in Glacier National Park, and the glaciers there, and everywhere, well, they’re disappearing. They’re melting, because of climate collapse.

EM: I go there every summer. Every summer, the glaciers are a little smaller. And it’s very sad. I mean, it’s really sad. And a lot of my music is very sad. or has a deep sadness. Even the funny pieces, a melancholy, an elegiac moment…

CO: The history of sublime – well, there’s the horror. And there are plenty of things we can look at today that involve that sense of horror…

EM: Yeah, yeah…(laughing) well, so far, it’s been…well, the opera I just finished, The Artwork of the Future, is a comic opera about extinction. The human race has become extinct and our two heroes find that they’ve traveled 300 years into the future, and they want to see if their art has survived and yes, it has, but there are no people left. There are just robots. So then, is this a good thing or a bad thing? They eventually decide that it’s a bad thing. They want to know how this has happened, so they ask the robots, how it happened. and the robots were like…(shrugs) “They were busy looking at their phones…”

CO: “Adult coloring books came out, so…” (laughing) Here’s another question that’s been on my mind recently. Do you find yourself in conversation with other composers who are also thinking about the condition of culture…

EM: You know, I Have Only One Itching Desire – that’s based on Hendrix’s drummer, from the Experience. There are a bunch of licks from his – I mean, not all of it, but there are some moments where I’m evoking him, in particular. Mitch Mitchell. He’s a great drummer.

So all of that’s fair game. And then for those people who know what you’re referencing, it’s great to have that to bounce off of in terms of creating expectations, then you have a lot more material to play around with in terms of comic effect.

CO: I was struck by the piece you wrote for violinist Mari Kimura who developed a method of playing subharmonics. How did you incorporate that particular trick into the writing? Was it different than other commissioned works?

EM: She commissioned a piece that would make use of that. I was happy to do it. I finally figured out what was going on acoustically with the subharmonics, but before I did I had the idea of carefully setting up the listener’s first encounter with the sound – the first time you’ve heard anything that low-pitched or growly in the piece – or from a violin, ever. It’s an octave below the lowest note of the instrument and it comes a good ways into the piece. It’s like the jaws of Hell opening up when it’s combined with a pitch-shifted springdrum roar.

CO: It’s a really intense piece, one which pairs the violist with a recorded sound, and the two constantly interact…

EM: The idea of the piece was the Sprite (soft drink) slogan, Obey your thirst, which this ecopoeticist (Timothy Morton) whose work I was looking at pointed out that this was making a bottle of pop into a bottle of thirst. So the idea was that the violinist would be running after the tape part –

CO: Oh, like the ad! So if you’re literally ‘obeying your thirst’ and your thirst is a bottle of pop, and a pop is a bottle of thirst…it’s very koan-esque.

EM: Yes, well and then there is another Sublime moment been a very furious piece, it keeps getting more and more intense, and then everything turns into this very very sad closing section…Which took me by surprise, when I was writing it. I like that too. Because it’s a lot more fun, to not know what’s going to happen in a piece even as its creator.

CO: That’s why we do it, right? At some point in the process, you start to think about the way another person might experience it, their possible response. You put little messages, right? Little jokes to the reader, the listener, the performer – and that level of communication adds another level of tension, or intellectual engagement. Or would you call it an emotional engagement?

EM: Well, yeah – I mean, Stravinsky famously said, “I write for myself not for the hypothetical other.” When I read that, that seemed to resonate.

I have to imagine that others will have a response similar to my own – if it thrills me, there’s at least a fighting chance that another person will be thrilled as well. Commercial hackwork, on the other hand…

CO: Right. Relies on predictability, easy to hear, easy to understand. Keeping within a pretty defined set of parameters, based on whatever’s popular at the moment. But to be really unpredictable, as well as popular…

EM: Your unpredictable moments would have to be totally predictable. I mean, if you look at a horror movies, for example, which have a lot of what you might think of as Sublime effects, they mitigate the actual feeling of terror because you know exactly what’s going to happen. I mean, like in Psycho, Janet Leigh takes a shower, someone’s going to stab her.

CO: I don’t watch a lot of horror films but when I do, I’m always struck by the amount of jokes in them. Like there is a need, somehow, to affirm the viewer that they are “in” on the joke, somehow.

EM: I don’t watch them. The terror gets to me. But you’re right.

CO: There’s something uniquely human about that sense of the Sublime, is what it feels like you’re saying. Something that places you very squarely within the place of human. In your place in the world, and that place is small. And it gives you an interpretation of the rest of the world from your size, which is astonishing and mixed with fear.

EM: You’re small but you have eyes and you have ears and they are open. So you know that there’s more out there, and you’re trying to cram it all in to your small brain…

CO: Being both more and less confined to the space you think of yourself as taking up…that’s the laughter, isn’t it?

EM: Yes. The Sublime is more life-affirming. Ultimately, Citizen’s United gets overturned, that balance of power can be restored, then things will improve. But that’s going to take a lot of collective effort.

But creating instances of the Sublime: that is something we can do as individuals.

Eric Moe and Carolyn Ogburn

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Carolyn Ogburn

Carolyn Ogburn lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina where she takes on a variety of worldly topics from the quiet comfort of her porch. She’s a contributing writer for Numero Cinq and blogs for Ploughshares. A graduate of Oberlin Conservatory. UNC-Asheville, and UNC School of the Arts, and recently finished her MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She writes on literature, autism, music, and disability rights and is at work on her first novel.

Jun 042016
 
Alex Brown Church/Sea Wolf

Alex Brown Church/Sea Wolf

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Alex Brown Church  is Sea Wolf, and Sea Wolf is usually a band, except when it’s just Alex in his Los Angeles studio, writing songs.  He lives in a compound that once was a Masonic Lodge, now divided into loft units, right on Eagle Rock Boulevard, a highway that runs through the Glassell Park district in northeast L.A. A sort of urban oasis, the compound features a garden courtyard with a BBQ and picnic bench and plenty of room for his  young son to scamper around.  Being Los Angeles, the days are usually sunny and lately it’s been scary-dry, socked into a drought. A taco truck is conveniently parked a stone’s throw away.

 Sea Wolf is known for his mix of folk/rock/ genres and a propensity for inventive melodies and smart lyrics. On stage he plays with intensity, usually with a band, but sometimes solo. There is a definite California tinge to his music, perhaps in its lack of irony. The listener feels she is hearing a message straight from the heart, and there is an intimacy in the way he puts across a song, the sense that his voice is going directly into your ear.

Alex Brown Church was raised in an outdoorsy family, with lots of hiking and camping in the picture, and he likes to escape into the Sierras with his wife and son in the summer. Early life was spent in a gold rush town in Northern California, followed by a stint in France where he went to school as a child, then adolescence in Berkeley, home of the Free Speech movement. He claims his was not an especially musical household, and he didn’t get around to playing guitar until he was a young man, living in New York City and going to Film School. He’s a visual writer, fashioned by those years studying film structure, paying attention to creating a vivid setting and dramatic structure in his songs.

These days he’s spending countless hours in the recording studio putting together his sixth album. Let’s check in and see how it’s going:

Ann: Can you tell us about your early musical influences?

Alex: I started writing songs in the late 90’s, so the Indie-rock giants of that time were a big influence – Neutral Milk Hotel, Pavement, Cat Power, Belle & Sebastian, Elliot Smith, Yo La Tengo. Those kinds of bands mixed with a lot of Beatles. A lot of the Beatles. Also Leonard Cohen, The Kinks, Rolling Stones , The Velvet Underground, The Smiths and The Cure.

Ann: I sense from your lyrics that you are a reader. What do you read and how does what you read inspire or stir up your language?

Alex: I’ll probably never tackle Ulysses, but I do read, and I do like to read and I always have. I read mostly fiction, novels and occasionally, non-fiction. I might pull imagery from what I read, or sometimes (though probably less often), a kind of prose style that strikes me. Usually that influence comes out in a couple of lines, rather than a whole song.

Ann: Would you say that you have an overall project in your music, a project that all the songs and albums are somehow part of? If so, what might that be?

Alex: Sea Wolf isn’t a conceptual exploration of a particular thing, or something with a preconceived story arc, if that’s what you’re getting at. Sea Wolf sprang from an epiphany of sorts about what it was that I wanted to do and express musically. What it is, has developed and evolved over time and I expect it to continue like that. I tend to be attracted by certain themes and imagery and sounds, so maybe that comes through on all the albums in a way that connects them.

Ann: What is your discipline/process of writing the songs? Do you write in intense bursts, or do you sit down every day, hell or high water?

Alex: Intense bursts definitely happen, but I also need to sit down every day because you never know when something good will come out. I block out a chunk of time to write, because it takes a while to get in a groove, and once you are in that groove you don’t want to be interrupted. I don’t write when touring or promoting an album, so once the touring cycle for an album ends, I sit down and clear my calendar for a year to write and make another record.

Ann: Do you have a sense of where the songs come from?

Alex: Hard to say. Often, when a song comes, it’ll feel like the most natural and easy and obvious thing in the world. But that feeling, that sense of it all being so clear, is always fleeting. So you just have to be ready to get as much down as you can while you are in that space.

Ann: You have a gift for melody. This is relatively rare. What other melodic artists do you admire?

Alex:  Thank you! This is difficult to narrow down because my favorite music is all melodic. Of contemporary acts, I think Vampire Weekend is the first name that comes to mind as being melodically great. I was a big studier of the Beatles when I first began writing songs, and they still hold sway over me in that area and remain the gold standard. I also appreciate the melodies in songs from the golden age of musicals and early jazz standards.

Ann: How have the songs changed from first album to current work? What remains consistent in your vision?

Alex: Well, I’m older (he’s 40) and in a different place in my  life now, so lyrically I’m probably singing about different kinds of things, or at least from a different perspective. Musically, each album has sounded a bit different from the one that preceded it, because I’m always wanting to do something new and explore new territory, discovering new sounds and ideas and outgrowing old ones. I’ve come to a place now where I’m wanting to embrace all the stuff I like, as disparate as it may be, and find a way to get it all to fit together.

Ann: How do you stir up habits of writing, so that you don’t fall into rhythms that have become too familiar to you?

Alex:  Anytime I’m bored it’s a sign to do something else. Sometimes just picking up a different guitar, or creating a beat on the computer, or coming up with an interesting keyboard sound, or even doing something like rearranging the studio will open up a new door for me and switch things around in my head. But more often than not, taking a break, going on a trip, getting out of the routine and out into the world is the best thing to do.

Ann: If you had to categorize your music by genre, what term would you use?

Alex: Indie would be the genre you’d find Sea Wolf under in iTunes, and I’m cool with that.

Ann: You’ve said that you are not a ‘singer-songwriter’. I’m curious as to why you shirk that label.

Alex: I think it depends on what someone has in mind when they say ‘singer-songwriter’, because I don’t identify with the ‘sensitive guy with acoustic guitar’ genre, which is what I think of when I think of ‘singer-songwriter’, and I generally dislike that kind of music. On the other hand, guys like Sufjan Stevens and Father John Misty could probably fall under the ‘singer-songwriter’ label, and I’d be fine with being in whatever category they are in, because, like myself, those guys do a lot more than stand there with an acoustic guitar singing sad love songs. But maybe I’m not doing myself any favors in shirking that label, because I know that people who listen to that kind of music do like Sea Wolf, and after all, Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan and David Bowie and Elliot smith are all ‘singer-songwriters’ and they’re pretty badass.

Ann: For many years, you played/wrote with the Indie-rock band, Irving, in California. Did you get restless and want to make a different kind of music? What led you to forming the persona of Sea Wolf?

Alex: Irving was the first band I was in, and I learned to write songs, sing, and play while I was in that band. It was so much fun, and having other guys to collaborate with and share the excitement of being in a band together was incredible. But I eventually grew into myself as a songwriter and singer and realized I wanted to do different music, and I didn’t want to have to compromise any more. Sea Wolf, especially at the beginning, was very much about getting to the core of what it was that I wanted to do, and finding empowerment in that experience.

Ann: Any words on the business side of music?

Alex: Unless you are Radiohead I do think that record labels are still very valuable. These days anyone can release their own music, globally, but whether or not it will get any attention still comes down to the network of people who are working the record. Putting out records requires a ton of work and artists should be spending their time making records and playing shows.

Ann: You’ve had tasty success in having your songs picked up for commercials, movie soundtracks etc. This seems pretty great, cash in hand, and musicians need to earn a living. Yet at the same time, your personal work is being used to ‘sell’ a product. Thoughts on this process and how you feel about it?

Alex: I come from the 1990’s indie rock school of thought which was very much that licensing songs to commercials was a form of selling out. All of that’s changed now, and I’m thankful to have mostly gotten over that notion, and thankful that most listeners have, too. People discover music in lots of different ways now, even from commercials and movies, and it’s known that we artists have to pay our bills given that people don’t buy records anymore. I do still cringe a little when I hear my music in a commercial, because it’s so personal to me, but most Sea Wolf fans’ response is ‘Hey, that’s Sea Wolf! Cool!’

Ann: What music do you pay attention to and how has this changed over the years?

Alex:  The landscape of popular music has changed, and so has the music that I’ve paid attention to. I do keep up on what’s happening and new, as I always have, though I’m less likely to spend a significant amount of time with an album or artist that doesn’t grab me right away. I think that’s due to the way we listen to music nowadays, through streaming sites like Spotify. There’s so much music at your fingertips now, and you’re not paying for it individually, so there’s no sense of commitment that goes along with buying an album. If you don’t like something the first time, rather than give it a week, listening to it in your car, you just never listen to it again.

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Ann: What’s new in the process of writing and recording the new album currently in the works?

Alex: I took a lot more time developing this record than usual. The writing took the longest (compared to albums in the past) and I think it’s because I was feeling more ambitious for this record and (thus) had a higher bar to contend with. Whether or not it will show, who knows, because a lot of times you are just satisfying yourself, and listeners often would’ve been cool with, or even preferred, the stuff that didn’t make the cut. This album is less smoothed out than the last (Old World Romance) and I think that was partially due to Cedarsmoke’s influence (a crowd-funded non-official Sea Wolf record). That record was done very quickly and I liked how human and rough it feels. I want to bring some of that into this album, and yet to also have a bit of the more polished and grand touches of Old World Romance.

—Ann Ireland

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Ann Ireland’s most recent novel, The Blue Guitar, was published by Dundurn Press in early 2013. Her first novel, A Certain Mr. Takahashi, won the $50,000 Seal-Bantam First Novel Award and was made into a feature motion picture called The Pianist in 1991. Her second novel, The Instructor, was nominated for the Trillium Award and the Barnes and Noble’s Discover These New Writers Award, and Exile was shortlisted for the Governor-General’s Award and the Rogers/Writers Trust Award. She is a past president of PEN Canada and coordinates Ryerson University’s Chang School of Continuing Education, Writing Workshops department. She lives most of the time in Toronto and part of the time in Mexico.

 

 

May 102016
 

Nathan Currier

But since those first flutes were fashioned out of vulture bones several tens of thousands of years ago, all music has intrinsically spoken to our interaction with Nature around us, and our Anthropocene era is defined by a cataclysmic pulse signal being fed into the whole Earth System, caused by us – as stupid and dangerous an experiment as has ever been conducted. —Nathan Currier

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Nathan Currier (1960) is a contemporary composer whose work is both bracing and intimate. Talking to Currier, one is immediately captivated by the span of his attention, which takes in hundreds of years and generations of scholarly thought. The breadth of his intellectual passions would have been familiar to composers, musicians, writers and intellectuals of the late Romantic period. In our own time, one marked by rigid specialization across all professions that has many artists stuck in self-referential ironic loops, Currier is one of the relatively few artists addressing the issue of climate collapse in a thoughtful and serious manner. “Never before has classical music been so needed by humanity, and never before has it been deemed so superfluous,” he warns.

Currier has long studied the Gaian theory developed by James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis. This Earth Systems viewpoint is based in a holonic understanding that something is simultaneously a whole and a part of its system. His largest work to date is a full-scale oratorio, Gaian Variations, based in the Earth Systems perspective. Music is an holonic expression: individual tones (which each contain the full expression of harmonic overtones) and classical music, as a language in itself, offer the most effective medium by which to understand and transform our understanding of Earth Systems. Classical music is, Currier suggests, “a brilliant model and lesson for the human mind to better contemplate complex system dynamics …(one) which evolved almost as a continuous narrative expression of the inherent properties of the holonic harmonic series itself…”

In addition to Gaian Variations, Currier’s works include Hildegard’s Symphony a piano concerto, many works for solo instruments and chamber music. Currier is also a skilled pianist, awarded the Silver Medal in the International Piano Recording Competition in his early twenties for his performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. A long-term collaborative relationship with the harpist Marie-Pierre Langlamet, principal harpist of the Berlin Philharmonic, led to many chamber works written for harp, including Possum Wakes from Playing Dead, Thirty Little Pictures of Time Passing, and A Nursery Sleep. He’s also worked with the visual artist Suzan Woodruff; Looming Atmospheres takes the theme of Currier’s Gaian Variations and uses it as the basis for a painting-film. Currier studied at the Peabody School of Music, and the Juilliard School of Music, where he also taught for over ten years on their evening division faculty. His principal teachers have included David Diamond, Joseph Schwantner, Bernard Rands, Stephen Albert and Frederic Rzewski.

Currently, Currier (along with composers Samuel Zyman and Christopher James) is initiating a new concert series (The Orchard Circle series) that will take place in New York and Philadelphia, beginning Fall 2016. This series will highlight the music of early and mid-career classical musicians through work that Currier feels are too often overlooked. The core of the events will be a 90-minute performance held within a relaxed, convivial atmosphere.

Currier is the recipient of many prizes and awards, including the Rome Prize, a Guggenheim award, and the American Academy of Arts & Letters’ Academy Award, given for lifetime achievement in composition, as well as the National Endowment for the Arts, New York Foundation for the Arts, Fulbright, Fromm, Charles Ives, Barlow, and ASCAP awards.

I met Nathan around a decade ago, both of us attending a residency at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts in Amherst, VA. We struck up a friendship immediately, and it was with pleasure that I embarked upon this exchange of emails that resulted in the following interview.

Looming Atmospheres is a work of Nathan Currier and Suzan Woodruff that takes the theme of Currier’s Gaian Variations and uses it as the basis for a painting-film.

Carolyn Ogburn: Would you say something about the way you see the value of exploring environmental themes through music? You wrote vividly about holonic structuring in your essay, “Classical Music in the Anthropocene”. Can you talk about how this might be interpreted, musically?

Nathan Currier: Pitched sound inherently bids us to engage with Natural design, even if it is unconscious: the harmonic series means that all music always consists of parts and wholes sounding together, as each tone contains all pitch, and this deeply holonic structuring of music parallels many inspiring and mysterious aspects of the natural world around us. For example, the Neo-Darwinists have often liked to make it seem as though life’s amazing evolution on Earth = genes + random mutations + natural selection, given enough time. But this view has begun to seem like something of a joke. We have recently learned that huge amounts of genetic material – perhaps as much as 50% of our own human genomes – have been horizontally transferred; a single unit of selection seems almost silly among the multi-leveled holonic processes of life; and, at the highest level of such processes, the Neo-Darwinists themselves strenuously maintained for decades that our Natural selection-run world could never lead to global scale self-regulation, yet the Amsterdam Declaration on Global Change (signed by more than 1,000 scientists in 2001 under the aegis of the United Nations) begins by stating just that – that our planet acts as a single self-regulating system. Going back to the Pythagorians, music was always seen as somehow depicting fundamental laws of the universe, and I am essentially saying that this still holds true. But this current form of the old metaphor is little known, however, because Earth System science is not yet widely known.

For holonic structuring, I’m suggesting above that this doesn’t need musical interpretation – that it is always there. But of course, one could also add in conscious interpretation. My Dorothy’s Dinner is all about the work of Lynn Margulis, who was the great modern master of the workings of symbiosis, and one might say that the holonic structure of all life – the cellular organelles like the mitochondria inside our cells; the variegated cells in multicellular organisms like ourselves; organisms inside ecosystems; and the range of these nested inside the biosphere – ultimately stems from the symbiotic behaviors forced upon all organisms, and which was shown to be the source of the complex cells we are made of (Eukaryotic cells), where a process of engulfment (i.e., phagocytosis) creates this multi-tiered holonic quality at the level of single cells. It was in Margolis’ lab that I first saw footage of D. Discoidium, one of the marvels of nature, where 100,000, sometimes even a million, individual, single-celled organisms (they are Eukaryotes, and Protista) can, under the environmental stress of starvation or drought, come together and form a single organism with fully differentiated cells, making a slug that can walk off and find a better environment. Dorothy’s Dinner is for four actors and string quartet, and melds theatrical and musical elements to such a degree that I hope they become fully entangled into a single narrative, where the music employs all kinds of techniques that I see as reflections of holonic structure (again, keep in mind, harmony is inherently holonic), and the narrative concerns four old friends getting together for the first time in decades, entraining issues of group behavior, and climaxing when Dorothy, a retired biologist, shows her old friends this same footage I had seen – the coalescing of the ‘fruiting body’ out of an army of individuals, and the slug then moving off as one single organism.

To deal more generally with environmental themes in music, I think it’s vital first to correctly characterize “environmentalism,” and then to get meaningfully inside music history. I think this is the problem with current ecomusicology – it doesn’t, to my mind, work hard enough yet on either of these things, and so one quickly ends up with breezy talk of John Cage, R. Murray Schaefer and acoustic ecology, things which I confess I don’t personally see as central to music, ecology, or the environment. My essay Classical Music in the Anthropocene begins by trying to show that the largest late works of common practice period music were far more ecologically significant and timely than any such material, since Mahler’s two largest scores (the Third and Eighth symphonies) were entirely wrapped up with Haeckel, who coined the term ecology and adumbrated aspects of Earth System science. And consider that the passage just before Mahler starts his Faust setting in the Eighth gyrates eerily around the subject of geoengineering, a topic likely to be one of the most significant and contentious of the 21st century, although this passage was written by Goethe 150 years before the term geoengineering was first used. What does it mean, then, when composers tack on their conscious thoughts and feelings about something like environmental destruction, to a language that has always been speaking to us, albeit mostly unawares, about Nature’s operations? It depends on how it is done. I have read articles about works in which, say, someone records their footsteps walking on a glacier, and then manipulates this sound to create a “statement” about climate change. A cellist’s video of himself “playing” a graph of global climate change was passed around online a couple of years ago, with the cellist going up in pitch whenever the temperature graph went up – a link to this video was even sent to me by the Artistic Director of the American Composers Orchestra, as though there would somehow be interest in it for me because I am educated in climatology. If one could create interesting sounding pieces this way, it should still go without saying that such things have nothing much to do with their subject. The squiggles in the climate graph represent the chaos of any complex system, and are relatively uninteresting in themselves, but there is fascinating order in the climate system behind its noisy chaos, just as there is behind your own body’s chaos (your body also exhibits randomness in its diurnal temperature shifts, for example, despite its extreme thermoregulation).

Such talk about geoengineering brings one to the need of correctly characterizing ‘environmentalism’, since the environmental community has taken great pains to portray all geoengineering as evil or even crazy (leading up to the Copenhagen COP, hundreds of environmental groups even signed a declaration against the use of biochar, which is quite benign). At the time of Mahler, our current notion of the environment barely existed. One spoke of Nature. Environmentalism has been hugely positive for society as a whole, but its weaknesses are sitting right there in the reductive word itself: by definition, you aren’t the environment that surrounds you, and this lack of inclusion breeds a lack of agency. Agency is lacking not just for humanity, but for life itself, in this mindset. Consider the opening sentences (after the initial fable) of Carson’s Silent Spring (my italics added):

The history of life on Earth has been a history of interaction between living things and their surroundings. To a large extent, the physical form and the habits of the Earth’s vegetation and its animal life have been molded by the environment. Considering the whole span of earthly time, the opposite effect, in which life actually modifies its surroundings, has been relatively slight.

Only three years after that was written, just one year after Carson’s own untimely death (in 1964), James Lovelock had the first intuition of what would become Gaia theory (commonly referred to as Earth System science today). Now we know that virtually everything present in our atmosphere is a direct product or strongly modulated by life. Lynn Margulis, who developed Gaia theory with Lovelock, would say that all organisms ineluctably alter their environments (through waste, respiration, etc.), and that the sum of those alterations is Gaia.

Gaia might have been able to provide the missing link between our actual current understanding of the planet, and our expressions concerning it through culture and the arts. Earth System science is a term that began to be used at NASA in the early 1980s (a NASA committee called ESSC, the Earth System Science Committee, was formed in 1983 and put out a couple of large reports) which takes the concepts of global scale self-regulation that Lovelock and Margulis had initiated a decade earlier (and which they had called the Gaia hypothesis), but using a more neutral language without any baggage of culture or metaphor. In a way, it has been a tragedy of public relations: the name Gaia was only too loved by New Age enthusiasts, as it still is, while being despised by the Neo-Darwinists, Richard Dawkins labeling it “bad poetic science.” Unsurprisingly, the language of Earth System science has not communicated itself to the broader public or impacted our culture at all. But the oldest musical instrument known was found a few feet from the earliest Goddess figurine, and perhaps there really is something deep about allowing those layers of metaphor to sit on top of the recent revolutions in the geo- and life sciences.

If Gaia theory had not been so disparaged, I suspect that environmentalism, the broader culture, and consequently the planet itself, would all be in a better state today. Of course, I was trying to counter these problems with my largest work, an oratorio called Gaian Variations, which aimed both to introduce people to Gaia theory and also to contextualize it, depicting it as a natural historical outgrowth of Darwinism and the Earth sciences. (CO: Currier’s Gaian Variations premiered in 2004 at Avery Fisher Hall by the Brooklyn Philharmonic, but was interrupted midway when the orchestra members walked out, claiming they were headed into overtime. The oratorio has yet to be performed in full.)

Heralding the Anthropocene by Nathan Currier

CO: How do you think about the structural framework of your craft? Do you think that a comparison might be made to the work you do as a composer to the conceptual work done by an architect? For both, it seems, rely on wordless language, deep understanding of structure (or, as it might be, theory) that goes beyond the individual “piece”…

NC: In musical structure, I feel as though much of what happens is far too sensitive to be likened to architectural structure, and such musical structure therefore needs to coalesce through iterative process, rather than come about through design and forethought. I am speaking from my own personal experience as a composer, but I also mean this as a general rule, both for the final form of a given composition, say Wagner’s Tristan, and for the slow evolution of musical structures themselves – take something like the gradual coalescing in classical music of what eventually became “sonata form”. So, it’s more like the emerging structure of a city, the result of iterative processes of daily life being lived, than like the planned architecture of a building.

Someone who was always very important to me from the standard repertory as concerns musical structure, right from the time that I started composing seriously, was Schumann, who I felt left many hanging threads for future composers. He was able to increase the narrative quality of musical language in his larger piano cycles, and a key part of his toolbox was, I believe, disunity. Charles Rosen wrote, that the return near the end of Davidsbundlertanze was, “a genuine return of the past – not a formal return, or a recapitulation, but a memory.” I would agree, but to me the most interesting thing is the means by which he achieved this new kind of return, which was a high degree of disunity in the variegated material between the first version of the b minor material its return. Growing up, I noticed how Schumann’s works were often considered structurally weak in the critical community, which I considered to show a lack of understanding. Needless to say, all this fit in neatly with my later scientific interests. Consider how in Lynn Margulis’ work symbiosis is elevated to a primary driving force of biological evolution. Remember that symbiosis means “living together”, in all its infinite shades of meaning, from the casual acquaintances of organisms that randomly hit up against each other, to the coalescing of the key elements of cellular structure through endosymbiosis, such that every cell with “your DNA” is itself a chimera made up of elements of what were various free-living bacteria billions of years ago. In any case, even in my teens many of my works were designed after Schumann’s, with series of interlinked short movements, perhaps in a way analogous to (Gyorgy) Kurtag, another living composer who also has written about Schumann as an inspiration for his many series of short interrelated movements.

CO: You grew up within a musical family (Currier is the son of Robert Currier, a violist and Marilyn Kind Currier, a composer; his brother is Sebastian Currier, also an acclaimed composer). What was that like, and how do you think it’s shaped your own work?

NC: There is no question but that it was vastly important to me to have grown up in a family full of composers, which I think has shaped me in all kinds of ways I am only partly aware of. One way in which I am different from many composers I know is that I am less interested in what I would call ‘productivity maximization’. Perhaps it is an outgrowth of having lived among other composers, that I see a moral responsibility to not over produce, a kind of compositional ‘Planned Parenthood.” Almost every “professional” composer I know has written far more than Mahler, although Mahler towers over the late common practice repertory…. That said, I confess that right now I would really like to be composing far more than I have for a while!

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CO: I know you’ve been excited about the upcoming launch of the Orchard Circle concert series, a kind of “midtown revival,” of the aesthetic middle. Can you talk to me more about that?

NC: I am currently involved in starting up a series of new music concerts in New York City (and Philadelphia) to be called Orchard Circle, starting this coming November. It has gotten me listening to a lot of my colleagues’ works again, and there is certainly no shortage of creativity of all kinds going on today. Yet the series represents only one slice of the whole aesthetic pie, focused on the middle of things, and we are particularly interested in eschewing predominant trends, things like so-called “post-classical” music, the current Brooklyn-based emphasis on pop culture, and other features that typify the current scene.

CO: How much do you think of how your work will be heard as you write? Do you actively seek to either to reflect existing perceptions, or to disrupt them, perhaps to disturb something fundamentally unquestioned in the listener? Or, do you think of it in some other way entirely?

NC: I don’t personally try to either reflect or defy common perceptions, and have to admit that I am not very good about keeping the listener in mind once I am involved in composing something, unless I could be considered “the listener”. But I am sure that time changes everything, including our perceptions, so I don’t see what the value is of thinking of current listeners as opposed to difficult-to-predict future ones. And I think that we need to be very future-oriented right now, about our planet, our society, and our aesthetics. When I ask other composers about the future, I realize that most have rather little concern for it, and for some that is even a matter of pride, after a century of modernists claiming that someday, “the milkman would whistle Webern’s tunes.” Personally, regardless of the errors of the modernists, I see it as a matter of morality to work and live as though still believing in some future, perhaps akin to Mahler’s “my time will come!” attitude. This despite the fact that I know far more climatology than colleagues, and so know with certainty that New York City, where I am now living, is already doomed (the West Antarctic Ice Sheet has begun its slow collapse, the grounding line around the chief Amundsen Sea outlet glaciers have reached the so-called ‘retrograde bed’, and this will be an unstoppable process) along with all the world’s other vulnerable coastal cities.

It is hard to fathom what perceptions of us and our creations will be, given the utterly unprecedented nature of what is underway, and at times it all feels so overwhelming that I wonder if I will be able to continue, and at such moments I often feel an immense envy of those happy colleagues who are able to ignorantly concentrate on their personal “careers”.

The Simon Bolivar Orchestra playing Mvt. 1, Of Moisture and Greenness, from Hildegard’s Symphony by Nathan Currier, with Marie-Pierre Langlamet, harp solo, and Cesar Ivan Lara conducting. Premiered in Caracas, Venezuela, June 1, 2012.

CO: Earlier, you were talking about the misunderstandings of environmentalism. Can you say more about how this interacts with how you see classical music as a medium for thinking about our climate, um, challenges?

NC: Classical music is unique in the degree to which it injects a non-repetitive, one-way arrow of narrative time, and this is of supreme value if people are to contemplate time and the future. Further, counterpoint is an invention of classical music, and its complex multi-temporality is exactly what one needs to consider something like the climate system, so I do see classical music as a perfect cultural object through which to consider the irreversible large-scale climate changes underway.

Unfortunately, traditional environmentalism is still stuck in its old pre-Gaian mode, with real consequences, and anything that could shake up this situation through music would probably be good for music, and would certainly be good for the planet. Think of how today an issue like nuclear energy plays an important role in peoples’ voting – take the German election of 2011, or Bernie Sanders’ call for a U.S. moratorium on nuclear plants – but people have no adequate way of making intelligent energy choices until they begin to understand the Earth System in time. For example, wind energy manipulates a vitally active part of the Earth System – atmospheric circulation – and leaves an imprint upon it, changing the vertical mixing of the lower atmosphere, and warming the surface downwind of turbines. That does not mean we should disparage wind energy. I suspect that wind farming, however, will end up like fishing: there is a huge amount of protein in the sea, but you just can’t sustainably harvest much of it, and we have begun to learn this the hard way, with the global oceans already in a dire state. We can greatly expand our use of wind energy over the present, of course, but that doesn’t mean that it can or should supply a very large part of global energy, and the issue with wind probably won’t be whether you can get 10TW, 60TW or even 200TW out of it, as some argue: rather, I suspect it will be whether the overharvesting of wind resources offshore of California will further stress the storm tracks coming to the Sierra Nevada, imperiling U.S. agriculture, or whether lots of turbines around the UK and Scotland could actually start to impact the “tip jets” around southern Greenland, probably vital for the descending plumes of dense saline water needed for Atlantic meridional overturning circulation, which will already be under increasing stress from Greenland freshwater input and warming generally. Indeed, in the end, large scale wind harvesting will be akin to geoengineering, and indeed is a form of it, one which counteracts changes in atmospheric chemistry wrought by prior forms of energy, substituting them with a different form of energy that alters atmospheric dynamics instead. I think that wind power (along with other mild forms of geoengineering) needs to be part of the mix, but my guess is that it won’t reach much beyond 10% of total global energy before economic/environmental considerations halt its growth. That implies, of course, vast hypocrisy on the part of the environmental movement, which scorns both geoengineering and nuclear energy while advocating for wind. And today more and more ‘Big Green’ groups embrace Mark Jacobson’s plans for powering the world with >50% of all energy coming from wind turbines, which could well prove highly problematic (some peer reviewed material from Harvard and the Max Plank Institute, published by PNAS, suggests Jacobson’s way of calculating wake turbulence produce wind density figures that might be 400% of practically achievable levels), and in the end will just prolong dependence on fossil fuels for decades more than necessary, with terrible consequences.

Thus, when one considers the Earth System viewpoint and the huge price we will pay for not following it, in part because of erroneously framed “environmentalist” perceptions, and when one also considers how a brilliant model and lesson for the human mind to better contemplate complex system dynamics is classical music – which evolved almost as a continuous narrative expression of the inherent properties of the holonic harmonic series itself – it brings one to a surprising conclusion: never before has classical music been so needed by humanity, and never before has it been deemed so superfluous, with many claiming it already dead amid today’s pop culture triumphalism.

But since those first flutes were fashioned out of vulture bones several tens of thousands of years ago, all music has intrinsically spoken to our interaction with Nature around us, and our Anthropocene era is defined by a cataclysmic pulse signal being fed into the whole Earth System, caused by us – as stupid and dangerous an experiment as has ever been conducted. So I think there primarily needs to be a vast increase in education about what the “environment” really is and how it really works, and then both conscious and unconscious applications of all that to the art of music in its totality.

—Nathan Currier & Carolyn Ogburn

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Carolyn Ogburn

Carolyn Ogburn lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina where she takes on a variety of worldly topics from the quiet comfort of her porch. Her writing can be found in the Asheville Poetry Review, the Potomac Review, the Indiana Review, and more. A graduate of Oberlin Conservatory and NC School of the Arts, she writes on literature, autism, music, and disability rights. She is completing an MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and is at work on her first novel.

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Mar 012016
 

Ivan Seng

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Ivan Seng is an astonishingly gifted classical pianist and composer based in Asheville, North Carolina. His concert recitals reflect his wide-ranging interests: Bach, Shostakovich, Chopin, Haydn, Mendelsohn, Prokofiev; as well as contemporaries such as composer Kenneth Frazelle, with whom Seng has partnered in concert many times.

He’s a North Carolina native, traveling from his home in Boone to study with Clifton Matthews at UNC School of the Arts in Winston-Salem as a boy, then attending the school’s prestigious residential high school program. He left NC to attend Oberlin Conservatory of Music, where he worked with Joseph Schwartz and Sanford Margolis, and returned to Winston-Salem for graduate study, where he studied composition with Michael Rothkopf in addition to his continued study with Matthews. Seng has won numerous regional awards in both solo and chamber performance, including the College Chamber Music Competition, and was selected to perform in the Asheville Rising Stars concert series. He frequently collaborates with the ensemble Pan Harmonia and other chamber ensembles. When he talks, he bears an air of slight preoccupation, paired with a laser-sharp attention. He’s got a youthful appearance, but speaks as a old-fashioned professor: not in powerpoint bullets but in penciled phrases that are frequently, beautifully, revised mid-clause.

Seng’s compositional interests are deeply immersed in mathematics, in which he finds description of the natural patterns of the universe. Like one of his major influences, the post-World War II composer Iannis Xenakis, who was among the first to use computer programs to compose music, Seng draws his compositional forms not from classical constraints, but through mathematical formulas. As Seng says, “I think it is important to have an emotional relation to these concepts, because it is the universe that we live in. We do live in a universe that’s not ordered. It’s not planetary spheres that orbit each other, in these very harmonious patterns. The heavens are not ordered.”

Xenakis was composing during a time ruptured by two world wars and the rise of totalitarianism in his own country, as well as the hugely influential compositional development that was serialism. Today’s rupture is both social and environmental, and Seng is one of the composers addressing climate collapse in his compositions.

Seng doesn’t talk about himself easily or often, but he graciously agreed to spend several afternoons discussing his compositional process with me following a concert performance of his work, part of a series of house concerts together with other electronic music composers in Asheville. The room had been dimly lit when Ivan took the stage. He explained that he would be premiering five works done using the SuperCollider programming language, gestured to the laptop whose screen was turned to the wall.  He inclined his head, as if taking the pulse of the room, and pressed a button on the computer.

Play.

Sounds fell from the screen, single tones, stretched, extended. Clusters, then, a barrage, then – silence. Despite no apparent sense of structure – there was no sign of a theme, no underlying motif to hold these sounds together – there was, nevertheless, a sense of unity to his music. Someone commented, after it was finished, “It was if it were raining, on a tin roof, and the roof receives the rain in a different way, every drop.”

Changes in the musical texture occur in sudden bursts and at a fairly rapid pace. Each burst affects only one musical feature at a time, such as speed, density, tone color, shape, or movement of sound. These happen in fairly rapid succession, and at unpredictable intervals of time.


Carolyn Ogburn:
 It seems to me that being a composer must be in some way like being an architect – well, I was thinking Xenakis, and of course that was his background. He didn’t even study traditional counterpoint and harmony, right? Because he was about 30 when he came to Paris, started working with Le Courbousier as an engineer and draftsman.  Then he tried to find a composition teacher – He tried to study with Nadia Boulanger, and she was like, Nah, I got no time for you – here you are, a 30-year-old beginner, and I’m Nadia Boulanger… so then he finally found Messiaen.

Ivan Seng: I think it was incredibly insightful of Messiaen [not to make Xenakis learn counterpoint.] Xenakis had a lot of mathematical training and a lot of drafting skills. His graphic abilities were incredible. So I think that Messiaen realized that he [Xenakis] could use all the skills he already knew – they were unique, not many musicians had these skills, why force everyone into the traditional mode?

CO: Would you call that modernism?

IS: Yeah! Well, maybe. A late stage of it. We had Schoenberg and Webern and Stravinsky; that was the high point of modernism. Then you’ve got the post-World War II serialism, and (those composers) all studied counterpoint. Boulez was brilliant at counterpoint, traditional tonal counterpoint. You can definitely see influences of contrapuntal thinking in his music. How these out-of-control multiple voices can be moving at the same time. It’s very similar to how they would do it in the Renaissance. I mean the intervals – were maybe not the same [laughing]… He doesn’t choose the consonant intervals as often as he does the dissonant intervals.

Xenakis doesn’t approach it that way. He  actually was very critical of the serialist composers and the kind of complete – the total serialist, and serialism in general. He bases his music on very different principles. Sometimes it sounds similar, but what he realized, basically, is that when you take music to that level of complexity we just can’t hear those tone rows anyway. Basically, his criticism was if you have, if it’s that dissonant, that complex, our ability to follow voices – we hear scattered voices, chaotic and kind of random – we don’t connect it.

CO: Because it’s too complex for us to process?

IS: I think they took complexity to such an extreme… I mean, in Bach, everything is controlled in such a way that you can hear the top voice responding to a bass voice; there’s many things you can pick up with your ear, and with your mind. With Boulez, maybe the low voice will be doing this [waving hand above his head] and the top voice will be doing this [waving the other hand about his waist], and so how can you actually process the differences?

So what ends up happening is that you don’t hear two voices; you hear the combined texture, or mass, of notes. I think Xenakis liked the sound of that but he realized that there’s really no point in having all [those] complex structures behind the scenes that you can’t – they’re not audible at all – so why bother creating those structures? Why not just deal immediately with surfaces. So he uses mathematics to do that. So now rather than using 12-tone rows in patterns, becoming so complex you can’t hear them anymore, he just uses mathematical formulas,  and creates the same kinds of structures. But there’s nothing to listen FOR in them.

See, you always feel like, in Schoenberg, you’re supposed to be hearing something, but you just can’t quite… get it. Unless you study the score, you can’t really hear it. I don’t know that I’ve ever sat down and listened to Schoenberg, and been like, “Oh I heard The Row!” Except if it’s completely isolated…

CO: Otherwise you’ve got to find it through visual interpretation of the score?

IS: Yes. I mean, sometimes Schoenberg will make a row into an obvious theme and maybe, after one or two listenings, you can recognize the theme. It’s not easy, and maybe you can hear one or two variations… but most of the time you don’t really. You hear shapes and patterns emerging, but you don’t hear that background structure of the row.

But with Xenakis, it’s not even there.  You don’t even bother trying to hear those patterns. You listen to the overall texture, and globally where it’s going.  Like, is this texture gradually becoming more dense? Like maybe it starts sparsely, and then you can hear this building of density, it gradually starts to collect notes and becomes more dense. You can hear [everything you need to].

Random Walk X Winter Solstice: The changes have become smoother. Instead of sudden bursts, each musical parameter undergoes nearly continuous transition from one state to another.

CO: What you’re describing feels very visual, very textural, like a sweater pattern or something. Like, not all that auditory? Or, am I missing something?

IS: It’s actually completely auditory. It’s based on all kinds of mathematical principles and formulas. But I think what [Xenakis] really wanted to do was emulate the laws of nature. Like say you go out on a hike and you see a geological formation that’s been sculpted by many forces over time, and it creates this overall impression of complexity –

CO: And unity?

IS: Perhaps… but I don’t know if these kinds of formulas create unity. That has to come from a sort of intuitive sense of the entire shape of the piece. It’s not formulaic. He uses formulas to create local texture – he wants to keep human patterns out of the immediate surface.  Humans tend to create a certain kind of order. You can look at this room, and see there’s certain kinds of shapes that humans prefer. He wants to keep that out. He wants it to be like – in the natural world there’s a certain complexity – we don’t naturally produce that.

CO: I want to ask you more about the pieces at the concert the other night. The Random Walk pieces. Like, I really want to know about that name, for instance. But also, you said they were composed using a SuperCollider software program?

IS: Yes, but it’s not a software program. It’s actually a programming language, designed for sound synthesis. I don’t know if it has anything to do with the other [the large particle accelerator] or not.

CO: So, basically, the composer sets parameters for what sounds the computer will produce, and then presses ‘play’. And, if he ever wants to hear that same piece a second time, he simultaneously presses ‘record’; for if he does not, neither he nor anyone else will ever hear that piece again. It’s completely ephemeral, not unlike a live performance of any other improvised piece of music.

IS:  Pressing the ‘record’ button also will slightly alter the parameters as well in ways that are unpredictable.

CO: And then there’s the title of these pieces – Random Walk. I was really surprised by that. It’s unpredictable, but can you really say it’s random? Because, it seems to me that these compositions are anything but random. You – as the composer – put in the parameters, you decide each element, and if you don’t like the result, you can immediately delete it. It’s almost like you have total control at the very beginning and at the end, while in the middle, the computer runs through the patterns in ways that only math can interpret.

IS:  Well, random walk is a mathematical term. It comes from Brownian motion. Do you remember the story of the guy [botanist Robert Brown] who was looking though his microscope at tiny particles in water. He saw these particles and he saw them bouncing around – he saw that these particles were following this completely random motion, Brownian motion – and I think it’s how they realized that there were atoms, because it ended up being that these atoms were bouncing off of these small little particles and it was pushing the particles around… So if we took a very basic motion… say you have a 3-sided die, marked 0-1-2, and each number correlates to a particular movement.  And [your particle, or sound, in its own placement is affected by the dictates of the die] and you start at a certain number, 0, and you can go up a step or down a step. But it’s unpredictable.

CO: But you cannot predict which direction the die will dictate. And that’s only one example, right? One aspect of the piece, like pitch or duration?

IS:  Right.

CO: So, the title is supposed to evoke…?

IS:  It’s a random walk through a parameter space. By parameter space, I mean it’s multidimensional – each parameter you add, adds a dimension. So pitch, duration are 2 dimensions. And you could move through that space in this random walk – but it’s really like 28–29 dimensional space at this point. So imagine this random walk not just going through 2-dimensional space, but 28–29 dimensions. That’s where the title comes from. I mean, really what these pieces are, they’re sketches. Then my intention is to go on to develop pieces where I have chosen [more definitively]…

CO: But these sketches, they’re wonderful. What do you like better?

IS:  That’s  a complicated question. I sometimes think that the complete – the computer doesn’t have any kind of preconceptions, about what should happen next. So sometimes things will happen that I would never have thought of, or I would not have thought would be interesting. and I really like it. It sounds fresh, and new.

I think that’s why I do it. It lets me know what can happen in this sound world that I’ve created without any of my own preconceptions – although they always seep in. For instance, before I press that play button, if I choose a scale – well, that’s already decided something. The scale has already altered the sound of the piece. And so that’s one thing. I can give it certain… I can choose specific [how would you put it?] states. Let’s take volume, for instance. I can say choose between this volume and this volume, and so now it has two choices.  Then I can say, well, there’s a 75 percent probability that it will choose this volume and a 25 percent it will choose this one and so now I’ve made another decision.

But another example is, for instance, let’s take density – I could say, let’s start the whole piece very low density and gradually, toward the end, climax at maximum density, but it creates a shape that you can see already.

In some sense I’m letting the computer pick them but of course I’m telling the computer what to do – basically, I give it boundaries to work in and then I kind of let it go. I also tell it the rate of change – so it might change, on average, once every 40 seconds. So one parameter is volume. So I give it a center volume, for a certain amount of time, and then it changes. It could change in exactly one second [but that’s not likely] or it could change in – well, there’s a very small probability that it would sustain for one year, but the probability is so small that it never happens.

CO: I was struck by the way you just pressed “play” on your computer the other night, and sat down. If you listen to the pieces online, you know that there are five pieces, because they’re visually separated on the website. But you didn’t want to separate them?

IS:  Well, I did put in pauses. It might not have been obvious enough. I think it was kind of obvious when a piece ended, but maybe not. I guess it’s a little like chapters in a book.

I could have talked in between but I would have had to get up in time to stop it and I didn’t want to do that… I didn’t want anyone looking at the computer. I turned that away.

CO: Because when you see the “playlist” you can definitely tell when it’s changing from one piece to the next, and absent that, you – or, I, at any rate, found myself inserting my own structure. Like, oh, there’s this sustained note, or this consonance. That must be a punctuation of some sort. But, you know, maybe not?

IS:  Yes, but really, I was thinking more about the – the visual. For instance, in terms of visual, you know [the pianist] Sviatoslav Richter? Later in life, he became more eccentric – and he performed in the dark, with a lamp, and there was no other light in the auditorium. There was more focus on the listening. We’re so visually oriented that we tend to watch performers rather than listen to music.  So, I think one of the things I didn’t want was for the computer screen to be a distraction. Maybe to become more aware of sounds and less dependent on visual cues. I’ve been less and less interested in the visual aspects of musical performance, in general.

Ivan Seng in concert

I think we can if we hone in on auditory information, I want people to start having the kinds of sensitivity that a blind person might have to sound. I want that kind of attention to the sound rather than gesticulations. When a person is up there – you’re always trying to find some kind of correspondence between the visual and the auditory information. It’s interesting to see what happens when you let go of that a little bit.

CO: Density is a word that comes up a lot in our conversations here, and it’s not – well, that’s not a word often used in talking about music, in general. But it’s, you know, it’s exactly the right word for this, I think.

From dense masses of notes emerge structures that soon unravel again into chaos.

IS:  And with electronic music, it can get pretty dense! Hundreds of sounds per second.

CO: There’s no way to actually hear each sound, not in any way that you can actually interpret. So, there’s density, and there’s sound. I couldn’t help but feel like I was hearing articulation of instruments at times. There were some sounds that were less articulated, almost flute-like, and then others that sounded almost plucked. Did you do that on purpose?

IS:  When it sounds like an instrument, that’s a byproduct of the process I’m using. It’s not intentional. What was intentional was I wanted to take whatever sounds I had and through manipulating the envelope create lots of variety, and also distinct groups of sound – I mean, with huge masses of sound – I wanted some to – like if you see a flock of birds in the air, and they’re all the same kind of bird, there’s a kind of similarity. I wanted to create similarities that would create flocks of notes.

And also transitions, mutations, where you hear these dense masses of notes that gradually they change sound into something else.

CO: The envelope? Did you just say, manipulating the envelope? That’s a great phrase.

IS:  [laughs] Yes, well, it refers to setting certain parameters of sound, attack, sustain, decay… I wanted to manipulate the envelope – or, rather, the program was manipulating the envelope – to create as much variety as I could.

CO: So like when you program your algorithm, it’s possible that a note could sustain for over a year, but it’s just not likely.

IS:  Right.

CO: Because of the laws of probability?

IS:  Let me give you an example. The other night, there was a geologist talking about history of the earth, about huge climatic extinctions and meteors hitting the earth – that’s a perfect example, meteors. There’s hundreds or thousands of tiny objects that hit the earth every year. It’s something very frequent. Something not so significant happens a lot at a high frequency. And then larger, maybe 100-foot, objects hit much less frequently, only every decade or so. And then there’s objects the size of Mount Everest. And those hit like every 65 million years or so. But you never know – it’s possible that two could happen very close together. It’s just not likely.

Giant meteorites could hit us and we have these formulas that could tell us when these giant meteors could hit us but they can’t tell us with any certainty. They can tell us one every 60 million years but we don’t really know…. We live in a very dangerous universe. We can make all these predictions, but we can’t have certainty.  So that I think that informs the music. Especially with the issues we have in climate change.

We’re living in a giant exponential curve at the moment. Carbon parts per million in the atmosphere are growing exponentially. We feel it. Population is exploding exponentially. We do have an emotional connection with these things.  We are living in these forms as we speak. We can pretend that we’re living in a static form all we want, but we’re not.

—Ivan Seng & Carolyn Ogburn

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Carolyn Ogburn

Carolyn Ogburn lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina where she takes on a variety of worldly topics from the quiet comfort of her porch. Her writing can be found in the Asheville Poetry Review, the Potomac Review, the Indiana Review, and more. She writes on literature, autism, music, and disability rights. She is completing an MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and is at work on her first novel.

Ivan Seng photographs by stephen houseworth photography

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Jan 082016
 

SllimTwigcroppedlomo

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Slip along the alleyway then down several steps to the basement door. Enter the musicians’ cave in east end Toronto, a well ordered small apartment featuring floor to ceiling shelves of LPs, books, speakers, record player, and an electronic keyboard. Hiccup of time travel; for a moment I feel it’s 1976 and I’m visiting a pal in one of those Vancouver basement apartments we all lived in.

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Except it’s 2015 and Slim Twig (aka Max Turnbull) is very much a man of the day, maybe the hour. We live in an era when time collapses, and musicians freely pluck from the past, present and future.

A record rotates on the turntable, playing something spacey, jazz inflected. The ceiling is low and there is a distinct lack of windows. The faint whiff of incense is familiar. Sandalwood? Max, being tall and slim, just about brushes his head against the ceiling. A small wooden table with a pair of chairs, perfectly scaled for the space,reminds me that he shares this cozy apartment with his wife, musician Meg Remy (aka U.S. Girls) and that she is currently on tour. Max is about to head off for Europe for his own Slim Twig tour, with bandmates Simone Tisshaw-Baril on drums; Anthony Nemit on lead guitar; Carolyn Bezic on bass and vocals (and on last month’s U.S.A. tour, Tim Westberg on vocals and bass) to promote the new album: Thanks for Stickin’ with Twig. I’ve been listening to the record all week, falling into its sonic spell.

Max works with heavy distortion and fuzz, saturated in old-school psychedelia. Why disguise his voice this way? “I’m reticent about singing more plainly,’ he says. ‘Authenticity is not what I’m trying to do.’ He notes that ‘even the Dylan/Neil Young singer/songwriter voice is a projection. Playing yourself is a sort of persona.’ David Bowie, a man who’s been known to switch gears and image frequently, comes up as an influence.

Turnbull has been playing with personae since the beginning of his career, launching himself with a record of his own songs while still a teenager. The ‘Slim Twig’ name appears on that early disk and when I ask if the name, chosen so long ago, has become a burden, he allows that it would have made sense to switch to another name two records back, when his sound matured and changed radically. Reviewers of early records noted rockabilly elements, and indeed, he once wore pointy toed shoes and a pompadour hair stye. The music press can be literal; one can’t help but notice that some writers took Slim Twig to be a neo-rockability artist, which he never was. The gig was always about appropriating elements of genre, mashing styles and sonic impulses, to create something new. You never would have mistaken Twig for Carl Perkins, redux.

If he sported a goatee, he’d look like a young Frank Zappa.

SlimTwig2tunred

When I spoke to him, Max’s fall North American tour had just wound up and he was prepping for a European tour in December. Max had been apprehensive going into American tour, for the usual reasons: would the audiences be dispiritingly small? How would the logistics work? He and his bandmates couch surf or bunk together in motel rooms on the road. ‘But I was on a positivity trip, realizing that I was doing exactly what I want to be doing, playing my own music and performing.’ There was the sense of a ‘direct mission’ in each day: travel/setup/performing. Mind you, the trip wasn’t without stress; en route to the border on the first day, Simone, the drummer, realized she’d scooped up her roommate’s passport by mistake. Turn the van around three hours’ in.

The concern about attracting small crowds is legitimate: Turnbull has attracted a good deal of attention and press in his career (he’s barely 27 years old), and he’s been prolific (half a dozen records of his own and multiple production credits and playing with other bands) yet he admits that ‘because each record is so stylistically different, it’s hard to create a fan base. It feels like with each album I start at square one.’ He confesses to feeling daunted by the prospect of ‘what my life will look like in years to come, how I’ll squeeze out a living.’ He’s frugal in his living habits, and allows that ‘the music is a consolation for that frugality.’ He says this in a straight-forward way, not a hint of whining. He is surrounded by the objects he loves; his family lives a block away in the Bain Co-Op where he was raised; and his cinderblock elementary school sits on its asphalt playground just down the road.

Turnbull composes by finding the ‘cracks between styles, forming a patchwork aesthetic–rather than making something in an established tradition’. He ‘composts’ diverse influences. A voracious consumer of music from the past and present, he allows that he’s a bit of a ‘Dad rocker’ pulling sounds from the 60‘s and 70‘s (Beatles –especially Rubber Soul and Revolver; Frank Zappa; David Bowie). There is a certain wry humour in his tone, because while he may appropriate elements of style from half a century ago, the sound he ends up with is less homage and closer to being newer -than-new, at least to my ears. In the current album, ‘I try to make music that is era ambiguous.’

What about the song on ‘Thanks for Stickin’ With Twig’ featuring a chorus that admonishes: ‘Live in Your Era.’ Kind of a joke, given the fact the song references the past throughout. There’s a meta thing going on in Twig’s music and if the listener is well versed in music of the present and of earlier decades, she’ll have fun recognizing the bits of composted material. I give in to the slowed-down drone voice, the fillips of pop, crashing metal, the parody of stoner state of mind. Which brings me to – what about this ‘stoner’ thing, in songs that embrace fuzz, distortion, repetition, not to mention the verse ‘stoned out of my mind’ ? Not exactly a subtle presentation.

‘I’ve cultivated the image playfully,’ Max insists. ‘I wasn’t involved with stoner culture in my teens, and in my 20’s weed has an impact on how I experience music.’ He aims to ‘create music that takes in that experience without having to smoke’ – by offering a ‘heightened atmosphere.’ ‘I don’t want to be a spokesperson for drug use,’ he hastens to say, ‘but it’s a valuable resource, a certain phrase can be heard in a different mode or perspective. Drugs can be a crutch, but useful.’ This is sounding sort of medicinal. He continues: ‘The poet, James Merrill would write a poem while sober, smoke, and different things would pop up.‘ Later, I look up a Paris Review interview with the eminent poet and discover that he used the Ouija board as a collaborator in his writing. Merrill adds this comment: “I do now and then take a puff of grass, or a crumb of Alice Toklas fudge, when I’ve reached the last drafts of a poem. That’s when you need X-ray eyes to see what you’ve done, and the grass helps. Some nice touches can fall into place.”

What you’ll hear in Twig’s new record, as well as in earlier work, is a fervent impulse towards sonic experimentation. I’m reminded of of the Nihilist Spasm Band, the group of London, Ontario artists who formed a noise band back in the ’60’s, in the way Twig samples and pushes unabashedly into the fringes of what music is, or could be. This is often challenging for the listener. One wouldn’t call Twig a tunesmith, though tunes lurk. On-line reviews approach the music from all angles, some as ranting unbelievers, and others as die-hard fans, eager to go along for the ride. Some writers find his work pretentious and overblown. Max himself confesses to ‘a sense of entitlement in my early 20’s. Now I’m humbled by being a musician trying to earn a living.’ A cranky Pitchfork review of the new album concludes, ‘But in Slim Twig’s incessant and overbearing winks to the camera, he’s lost sight of his own potential.’ Exclaim.ca is more willing to listen with open ears: ‘This gloriously woozy record is era-ambiguous and the sonic equivalent of a contact high.’

Let’s not overdo the stoner aspect; Turnbull is a perfectionist, deep in there with his ten thousand hours of painstaking effort. Being a Leo, ‘I’ve always liked to be the boss and show off. It’s helpful (in this line of work) to have a healthy ego and at the same time be aware of it.’ When he steps on stage ‘I feel I adopt something beyond my everyday personality. It’s supposed to be outrageous and confrontational; you’re expected to go beyond yourself.’ He shrugs. ‘It’s not that hard; I have an aptitude.’ I’ve seen him perform, long limbs thrashing as he takes over the stage, a nod to his rocker predecessors.

In earlier days he held a more ‘antagonistic attitude towards guitar playing,’ being more inclined to electronic experimentation. Now he feels that he can use the traditional setup of guitar/keyboards and drums. ‘ My taste has become less standoffish and punky. I’m old fashioned in that I like to bend convention but still create work that is sturdily made.’

Clickety click, the needle comes to the end of the record and Max reaches to flip it over.

The importance of visuals and video in Twig’s work can be explained by his upbringing. His parents, Ross Turnbull and Jennifer Hazel are writer/filmmakers and this was a family whose life ‘revolved around a constant engagement with culture. They were keen on us experiencing things together as a family unit; they took to parenting in a creative way — my sister (Lulu Hazel Turnbull, age 22) and I are pieces that my mother fostered.’

This is also a family that I’ve known, on and off, for over twenty years. I recall Jennifer telling me that the crew would hunker down in front of the VCR to watch what were clearly ‘adult’ movies, by artists like David Lynch. From the get-go, the kids were plunged into the world of art and film and literature. Max notes that his mother ‘spent the amount of time that a writer might have spent writing, on raising her children.’ He understands the sacrifice. Slim Twig music videos tend to be family affairs, directed by parents, starring Jennifer and LuLu, as well as Max. They are avant garde, tiny movies, complete unto themselves, and don’t reference the music in any literal way. Max has scored a couple of his parents’ feature length movies, and starred as lead actor in Sight Unseen.

When I ask about his acting career, Max is diffident. ‘Acting is a mechanism to make money. I don’t like auditioning and being on set, though I do like working on interesting stuff, like Sight Unseen and Dog Pound (where he played a juvenile inmate). He played Billy Zero in The Tracey Fragments, a film starring Ellen Page.

‘I’m a bit of a late bloomer,’ Max allows, referring to the fact he just left the family nest a year or so ago. ‘Meeting Meg turned my whole world over. I wouldn’t be as advanced in my music if I hadn’t met her. She’s a huge catalyst. And I think that me taking her seriously as an artist has been huge for her. Now she’s successful, signed with a great label, and she’s living the dream of making music and earning a living.’

Sitting knee to knee with this man, I feeling a sort of tenderness that is perhaps inevitable, considering I knew him as a kindergarten kid, then as adolescent. I recall a slightly worried child whose sudden smile broke open the clouds. Heading into the European tour in a few days, Max is getting stressed about the logistics. Where will they stay each night? Will the promoters look after them properly?

And what about plans post-tour? I’m staring at a fat volume of Dylan lyrics propped against the turntable. Maybe a foray into neo-folk? Not exactly. The plan is to record a version of funk music – thinking of Bowie’s ‘plastic soul’ album; white soul, a step sideways from the original ‘authentic’ genre. ‘I want to make music that has a physical impact,’ Twig says. ‘ So much of my music has been cerebral, focused on creating a space and state of mind. With funky drumming, you can put anything on top.’

Time to walk down the hallway and climb the steps to blink into the light of day. Musicians, as we know, are night owls, happiest in their subterranean lairs.

—Ann Ireland

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Ann Ireland’s most recent novel, The Blue Guitar, was published by Dundurn Press in early 2013. Her first novel, A Certain Mr. Takahashi, won the $50,000 Seal-Bantam First Novel Award and was made into a feature motion picture called The Pianist in 1991. Her second novel, The Instructor, was nominated for the Trillium Award and the Barnes and Noble’s Discover These New Writers Award, and Exile was shortlisted for the Governor-General’s Award and the Rogers/Writers Trust Award. She is a past president of PEN Canada and coordinates Ryerson University’s Chang School of Continuing Education, Writing Workshops department. She lives most of the time in Toronto and part of the time in Mexico.

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Apr 032015
 

Maura Kennedy and B. D. LoveMaura Kennedy & B. D. Love

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“I Cried to Dream Again” Lyrics by B.D. Love, Bonificence Music, ASCAP/Music by Maura Kennedy, Parade of Echoes Publishing, BMI. The song will be included in the album, Villanelle: The Songs of Maura Kennedy and B.D. Love by Maura Kennedy on the Varese Sarabande label (4/28/15).

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I RECENTLY VISITED THE NOTTINGHAM, an assisted-living facility in Syracuse, to see a dear friend and former Le Moyne colleague, Gordon Boudreau, the author of a splendid book on Thoreau. Gordon’s daughter, Maura, and her husband, Pete (professionally, “The Kennedys”) happened to be there. They had just performed in Syracuse, and were now putting on, for a large and enthusiastic audience of residents, a concert that turned out to be quite wonderful. I liked everything on their playlist, all their own music, except for two pieces: Willy Nelson’s “Crazy,” on which Maura sounded every bit as good as Patsy Cline, and Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” which Pete, a terrific guitarist, played beautifully—on a tiny ukelele!

But the highlight for me was a song titled “I Cried to Dream Again.” Maura wrote the music, to accompany lyrics by a poet-friend, B. D. Love. As the title indicates, Mr. Love is playing off one of the most beautiful, and utterly unexpected, passages in Shakespeare: lines spoken by Caliban in Act II, Scene ii of The Tempest. When the fools Stefano and Trinculo are frightened by the music created by the invisible Ariel, Caliban responds:

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometimes voices,
That, if I then had wak’d after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again; and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me; that, when I wak’d,
I cried to dream again.

Those last lines, the ones that supplied the song’s title, are an exquisite conclusion to a beautiful set-piece. What makes the lines even more extraordinary is that they are spoken by the half-human, half-bestial Caliban, whose normal vocabulary consists of brutish gabble and cursing. Even the illogical sequence of tenses in this passage is intentional on the part of Shakespeare, who retains all the beauty of the speech, while suggesting that Caliban is not quite a master of grammar. More intriguingly, the shifts back and forth among past, present, and future tenses create what Robert Graves praised in The White Goddess as “a perfect suspension of time.”

I didn’t go into all this in talking with Maura after the performance. Nor did I babble on about the lyrics alluding to the Brunhilde-Sigurd myth. But I did tell her, honestly, that I thought the song “worthy” of this astonishing passage:  even higher praise than saying that her performance of “Crazy” was as good as the great Patsy Cline’s.

I liked “I Cried to Dream Again” so much that Maura was gracious enough to send me an MP3 of the song prior to its release on their upcoming CD. In writing to thank her, I told her I liked it even more after playing it a couple of times.

The lovely imagery of moonlight, starlight, and mist may or may not be consciously Shelleyan, but the lines, “I dreamed/ I was circumscribed by flame/ when I heard you call my name,” seemed a clear allusion to the Valkyrie Brunhilde, punished by being put in a spell and surrounded by fire. That ring of fire is, of course, penetrated by the hero Sigurd, who rides through the flames, kisses and awakens her…and then leaves her.

That trajectory suits a song about love and loss, ecstasy and abandonment: “I never cried/ until you walked on by/ without one word, a nod, or sigh.” Whether it was a fully conscious allusion or not doesn’t matter; as D. H. Lawrence insisted, “trust the tale, and not the teller.” Whatever Mr. Love’s intention, this mythic imagery is there, in the song. So now, that Brunhilde-Sigurd myth joins the haunting final line of Caliban’s speech on the island’s music, becoming, at least for me, an integral part of the song.

The music Maura wrote for it verges on the magical, and the poignant word “bittersweet,” crucially placed and held beautifully by Maura in a long and rising note, evoked for me the love poems written by W. B. Yeats for his enchantress and muse, Maud Gonne. Spectacularly beautiful and never fully attainable, Maud fascinated the poet, broke his heart, and inspired some of the most beautiful and (a favorite Yeats adjective) “bittersweet” poetry in the English language.

Coincidentally or not, Maura had included in her email recent photos she and her husband had taken of themselves at the gravestone in Drumcliff churchyard in Sligo, where Yeats is buried “under bare Ben Bulben’s head,” and beneath one of the most famously cryptic epitaphs in history. This year is the 150th anniversary of Yeats’s birth. On April 9, in the Le Moyne Library, I’ll be reciting a selection of Yeats’s poems of unrequited love, many of which I have by heart (a wonderful phrase, when one thinks about it). When I do, it will be with “I Cried to Dream Again” playing, perhaps as background music, certainly in my imagination.

—Patrick J. Keane

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B.D. Love grew up in a small town in Southeastern Michigan, along the banks of a murky and probably toxic body of water called — presumably for its color — the River Raisin. His first poem, a prayer to the Virgin Mary composed when he was in the third grade, inspired his homeroom nun to accuse him of plagiarism. He did not write again for many years, until the death of his grandmother prompted his return to verse. His poetry and short fiction have appeared in numerous journals, and he’s had several books published. His lyric writing and collaboration with musician Maura Kennedy has resulted in a full-length album titled, “Villanelle: The Songs Of Maura Kennedy And B.D. Love” due to be released April 28, 2015 on the Varèse Sarabande record label. An avid dog-lover, he now resides along the banks of the murky and occasionally toxic Los Angeles River.

Read more about him @www.bdlove.org.

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Maura Kennedy The daughter of a professor of English, and the ”musical one” of seven children, Maura Kennedy carved out her moments of teenage creative solitude sequestered in a closet, blasting Queen and Kate Bush on headphones, while she read C.S. Lewis and Stephen R. Donaldson. Not given to the hermitic life, she made nocturnal escapes, crawling out of her bedroom window and across the roof of her family’s suburban split-level home, to hit the streets of post-industrial Syracuse, New York, in search of crunching power chords and soaring pop hooks.

She found them—and was always the first on the dance floor—in small clubs where R.E.M. and Squeeze were scrounging gas money for the road, and especially at a dusty used record shop, where she got a job just to spin vinyl all day. She soaked up the Kinks, the Hollies, the Raspberries, and leavened the sweetness with a strong dose of Thompson/Denny era Fairport Convention. In the stainless steel splendor of the Little Gem Diner, the Ramones autographed her Social Security Card. At college, she pawned her meal tickets to buy an amp and lived off of her bandmate’s doggie bags. She cracked a couple of ribs in the mosh pit at a Clash show and finally got the music degree. After spending the night in an upstate Greyhound station when she missed the last bus following a Cheap Trick concert, she and some like-minded friends formed a combo and blazed a trail through the Syracuse club scene. And with the breeze off Onondaga Lake at her back, she took off for Austin.

It was there that she hooked up with Nanci Griffith, and toured the US and the British Isles behind Nanci’s Grammy-winning Other Voices, Other Rooms. Working the road in the acoustic format of roots-pop mavens The Kennedys, her songwriting blossomed, as she began drawing from novels, poetry, and especially from her own dreams.

Maura’s love of both music and literature was the basis for her most recent collaboration with writer B.D. Love, and the resulting album, “Villanelle: The Songs of Maura Kennedy and B.D. Love,” Maura’s second solo album, is slated for an April 2015 release on Varèse Sarabande records.

Read more about her @www.maurakennedy.com.

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Numéro Cinq Contributing Editor Patrick J. Keane is Professor Emeritus of Le Moyne College. Though he has written on a wide range of topics, his areas of special interest have been 19th and 20th-century poetry in the Romantic tradition; Irish literature and history; the interactions of literature with philosophic, religious, and political thinking; the impact of Nietzsche on certain 20th century writers; and, most recently, Transatlantic studies, exploring the influence of German Idealist philosophy and British Romanticism on American writers. His books include William Butler Yeats: Contemporary Studies in Literature (1973), A Wild Civility: Interactions in the Poetry and Thought of Robert Graves (1980), Yeats’s Interactions with Tradition (1987), Terrible Beauty: Yeats, Joyce, Ireland and the Myth of the Devouring Female (1988), Coleridge’s Submerged Politics (1994), Emerson, Romanticism, and Intuitive Reason: The Transatlantic “Light of All Our Day” (2003), and Emily Dickinson’s Approving God: Divine Design and the Problem of Suffering (2007).

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Feb 092015
 

Dao Strom

Herewith an enchanting multimedia (song, image & text) memoir, a piece about childhood, from Vietnam-born singer, songwriter, and author.  The memoir is excerpted from Strom’s forthcoming book We Were Meant To Be A Gentle People and the accompanying album East/West.

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The song (as well as the excerpt/essay) both belong to the same larger project, due to be released/published Summer 2015 by Jaded Ibis Productions — I’m calling it a hybrid book/music project (hard to find a good term for it).

The book is called We Were Meant To Be A Gentle People and the accompanying album is called East/West. The song “Two Rivers” comes from the “West” segment of the album. Inspired initially by a Wallace Stegner story of the same title, the song draws a picture of the meeting point between two rivers and a child’s memories of landscape. I think the song and the photo-autobiography traverse the same thematic and emotional terrain, that of negotiating the space between two streams/landscapes.

The catalog description reads:

More than a book, We Were Meant to be a Gentle People  is a song-cycle working in concert with prose fragments and imagery. The author seeks to articulate two concepts of “geographies” — East and West — and the mythos associated with each, through the lens of a writer/musician of the Vietnamese diaspora. Strom combines multiple mediums of “voice” with an investigation of the intersection between personal and collective histories to elucidates the transition between cultures.

—Dao Strom

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Click to play Dao Strom’s recording of “Two Rivers.”

“Two Rivers” was recorded/produced by Hershel Yatovitz (www.hershelyatovitz.com).

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Dao Strom is a writer and musician based in Portland, Oregon. She is the author of two books of fiction, Grass Roof, Tin Roof and The Gentle Order of Girls and Boys. She has a forthcoming book/music project, We Were Meant To Be A Gentle People (Jaded Ibis, 2015). The New Yorker praised Dao’s last book,The Gentle Order of Girls and Boys, as being “quietly beautiful…hip without being ironic.” She has been the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship, a James Michener Fellowship, and the Nelson Algren Award, among other recognitions. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop. She was born in Vietnam and grew up in the Sierra Nevada foothills of northern California.

www.theseaandthemother.com
www.facebook.com/theseaandthemother
www.daostrom.com
twitter: @daostrom

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Jan 312015
 

 

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Tom Faure is a Contributor at Numéro Cinq. A graduate in the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, his work has appeared or is forthcoming in Waxwing, Zocalo Public Square, Splash of Red, Chattanooga Times Free Press, The Journal News. He lives in New York, teaching English and Philosophy at the French-American School of New York.

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Jun 082014
 

DMoTedesco_3809_crop-WEBBen Williams, Gerry Hemingway, Diane Moser, Marty Ehrlich, Mark Dresser. Photo by Dennis Connors.

We all have James Thurber cartoons and stories impressed upon our brains, whether we know it or not. And, of course, I firmly believe that Walter Mitty was based on me, though I wasn’t born yet when Thurber invented him. I think I had absorbed Thurber and Mitty before I even knew what the New Yorker was, and I didn’t read The Years with Ross until I was doing my MFA at Iowa. So it’s just a wonderful pleasure, flooded with nostalgia, to offer you Diane Moser’s gorgeous (and complete) jazz suite Music for the Last Flower, based on James Thurber’s eloquent anti-war parable by the same name. All of Thurber’s work, aside from the wit and comedy, was touched by a melancholy, the shadow of loneliness, poignant and sweet. The emotional complexity of his work, it seems to me, makes him especially amenable to a jazz interpretation.

Diane Moser is a brilliant jazz pianist and composer, also a repeat offender at Numéro Cinq, also a person under the spell of Thurber. She is a colleague at Vermont College of Fine Arts, an indefatigable performer, possessed also of a circle of musical collaborators second to none (Mark Dresser, bass; Gerry Hemingway, drums; Marty Ehrlich, woodwinds; Ben Williams, trombone). And she can write, which is a great help, because along with the music, we have her description of the work and how it relates to Thurber’s book. Music for the Last Flower is a large piece, six parts, complex and orchestral, originally composed in 2003, recorded in a flash one-day session in 2012, and just released as a CD this year. It breaks out with a shocking cacophonous clash (as in war) and modulates into moments of Big Band swing and sweet piano solo, a gamut of jazz tropes bent around a narrative and a message, touching and wonderful.

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The first time I read the book The Last Flower-A Parable in Pictures by James Thurber (1939), I was in high school. I was incredibly moved by Thurber’s passion to tell this story of destruction, hopelessness, hopefulness, love, and a deep conviction for a better world. This story is a story for all the ages, and at the time that Thurber penned his words and drawings, it was being played out again, this time as WWII. At the time that I read the story, my classmates and I were vehemently protesting and calling for President Nixon to resign and for the end of the Vietnam war, so once again the story was being played and would end and recycle continuously.

My generation is the first generation to see what was going on in the world through television. Growing up in a small town in Iowa, this was an “eye and ear” opening experience for me. The visuals and sounds of war; assassinations, bombings, people pleading for help from all over the world, riots in the cities and on college campuses, all on the appointed news time slots each day. For me, this translated not only into a profound sense of compassion for all of those who were suffering, but also a deep awareness of the sounds of that suffering, which propelled me to translate those feelings and sounds into music.

My goal with this music was to tell the story in a way that would immediately evoke images in the minds of the listener and move the heart and soul through the vibrations of sound. It isn’t necessary to read the Thurber book to understand this music, although I would highly recommend doing so if you haven’t. All you need to know is the general outline for the story, the story of all ages, war and destruction, hopelessness, hopefulness, love, rebirth, war and destruction, a prayer for peace, and for the rest, your imagination will take care of that for you.

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1) “…towards the end of WWXII”

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This movement begins with the full ensemble, exploring the sounds of military aircraft flying over head; bombing, exchanging gunfire and the chaos that ensues on the ground. The repetitive figure that comes in, played by piano and quickly joined by the bass, represents the rolling motion of tanks. The melody played by the alto sax and trombone represents a kind of “theme song” for the soldiers. I’ve read that some soldiers listen to specific music before they engage in battle, and it seemed a very important element to bring into the music. After several bouts of charging tanks and chaos, the music takes on a staccato quality that represents the big guns, trying to end it all. A drum solo follows this, representing the last few soldiers exchanging fire, until it is over. The piano comes in, revisiting the theme of the tanks, but slowly, to give a sense of the senselessness of what has just occurred. The piano continues with a repetitive motif, the aspect of time marching on, but with no one to march with it. The bass solo comes in soon after, portraying the barren landscape and extreme loss of life.

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2) “…when love is no longer….”

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This movement features piano, bass and clarinet in a trio setting that is part folk, part ballade and part blues. While I was working on this movement, I decided to take a break and go for a walk in the park. The opening melody in the piano is what came to me on that walk. I came home and played the melody, exploring and improvising over the motif. When I finished, I listened to it (I record my improvisations when I compose) and decided that this was the second movement. I transcribed everything I had played and then arranged it for piano, bass and clarinet. In this movement, the music goes in and out of “through composed” music, improvisation through a harmonic structure, and free improvisation between the bass and clarinet, with a repetitive motif in the piano, again, simulating that time is marching on. Musically, the repetitive device creates tension, letting the bass and clarinet improvise freely, but not really letting them go either. The trio comes together restating the opening theme over another “time motif” in the piano, ending this section.

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3) “…she finds a flower…”

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This movement is for solo piano and depicts the part of Thurber’s story where a young woman excitedly tells everyone that she has found the last flower standing. She dances her way throughout the war torn and savaged landscape, oblivious to the dire surroundings, only feeling joy of her miraculous find.

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4) “…love is reborn”

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This movement features the full band. While expressing her joy, the young woman meets a young man who is as equally thrilled about the flower. They come together, create a family, and suddenly love is reborn and civilization begins again which is represented by a motif in the music that harmonically climbs higher. Latin and Swingin’ Jazz are the dominate styles in this movement. I have to say; I didn’t purposely decide on that while I was working on the idea for this movement, instead it just came to me. One of the things I always tell my students is to let the music show you where it wants to go, and that’s exactly what happened with my creative process for this movement.

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5) “…still not learning the lessons of war….”

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In this part of the story, the generals and dictators come back and war begins again. I chose to let the previous movement disintegrate into chaos and revisit the first movement, which in sonata form is called a recapitulation. Interestingly enough, this also happens in Thurber’s story, a recapitulation of the exposition, war.

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6) “…a hope for peace”

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Now we are at the end of the story and all is destroyed except for one woman, one man and one flower. I used the theme of the solo piano section here to represent the young woman and young man finding the last flower, played by both piano and bass. The alto sax and trombone are in harmony, playing freely over the piano and bass improvisations with variations on their theme. The drums improvise a beautiful, shimmering palette using only cymbals, sending the hope and prayers for peace out into the universe.

—Diane Moser

 

Diane Moser, pianist and composer, works as a featured performer and composer throughout the US with jazz ensembles, big bands, orchestras, chamber music, dance and theater. Since 1996 she has been the music director/contributing composer/pianist for her 17-piece Diane Moser’s Composers Big Band, dedicated to developing and presenting new music for big band. Her other groups include the Diane Moser Quintet, and the Diane Moser Trio. She is a fellow of the MacDowell Colony, the Virginia Center for the Arts and in 2011 was named the Mid-Atlantic Arts Creative Fellow at the Millay Arts Colony. She has received composition awards from Chamber Music America, Meet The Composer, the American Music Center, New Music USA, the Mary Flagler Carey Charitable Trust and the Alice M. Ditson Fund of Columbia University.

She has been a featured pianist and composer with Mark Dresser, Marty Ehrlich, Gerry Hemingway, Howard Johnson, Oliver Lake, Tina Marsh, Charles McPherson, Lisa Sokolov, Yale Strom, and many others.

She is on the faculty of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA Music Composition Program, and since 2006 she has been a member of the core faculty for The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music where she teaches composition, improvisation and performance.

 

May 062014
 

Trinie Dalton Trinie Dalton in Teotihuacan on her birthday in sunglasses courtesy of Mary Ruefle

Camden Joy (aka Tom Adelman) is a rock star music journalist, fictionalist, and musician, something of a legend and a verbal riot and it needs a writer like that, with some voltage of her own, like Trinie Dalton, in fact, to take his measure. Trinie is a music journalist, also story writer, artist, collagist, book assembler, a generally high-energy dynamo of vertiginous genre mixing, an incredibly perceptive reader and eloquent decoder of form, also a friend and a colleague at Vermont College of Fine Arts. What you get here is not just an essay on Camden Joy but also an essay on form, on the consciousness of form and variation that makes art, not just one subject but five, deftly interwoven and self-demonstrated. See also Trinie’s amazing story “Escape Mushroom Style” published earlier on these pages.

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Camden JoyCamden Joy from Presidential Coins (2012) Album Cover

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All through this, I’ve always thought that if you thought of all of it as a book then you have the Great American Novel, every record as a chapter. They’re all in chronological order. You take the whole thing, stack it and listen to it in order, there’s my Great American Novel.

— LOU REED, Rolling Stone, 1987

In music feature/biopics, the pressure to dramatize every microscopic detail of a short visit with a total stranger is inherent to creating story—what editors want. In my own experience of music journalism, this contrivance began as a fun challenge and has come to drive me nuts. I’d rather just invent stories of my own. This is where my appreciation for Camden Joy begins. In light of the prerequisite that one must pressurize nonfiction to establish somewhat artificial tension up front to carry intriguing and suspenseful delivery of “facts,” a piece of good music journalism can come to feel like a Jane Austen novel—that is to say fictional. With any subjective interpretation of the mise-en-scene, genre boundaries slip away—this is what invites me as a reader into the excitement of the “story,” and what attracted me to music journalism in the first place. But I find that need to deliver facts or an “angle” according to some other person restrictive & repellent, too prone to misrepresentation and divergence from the artist’s POV.

The musician performs for the journalist, the journalist describes it; there’s a voyeuristic dance devoted to writing music features, power dynamics clearly defined from the get-go, in which the writer/recorder/observer adopts the swagger of the star for a few thousand words while informing the readership about where the artist has been and is going. Somehow, however, good writers manage despite this form’s predictability, to transform it into lasting art by showing, paragraph-by-paragraph, how discoveries and revelations (the unexpected) spring from a simple meeting, a single ecstatic listen to a record. This is the art of the variant. Maximizing a writing form and making it yours can be poetry, can be in this case a transliteration of rock and roll.

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Post-swagger in New Journalism is where Tom Adelman, aka Camden Joy, finds lineage, namely with the Manifestos and personal essays collected in Lost Joy—with the impetus to 1/ depressurize reportage in favor of author’s lived adventure driving story, and 2/ insertion of author as character into the storytelling; both in the vein of Tom Wolfe’s Electric Koolaid Acid Test. Next, to disconnect from the narrativity of actual event completely in favor of total artifice, loosely constructed upon heaps of pop cultural reference. Adelman’s novels do this. But historical fiction does this, too—nevertheless it typically doesn’t deal so much in contemporary cultural referencing. Fictocriticism, or fiction that develops setting and character through musical referencing—in the vein of Joan Didion, Michael Taussig, Lynne Tillman, Dana Spiotta, Dana Johnson, Darcy Steinke, Ben Greenman, Jonathan Letham, Dennis Cooper… Joy’s brand of irony finds architecture here, but pushes even this trajectory. His novels are closer relatives to countercultural dystopian satire—think Ken Kesey—contaminated with what Raymond Federman in 1973 called Surfiction: conceptual projects that seek to expose the artifice of fiction as a process. In both genres, the politic is not simply implied in the content—it’s engrained in syntax, sentence construction, concept. Joy’s critiques of music in the novels aren’t explicit, then, but embedded in their reclamation of pastiche and in the seamless dedication to the conceits he sets in each story. The concept is high artifice, possibly camp per Sontag’s definition, crossbred with the exploitation of transparent metaphor.

To underscore irony, though, is the sincerity evident in the accuracy of the music lore, the obvious fandom implicit to each text’s concept. In Joy’s work, music journalism saves the day. Gathering facts and slavery to veracity—odious, dull, and rote back then to burgeoning New Journalists—what compelled rebellion and invention of new genre—experiences through Joy’s writing a fiery reversal. Weirdly, the more conceptual Joy’s novels are, the more journalistically accurate they feel to me. Maybe it’s because they convey, through the juxtapositions of hyper-specific (journalistic) musical fandom with poetic license to fictionalize—what Werner Herzog calls “ecstatic truth.” I’d call this “ecstatic truth” poetry through allegory, after Goethe’s adage that links allegory to poetry by differentiating them:

It makes a considerable difference whether the poet seeks the particular as a function of the universal or whether he sees the universal in the particular. In the first case we have allegory, where the particular is valid only as an example, as an emblem of the universal, whereas in the second case the true nature of poetry is revealed: the particular case is expressed without thinking about the universal or alluding to it. (Goethe, quoted by Umberto Eco)

In the novels, musical heroes are humanized, portrayed as flawed characters—not just because flawed characters are necessary to real stories; Joy’s journalistic style proposes that the best way to tribute a hero is to retain and uphold their humanity. (Ironically, though, since they’re fictional characters whose identities Joy has co-opted.) In this, they’re allegorical and poetic, ironic and sincere.

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I was introduced to Camden Joy’s work through Dennis Cooper’s assignment of my first book review for the LA Weekly Literary Supplement, on the release of Joy’s novella trilogy: Palm Tree 13, Hubcap Diamondstar Halo, and Pan. In re-reading, I still find this triptych appealing and brilliant—back in my original review I wanted to offer a tribute even more metafictional & sincere than Joy’s ultra-meta treatments of Mark E. Smith & Glen Frey—an impossible task. Joy’s metafiction is absolute in those stories—his conceits unwavering and apparent, the satire loud and clear. So much so that he furthers the declarative style from his Manifesto series by transforming the declaratives into revelations that admit the aim of the books’ themes and conceits…for example in Palm Tree 13, Joy admits how easy (and predictable) it is in fiction for the reader or author to search for and to grasp metaphorical & allegorical intent:

After all, it took little brainpower to grasp that the department store was, in truth, a livery stable, and that the firehouse and the bank and the liquor store were all much older than they first appeared. They would simply travel the whole town, walking backward to a hundred years ago. They would defrock the present and will themselves into the frontier period that patiently awaited. (74)

This “defrocking” is exactly the project in all three books; Frey’s cowboy frontier as metaphor for the music industry, in this case, takes the notion of Swagger literally as Frey moves through a frontier that is tough for those in it (artists) and a seemingly glamorous, nostalgic stage set for those looking in from the outside (fans).

Here is the scene from on-lookers’ POV:

On hot summer days, everyone left their doors wide open. There was always music playing. Women wearing aprons peddled corn on the cob from tamale steamers. Men in sequined sombreros rested on corners practicing mariachi tunes. JD leaned out of the window and fired his capgun to delight the neighbors. Mahogany beauties sat on porches with grandparents in rockers, eyeing the world with suspicion. It was a place of crude language and cheap liquor. (63)

And here is Frey’s worn and tarried cowboy vision of it:

Melcher’s words slowly sunk in. They confirmed something Frey had long suspected to be true. The frontier was dying. Frey suddenly saw that it wasn’t just him who was looking to settle down, but the whole darn country. The spirit had gone out of the open prairie; the frontier was dying. (47)

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It’s interesting to me how during the moments of epiphany allegory is double-edged, acquires double meaning because of the journalistic, essayistic undertones. Frey’s frontier parodies the music industry, sure, and does so through pastiche: by mashing “frontier” themes into a study of LA in the 70s. But more importantly, this impetus & narrative strategy belies a deep dig into the “stories” of Glenn Frey, Neil Young, David Geffen, Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, and others who populate this book…to tribute by humanizing them through the reinvention of story that fiction allows. Similar strategies were employed in James Schuyler’s What’s for Dinner, in which the characters from a Norman Rockwell painting come to life and run amok; or Ted Berrigan’s Clear the Range, a pastiche as tonally swaggery as Palm Tree 13, but made literally from cut-up cowboy novels.

Music journalism (or art criticism in Schuyler’s case) as nonfiction for magazines perhaps couldn’t previously accommodate this kind of effort, especially given the necessary wall erected between journalist/critic and artist—that is, conflict of interest rules. Conflict of interest rules are important, but on the flipside they breed journalism that perpetuates myth and rumor; which again ironically, is what transforms a musician into a rockstar.

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Joy’s overt myth-making is a radical bifurcation, or maybe tributary, of music journalism’s habit of mythologizing musicians. Mythologizing is a main function in fiction too, of course; and Joy acknowledges this throughout the trilogy. In Hubcap Diamonstar Halo, the protagonist constantly considers how to turn his lived experience of a car accident into song:

G’ll be working on a song when acutely he recalls a detail of the accident. The windshield buckling, for example, disassembling as it gushes back to shower him in a great many pebbles and splinters of grass. How to make that into music? (19)

This serves as allegory that transcends journalistic scrutiny—every creative person can relate to compulsion to make art from experience. In Hubcap, the allegorical aim is so inclusive, inviting all artists as readers in on G’s efforts to musically catalog his near-death car crash, that Joy switches occasionally to usage of 2nd person POV:

You inform him his system is undergoing a condition of extreme shock. He nods as if sympathizing with the complaints of a stranger, then gives a shudder and goes limp. For some reason this does not stir your concern. You find yourself without the urge to go for help. (25)

The usage of 2nd person obliterates boundaries between observer and observed—inviting the reader into the artist’s mind. This sets up sympathetic relationship for later in the story, when G. broaches larger philosophical questions about the nature of stardom and creativity:

Do you think any star can still derive even the most basic ego pleasure from expressing themselves artistically? The coordinator shakes his head. I doubt it. I seriously doubt it. (37)

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I’ve made much of the differences between writing critically and writing fiction here, in an effort to delineate what genres are capable of and how Adelman combines them to expand their possibilities, but ultimately I think working in any genre or medium is about discovery of authorial opinion; all creative processes clarify and organize experience. My favorite aspect of Camden Joy novels is—just as Goethe found poetry in specificity—that they reiterate the compatibility of genres through highlighting distinctions between them.

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ENDNOTE—SWAGGER in OED, as dating back to 1600:

a. intr. To behave with an air of superiority, in a blustering, insolent, or defiant manner; now esp. to walk or carry oneself as if among inferiors, with an obtrusively superior or insolent air.

b. spec. To talk blusteringly; to hector; †hence, to quarrel or squabble with; also, to grumble. Now only (directly transf. from prec. sense), to talk boastfully or braggingly.

In my usage, I shuffle past superiority to reclaim the proactive, confident aspects of the term: to promenade, to revel, to take possession or to own, to pimp, to create dizzying pageantry. Swagger can be unassailable, magnificent, rebellious, durable, and alluring (opposite of punk in historical/original usage = punching bag, man-toy, whore).

—Trinie  Dalton, adapted from a paper delivered at MMLA 2013, Milwaukee.

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Trinie Dalton is the director of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing and Publishing Program. She has published six books, most recently Baby Geisha (Two Dollar Radio). She teaches fiction and critical writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts, Art Center, and USC. She has forthcoming fiction and poetry in Santa Monica Review, The Austin Review, GAG (Capricious Publishing), The Milan Review; she has art writing forthcoming in books about David Altmejd (Rizzoli), Laura Owens (Rizzoli), Dorothy Iannone (Siglio), Dorothy Iannone’s Retrospective (Berlinische Galerie/Migros Museum), and Abstraction in Contemporary Video Art (UC Press). Visit her at sweettomb.com.

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Apr 082014
 

IAN & ACCORDION

Today, yes, a little entertainment, a gorgeous music/text thing (with layers you can delve)  by my old friend Ian Bell (Ian’s father was my Grade 11 history teacher; his mother was a weaver and the village librarian). First of all, we have Ian’s lovely, comic lament “Signor  Farini,” a song about The Great Farini, a 19th-century (he lived till 1929) tightrope walker famous, among other things, for doing somersaults over Niagara Falls in 1860. But The Great Farini was really a man named Hunt, born in Lockport, New York, and Ian’s song is as much about the mystery of creation as it is about tightrope-walking and fame. It’s about having the courage to make oneself, to change, to gamble and risk, to take a chance in life. And beyond that (there’s more), Ian also offers an insightful and readable account of song-writing, the art itself.

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Signor Farini is one of a couple of songs I have written about my own unwillingness to throw myself headlong into the music business. This has mostly been for fairly uninteresting reasons having to do with my need to spend time with children and other loved ones.

Guillermo Farini was one of the 19th-century daredevils who made his name crossing the Niagara Gorge on a tight-wire, but who then went on to a distinguished career in British circuses and theatres – developing the human cannonball act and inventing the folding theatre seat, before becoming an African explorer who sought lost civilizations in the Kalahari, and eventually returning to Canada to write a best-selling book on how to grow begonias. (I’m not making any of this up – in fact, I’ve left quite a lot out)

I first heard about Farini in an interview on CBC Radio. Peter Gzowski was talking to author/playwright Shane Peacock about a play he had written about the daredevil. I loved the whole story. Most of all I loved the idea that “The Great Farini” was in fact a guy named Bill Hunt, from Port Hope Ontario.

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Shane talked on the radio about a Farini Festival that had been staged in Port Hope, to which the organizers had invited not only descendants of Farini, but descendants of the man who had held the rope for him. I thought this was very Canadian, and decided that if there was ever going to be a song about Farini it should be from the rope-holder’s point of view. Not wanting to get too hung up on what Canadian director/playwright Paul Thompson calls “historical resonance” I wrote the song – and then I read the biography.

After I wrote and recorded the song, Shane called me up to tell me how much he liked it. He was particularly taken with the line “Walking on air with the greatest of ease – a tangle of barn swallows sharing the breeze”, and he told me a story about the time his play was performed at Fourth Line Theatre, an outdoor venue in Millbrook, Ontario. Every night at dusk, when the tightrope walker stepped off the roof of the barn, the swallows who lived inside would make one last foray into the evening air and buzz “Farini” as he traversed the wire. “How did you know to put that in?” he asked me. “Sorry Shane”, I had to tell him. “I just made it up”.

The actual making of this song started with the chorus, which I believe I carried around inside my head for a few weeks before anything else manifested itself. Then the rest popped out one day.

I never consciously choose a rhyme scheme for songs before I start writing them. Usually the first verse pours out in a rush and then gets a chorus attached to it. Once it does, I consider the rhyme scheme and meter to have been set and that’s that. I always do my very best to stick with it. It can become challenging once I get further into the song – but that’s all part of the fun. This one turned out to be AABBBB for the verse and AABBB for the chorus. In another song, I wrote a first verse I really liked while driving somewhere. When I got home and wrote it down I was a little dismayed to find that it took 16 lines for the rhyme to resolve.

Maybe resolving a rhyme isn’t the usual term — I should explain. What I mean by resolving, is completing the entire pattern of the rhyming lines in a unit of the song, (like a verse) so that you’ve brought the reader/listener back to the beginning of the rhyme cycle, and you’re ready to launch into whatever’s coming next (like another verse — or a chorus).

I’m generally of the opinion that a song shouldn’t need more than three verses, a chorus and a bridge. There are plenty of exceptions to this rule (even in my catalogue) but this isn’t one of them.

A bridge can be a useful thing. Some people call it “the middle eight” and it’s part of a song that is neither verse nor chorus and usually only comes up once somewhere in the middle of the song. Paul McCartney is really good at bridges. It not only creates a bit of musical interest, but also provides a platform for lyrical ideas that might not be an obvious part of whatever narrative agenda the verses may be. It’s a good place for asides or other editorializing. In Farini the bridge comes after the second chorus.

I like creating little word movies which I hope will will be screening in my listeners’ heads, and with any luck may include some interesting surprises as they spool out. I think I’m usually copping ideas from the filmmakers who made an impression on me in my long-ago hipster youth; people like Fellini and Bergman – mostly Fellini I think.

In Farini I tried to make this happen right off the top, where we begin with a pastoral daybreak scene on the old family farm and by the last line of the verse somebody is stepping off the barn roof.

I’ve always secretly wanted to hear Leonard Cohen or Marianne Faithfull sing this song.

—Ian Bell

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You can read all about Farini in Shane Peacock’s book The Great Farini – The High Wire Life of William Hunt. The song is part of the album Signor Farini and Other Adventures and can be downloaded from CD Baby.

Ian Bell is a traditional folk musician and singer-songwriter who also worked for many years as a curator in a number of Ontario museums. he has recorded several CDs of Canadian traditional music as well as his own compositions. He lives in Paris Ontario. www.ianbellmusic.ca

Feb 082014
 

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Last April, Sydney Lea, John B. Lee, Marty Gervais and I combined for the epic Reading by the Lake mini-tour of southwestern Ontario (along the Lake Erie shore, shoreline of Fate and Fable). We had musicians, too, Ian Bell and the incomparable Michael Schatte, who now contributes a brand new, unreleased song, premiering on NC, and a knowing and literate essay on the art and craft of song-writing, which essay includes advice from Vladimir Nabokov, Martin Amis and, yes, Nick Lowe. Michael is a dream of a guitar player, a dashing performer, but also a thoughtful and self-conscious artist. His advice and wisdom, his methods, can cross-pollinate to any other art; he works with words and sounds and rhythms while others ply different media, but the work is always work. And he is so damned quotable. “The most ubiquitous trope in songwriting has nothing to do with good songs, and everything to do with good songs unwritten.”

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Our Sun Sets Early
by Michael Schatte

Falling on down like a rotten old tree
Can’t you see, can’t you see, can’t you see?
Yes we’re sapped and the poison is trapped
From the foot to the canopy
Oh you say “we’ll live another day”
Can it be, can it be, can it be?
The last I checked the future was wrecked
And the past is the place to be

Come with me
The gates they look so pearly
Come with me
Our sun sets early

Listen here brother when I tell you what I tell you
‘Bout the sea, ’bout the sea, ’bout the sea
Your smug little chuckle’s gonna meet my knuckle
If you cry conspiracy
The water’s gonna boil over fires from hell
Oh the heat, oh the heat, oh the heat!
Pantheon judges holding ancient grudges
And Apollo plays a war beat

Where’s that voice, where’s that voice, where’s that voice I hear?
Whispering words of a doomsday ditty gonna take us all out of here
Follow me brother I’m the one receiver
Don’t you see, don’t you see, don’t you see?
The time has come, I’m the chosen one
To lead us through the prophecy

© Michael Schatte, 2013.

 

I recently had the pleasure of being asked to teach a four-part songwriting course in my hometown of Chatham, Ontario. The intention was to have me instruct participants on how to write songs, but then I said something to the program coordinator which I suspect at once disqualified and qualified me for the challenge. I declared in no uncertain terms that a person cannot be taught to write a great song. Instead, a person with musical ambition can be enlightened as to the creative tools which can aid the process, as well as taught to develop the protective panoply required to filter bad ideas and channel good ones. But even this was stretching it, I suppose, because the panoply I had in mind is entirely unique to the ear of the writer, being as we are at the mercy of our own taste, history of musical absorption, and innate ability to weave rhythm, melody, and lyrical poetry into something original and, in only the most successful cases, satisfying to the preponderance of people who hear it.

Despite my best attempts to sabotage this compelling opportunity, the songwriting course materialized with me in the instructor role, and it was a delightful experience. I tell this tale because the following text echoes the notion that it is impossible to teach someone how to write a song. It attempts the equally silly task of communicating a songwriting methodology and philosophy that I often cannot even explain to myself, and which therefore might only be of interest as a kind of untouchable curiosity akin to those behind glass in a low-budget 19th century traveling exhibition.

In an attempt to add tangibility to the intangible, I have included herein a brand new studio recording of a previously unreleased song of mine. By way of its lyrics and accompanying audio, I hope Our Sun Sets Early will serve as something of a case study illustrating the ideas I present briefly before you.  Regardless of whether the song tickles your own musico-sensory receptors, I hope that at the very least my explanation of the conception, birth, and growth of this piece will prove interesting, if not instructive to your own creative endeavours, musical or otherwise.

 

‘Office Hours’

The most ubiquitous trope in songwriting has nothing to do with good songs, and everything to do with good songs unwritten. I refer to the classic creative ‘dry spell,’ or state of artistic doldrums in which creative people seem to find themselves for interminable lengths of time. While this may be a very real phenomenon for some, I refuse to credit it. Indeed, for the sake of my own productivity, I reject it outright. The concept of writer’s block is simply too seductive, too easy an excuse for bad song craft, or far worse, periods of no song craft whatsoever.

The approach I take is what I’ve heard described as a rusty tap metaphor: sometimes the water must be turned on for a time to clear the detritus from the pipes before the pure goodness of ingestible substance arrives. That is to say, by keeping songwriting ‘office hours’ during which I simply must write – lack of imminent brilliance notwithstanding – I prime the mind for the eventual arrival of the mental goods that will become musical works deserving of capture. This is not to say that great ideas do not often arrive outside of these scheduled hours, it is simply that the regimenting of my time with songwriting in mind more readily facilitates their timely appearance.

Working in this way involves a constant battle for confidence, because there is nothing as undermining to a creative person’s self-worth than a conspicuous lack of actionable ideas. Nabokov, like most great authors, established a daily routine of composition which featured early morning writing followed by a taking of the air wherever he found himself. A head-clearing walk has worked for me on many occasions, and often I’ve found that the rhythm of my steps inspires ideas for drum patterns.  You can imagine how terribly normal I must look strolling down the street hands a-flailing, banging my chest tribally to the groove in my poor head. Nabokov’s scheduled approach reminds one that productivity requires a business-like discipline, and that we mustn’t take the work of creative geniuses for granted. As the producer Brian Eno opined, people have a tendency to attribute the output of a talent like Beethoven’s to his genius and not to his hard work. It is tempting to assume a mind that produced such glorious music did so effortlessly, discounting entirely that the real genius lies in the consistent ability to channel brilliance through hard work and persistence. There are many among us who would like to join the ranks of the prolific, but very few with the discipline to do so.

 

Seemingly Trivial Tools

When I sit down to write a song, I seem to spend an inordinate amount of time ensuring that the conditions are correct for creativity. In a pinch I’ve written useable lyric ideas on the side of a bathroom Kleenex box, but I much prefer to have a familiar and conducive surrounding if I’m spending several concerted hours at it. This means little or no fluorescent light (for me, the cozy glow of an incandescent bulb is vastly superior), no computer screens in sight (was there ever a more tyrannical attention stealer?), a large scrap book for writing in (cream coloured pages without lines encourage the free flow of ideas), and finally, a gel ink pen that can keep up with the frantic pace at which I scratch across the page.  I share these banal details because I’ve found them to be essential to my system, though they collectively place a distant second behind the one tool I simply must have present to create my music.

If you listen to Our Sun Sets Early, the dominant role of the guitar should leave no question as to why I require that instrument by my side while composing. I’m occasionally asked whether I write words or music first, and I answer that it is almost always the music, and almost always a guitar riff or chord progression that ignites the process. Indeed, on Sun Sets, the electric guitar was so inextricably linked to the plot and energy of the song that I began to hear the lead guitar as directly representative of the tumultuous nature of the cult leader’s twisted thinking.  Thus, in the instrumental outro we hear the whammy bar (a device used to bend the pitch of the guitar in unique and, if the stars align, Hendrixian ways) undulating the pitch while my voice descends into a dissonant, groaning cacophony of reverb. I included this effect to give the impression of the cult leader falling away from the world. But are these final notes and rhythmic gasps indicative of the entire world’s end or simply the demise of a mad man?  Not for me to say, of course.  I leave final interpretation to the listener.


Germination

It was during one of my Nabokov-inspired songwriting days that the audio available herein was conceived. Where the jolly idea to write a song from the perspective of a doomsday cult leader came from I know not, but clearly I found it interesting enough to devote some four hours of my time to the writing of a tune around it. Our Sun Sets Early speaks to the danger of proselytization of all stripes, illustrated here in the protagonist’s invocation of apocalyptic prophecy. At the time of its composition, I had recently released an E.P. whose title (Four Songs, One Apocalypse) and lead track (Final Night) toyed with the notion of the end of days, so writing this song was a natural extension of the same chipper, Top 40 radio conquering theme.

The writing proceeded quickly. I was excited by the concept’s potential for a brand of lively wordplay that is too seldom heard on mainstream music channels. The Greek pantheon is mentioned, for instance, with Apollo himself expected to lead the charge against the corrupt, rotting humanity the narrator invites us to escape from. You’ll notice that I avoid explaining things too overtly; instead of mentioning suicide directly – could there be a less musical sounding word? —  I allude in the chorus only to sun sets and pearly gates.  Not hard to guess what I am driving at I suspect, though you would be amazed at the misinterpretations of some of my lyrics I’ve been privy to.  I love such wild misses, as they remind me of the wonderfully unique way each person hears a piece of music, and therefore the constant potential for a singular connection between musician and listener.  In order to nurture that connection, I don’t often employ lyrics so abstract that meaning is completely uninterpretable, hoping instead to find a middle ground that rewards careful listening but does not require studying the constellations to divine my intent.

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Cliché and Poetry

A few words on words: I find myself bristling every time I hear a cliché-laden song on the radio, which is to say I bristle daily. When this happens, echoes of Martin Amis’ War on Cliché ring loudly within my bulbous cranium. And yet, I think the songwriter must occasionally peddle oft-heard words and phrases, if only to create the occasional opportunity for the listener to know what one is about to sing before it is sung. There isn’t much of this dealing with the stylistic devil in Our Sun Sets Early, though perhaps I could have come up with fresher means of communicating ‘the place to be’ (verse 1) and ‘the chosen one’ (verse 3). I hope I made up for those predictable phrases with punchy alliterations like ‘doomsday ditty’ (verse 3) and ruthless rhyming a la ‘Pantheon judges holding ancient grudges’ (verse 2), both being word combinations I have never before heard uttered in song or seen in print.

I often sit staring at my raw lyrics and wonder whether they can be considered poetry. I tend to think not, as their construction is so dependent on the musical rhythm and melody of the piece, two things that cannot be communicated by the words on their own. It is akin to extracting the liquid paint from a Picasso and throwing it down on a different surface: the entire framework is lost, and the context destroyed despite all the same colours and substances being present. When I write songs, I tend to envision the lyrics bound in holy matrimony to the chords, the completed song welded to the recording process, and the final output bonded tightly to the packaging of the album itself. In other words, every step in the process is linked to what came before and will come after, and to pull any element from this context renders it impotent as far as the art is concerned.

 

Production and Completion

It is for this reason that I now find myself in the increasingly common position of being my own recording engineer and producer. For those not in the know, the former executes the technical capture and mixing of the song while the latter, often a non-engineer, is responsible for keeping the big sonic and economic picture in mind whilst hopefully nursing the production to a critical and commercial success.  I have readily found both joy and frustration in the tackling of these roles myself.  But as long as I continue to regard the capture and presentation of my songs as of near-equal importance to the song itself, I do not foresee relinquishing much of that control while I can still manage it.  Hence, I’m able to write from conception with the sonic pandemonium of Our Sun Sets Early in mind, and create the loud, violent ending of the mix with my original intent firmly wed to the sonic manipulation that came of it.  Whether this connectivity to all facets of the production truly benefits my music is perhaps not for me to say, but one can rest assured that the various stages of the process form a circle of inspiration that at the very least keeps my pen returning to the page, ready to drop the ink of the next song.

That being said, I often find it difficult to start a new composition if there is a potentially good song in a state of incompletion. Knowing when the thing is finished is possibly the most difficult aspect of the entire process, and there have been many works in progress lost to a kind of creative purgatory.  This is probably for the best, as the finest songs seem to have a way of writing themselves, and quickly at that.  In these cases I am left breathless at the end of the writing session, marveling that so much was done in such short order when there were occasionally entire days of aborted ideas and lyrical dead ends that preceded it. How do I know when the song needs no further effort? I cling strongly to British songwriter Nick Lowe’s imperishable litmus test: the song is finished when it sounds as though someone else wrote it. I will leave you now, as I ponder the psychological implications of that statement.

—Michael Schatte

Michael Schatte is an acclaimed Canadian guitarist, singer, and songwriter based in Toronto. He has released several albums under his own name, including his latest, Four Songs, One Apocalypse. Michael will release a new double album in late 2014, on which Our Sun Sets Early will no doubt reside. For more information including live performance footage and album audio visit www.michaelschatte.com.

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Sep 112013
 

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Today we have Lawrence Sutin’s gorgeous and thoughtful essay on Vladimír Godár courtesy of Taylor Davis-Van Atta, founder and publisher of the new & brilliantly conceived print magazine Music & Literature. The third issue, just out, concentrates on the work of Gerald Murnane, Vladimír Godár and Iva Bittová. Godár is, of course, a sentimental favourite here because of his astonishing “Sonata in Memory of Viktor Shklovsky,” Shklovsky being in many respects the spirit of place at Numéro Cinq. In an earlier piece at NC, I wrote: Theoretically Shklovsky is the inspiration behind much of what we try to do here at NC, art as device, art as content filtered through a mesh or organization or system of techniques. This sonata is lovely and tortured. It brings to mind that wonderful phrase in Joyce’s “The Dead” — “thought-tormented music.” Read the essay, then look up the magazine.

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What does Vladimír Godár’s music sound like? The candidates for comparison that I’ve seen mentioned range from Claudio Monteverdi to Arvo Pärt. I could add further names—Igor Stravinsky, Valentin Silvestrov—but the comparisons hardly matter. The music of Godár sounds, to me, like the music of a time in which religious ritual has died and what was prayer is now dramatic exclamation, what was faith is now the enthrallment of beauty. The old ritual forms are often invoked by Godár, for those forms still hold music well, but Godár’s music is a renunciation of piety and a restoration, a worship, of the anguish needed to awaken our souls.

So Godár’s music sounds to me, at its happiest, even, with hallelujahs faint as angels comforting a child, like anguish. Anguish, like piety, requires form for full expression so as to be released, fulfilled within the ear of the listener, set free to circuit the mind and body, wordlessly to instill the balm of Solomon’s magic ring inscribed “This too shall pass,” a profound mindfulness, everything passes, but caught within poignant melodies and intense rhythms the anguish passes in its guise of the exquisite beauty of necessity.

That is the theme, I think, of Gilgamesh’s Lament for bass and cello. In his album liner notes, Godár tells us that he “came to the conviction that it was vital to work with the original text.” As that text is in Akkadian, Godár enlisted the aid of a scholar of ancient Semitic languages to create a phonetic version to be sung. Why not instead employ a Slovakian translation? Why deprive his native audience of its native tongue? The answer seems to me to be that Godár hoped for the exact tonalities that Gilgamesh might have let loose over the corpse of his dearest friend Enkidu, a primal man, for the sake of whose companionship Gilgamesh, the warrior-king of Uruk, forsook marriage. To feature these tonalities is to call back to the past as far as one can musically.

Iva Bittová (left) and Vladimír Godár (right) are both featured artists in the latest issue of Music & Literature 3.

Godár observes that he finds what is commonly titled The Epic of Gilgamesh “more theatrical than epical,” due to the prevalence in it of direct speech. The direct speech of Gilgamesh is directed at a god, is a plea, a loud private prayer. In Godár’s setting it becomes a chamber lament played in low darkness with no one to hear but the audience hidden both from the musicians and the god. The solace in the lament is that anguish is ancient and always in essence the same. Gilgamesh must submit to the fact that death awaits not only the friends of great kings but great kings themselves. Yet he did not consent to place Enkidu’s body in the grave until, after seven days of grieving, he saw a maggot crawl out of his friend’s nostril. And his speech is more tantrum than submission. Godár’s music does not seek to convey the tantrum of the text, for that is the business of the text. The music captures the slow cadences of anguish. In this, Godár, who lectures on the history of aesthetics, follows (as I see it) the indications of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s Laocoon: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry, in which Lessing argues that the visual arts (and, I would say, music as well) must capture anguish by means of beauty and not by slavish adherence to human reality, which means that, in the famous statue of Laocoon, the seer of Troy, and his two sons wrapped about by thick poisonous serpents sent by Athena to protect the secret of the wooden horse of which Laocoon was warning, all three must possess noble stoic features (even though, as they are naked, the visceral anguish is conveyed by their constricted muscles) rather than contorted howling faces which would have ruined the effect intended—the catharsis of seeing appealing, rather than hideous, persons die. In like manner, Godár did not wish to scream out Akkadian as that would have negated the echo that his call to the past had elicited—Gilgamesh even in anguish would not have shrieked at the god, for the god, Enlil, a god of storm and violence, was already angry at both Gilgamesh and dead Enkidu (it was Enlil who had issued the sentence of death) for their hubris in killing the monster Humbaba who guarded the cedar forest beloved of heaven. Further yelling would have done little good; Enlil had shown his intent and his power. So in Godár’s music the vocal tonalities ascend just a bit, enough to be heard on high, then fall to the earth from the weight of their pain and form stones of sound for Enkidu’s grave. In terms of the phonological insights of the Prague structuralists of the 1920s, admired by Godár, the jagged contrasts of the Akkadian phonemes are an onomatopoeia (like the barcarolle form, suggestive of a rocking boat, employed by Godár in a chamber work for violin) as unique as the brickwork of the fortified walls of Uruk, a wonder constructed by Gilgamesh’s order, a wonder that, as he says in the epic’s conclusion, will survive him.

Viktor Shklovsky

The Prague structuralists were influenced by the works of the Russian Formalist (St. Petersburg branch) Viktor Shklovsky. Godár’s Sonata in Memory of Viktor Shklovsky was originally inspired, the composer tells us, by the desire to create “the form of a structured rhetorical composition… This I did not manage to realize, but I think the vestiges of the original conception can still be discerned in the work’s final incarnation.” What Godár meant by this in terms of this sonata I have no idea, but the topic is a naturally playful one for me. Shklovsky is famous for his insistence that creative writing depends upon the knowing use of devices, skillful techniques, by the artist. To write a good story, one needs to understand how to structure it so that it takes the readers out of their worlds and into the text. That structure has nothing to do with the writer’s personal psychology or politics; it belongs to the realm of aesthetics, which Shklovsky aspired to make more empirical, modeled somewhat after scientific research. But the negation of politics as an artistic criterion—and the implicit affirmation of unfettered artistic freedom—had never been a popular view in Russia, not in the days of the Tsar, and not in the days of Stalin.

What I gather Godár means by a structuralist composition shows itself most clearly in a work such as Mater. A theme—woman, mother, the eternal feminine—serves to elicit his music. Godár makes his choice of devices—liturgical, literary, folkloric, a Magnificat, a James Joyce poem, Yiddish songs—from throughout time and without regard to their original cultural contexts. (Consider Godár’s Querela Pacis (“The Complaint of Peace”), dedicated to Erasmus, the author of an eponymous 1521 work, with quotations from that work set by Godár to the form of mantras.) The aesthetics of music survive with ease the present shift from the church into theater, the concert hall, films such as those for which Godár writes scores. It is the music, the tones, that are enduring, not the beliefs that they are regarded as serving at a particular place and time. The same will be true two thousand years from now. I look forward as far in time as The Epic of Gilgamesh is now distant from us, when samplings from Godár’s Mater bypass the ear to trigger direct neuronic signals to deep space travelers to enfold themselves with kindness through the long night.

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It would be a purist philosophical idealism to conceive for the universe a higher, truer ear beyond our realm. To this ear, music would always be only music. There would be no need for structuralism because the intertwining meanings that inform music as they do all phenomena become irrelevant in the higher truth realm in which the ear abides happily without a head, because all music is interrelated as the medium, sound, is one. No matter what one played for the ear, it would form a kind of infinite occasional oratorio, as best I can conceive it. But here on earth the choices of Godár are vibrant and welcome. But as a grateful, musically untutored listener to his works I cannot say, though I seem to have written about it, that Shklovsky’s devices or anyone’s structuralism much matter to me. His music moves slowly, intensely, yearning for the primal ground of Gilgamesh, the tonal grace of the psalmist David. The itinerary is to my liking, the notes take me to places Godár could not have had in mind. Music can be given forms, but listeners can slip free of those and escape with the notes out the window.

— Lawrence Sutin

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Vladimír Godár is known as a composer of symphonic, chamber, vocal, and film music, and as a writer of a huge number of texts on music and art.

Lawrence Sutin is the author of two memoirs, two biographies, one historical work, and one novel. He teaches at Hamline University and the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Music & Literature 3 brings to light the life’s work of three artists who have to date been denied—by geography, by language, and by politics—their rightful positions on the world stage. The Australian writer Gerald Murnane, a rumored Nobel Prize candidate, has been deemed “a genius on the level of Beckett” by Teju Cole, who opens this issue with a spirited exchange of long letters with the Aussie great. For the first time, Murnane’s entire catalog is introduced by top writers and critics, and we glimpse his three remarkable archives, which the author insists will remain unpublished until after his death. “The Interior of Gaaldine,” the infamous text that explains his fourteen-year absence from the world of fiction, rounds out more than 120 pages of new material on and by one of our finest yet little-known Anglophone writers. The issue’s second half is devoted to the Slovak composer Vladimír Godár and his unlikely collaborator, the Moravian violinist-singer Iva Bittová, who honed their crafts under the pall of the Communist regime and who only in recent years have begun cultivating worldwide audiences. Now, for the first time, Godár’s artistic writings as well as his manuscripts are available in English, alongside a portfolio of photographs and an oral history of Bittová’s career, as told by some of her closest collaborators and artistic partners. The issue is now available for purchase here.

Jun 092013
 

Tess Wiley

I love the strange triangulations that take place on NC regularly. This time we have a Halifax librarian, novelist, and short story writer, Ian Colford, writing a profile about Tess Wiley, a Texas-born singer and songwriter, who makes her home and career in Germany. Ian is a longtime contributor to NC: stories, novel excerpts, profiles, and everything he writes has the idiosyncratic aura of a thoughtful outsider poking about in the culture, turning up half-hidden treasures. See this! he says. Amazing! he says. Ian has his own particular angle of vision; that’s one of the prerequisites for appearing at NC. And the music? Tess Wiley? Just listen. She’s to die for.

And while you’re at it, please take a look at our growing and heterodox collection of music posts.

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An Accidental Meeting

I discovered Tess Wiley by accident. In late 2002 I was searching for music by a band called Rainy Day Assembly (I had downloaded a couple of their tunes from a free site). Thinking this band might have an album, I tried Amazon.com. They did not have an album (and, so far as I can tell, never have). But, oddly enough (given it’s an unusual phrase), my search returned an unrelated result, a CD called Rainy Day Assembly by an artist I had never heard of named Tess Wiley. Curious, I listened to a few of the song samples. I was impressed.

Rainy Day Assembly entered my regular rotation immediately upon delivery. I buy a lot of music and when I discover an artist I like, I buy everything they’ve recorded. Over the years this has led to numerous successes, but also some disappointments and a few miscalculations. A lot of songs, CDs, and artists have come and gone. But in 2013 Tess Wiley’s three studio albums, the most recent of which was released in 2007, continue to receive significant playing time. Unashamedly, I have become a fan.

Tess makes music that grabs the listener’s attention for all the right reasons. It is music that is memorable but never cloying, carefully crafted pop that does not follow a formula and is still revealing surprising details on the fiftieth listen. This is music for thoughtful, inquisitive people, not because it is revolutionary or especially challenging, but because it is immediately apparent that the driving force behind it is probing and untypical. The elements are familiar, but they are deployed in a manner that does not readily call to mind the work of anyone else. You can enjoy these songs for their tasteful arrangements and clear, ringing harmonies and go no further than that. But Tess’s music offers the curious listener the further choice to dig deeper, to find out where these songs come from, and to learn something about the person who created them.

Tess Wiley was born in Dallas, Texas, in 1974. Her father, Fletch Wiley, is a working musician who in the 1970s recorded with the gospel group Andraé Crouch and the Disciples. The family moved around, and Tess spent her childhood in Houston, Seattle, and San Francisco, before returning to Houston. With her mother a writer and her father a musician, there was little chance she would grow up without exhibiting a creative side, and she embarked early on her musical career, taking up piano at age five, violin at 12 and guitar at 14. She spent her school years writing songs and performing in a band, before capping her education with studies in classical piano at Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts.

In 1995 Tess joined the Texas-based pop/rock band Sixpence None the Richer, touring and recording with them and contributing the song “Disconnect” to their second full-length CD, This Beautiful Mess. Her year with Sixpence was not an easy one. The band’s label went bankrupt and refused to release the group from their contract. Tess was one of the members who left the band during this period. For the next several years, working on her own and with producer and recording engineer Chris Colbert, she recorded and performed her songs under a variety of names (Splendora, Phantasmic and Tess Wiley and her Orchestra).

Adding an interesting twist to her biography, when Tess fell in love it was with a photo-journalist from Germany, Christian Roth. She met Roth while with Sixpence, when the band was performing at the Flevo Festival in the Netherlands. Roth attended the festival and interviewed the band for a magazine. After she left Sixpence the two kept in touch, meeting again when Roth visited the US to attend some musical events. Roth’s photos and artwork adorn the Rainy Day Assembly CD case. They married and in 2003 settled in Geissen, a university town in central Germany, which is perhaps best known for the Botanischer Garten Gießen, the oldest botanical gardens in the country. Tess has two sons and still resides in Geissen, though her personal life has become more complex lately.

Rainy Day Assembly (2002) was recorded in New York with the aid of American musicians. Her subsequent studio albums, Not Quite Me (2004) and Superfast Rock’n Roll Played Slow (2007), were both recorded in Germany with German musicians.

Tess Wiley’s music is rooted in a North American pop sensibility, the inventive and richly detailed arrangements heavily reliant on acoustic and electric guitars and keyboards, along with the occasional electronic beat. Her songs carry unmistakable echoes of classic folk, 1980s alt-rock, even late 1970s post-punk. Her lyrics can be message-laden or brutally confessional. She is not afraid to be loud, to mix tempos, to juxtapose pop rhythms and loosely structured mood pieces. Even her most upbeat songs have a melancholy edge to them, and enough depth, ingenuity and unpredictability to keep them off the pop charts. Her independent voice and musical daring—perhaps her greatest artistic assets and two reasons why her fans are so deeply devoted and pulling for her to succeed—also mean that a mass following has proven elusive. I feel lucky to have encountered Tess early in her solo career, and to have followed her development as an artist and songwriter through three full-length albums that exhibit an astounding breadth of musical ambition and achievement. The wait for a fourth studio album has been lengthy (a “live-in-the-studio” CD with one new song was released in 2010). But 2012 saw the release of the EP Tornados. Based on this most recent output, how can there be any doubt that commercial success is on the horizon?

Tess Wiley 3 Bang Bang Photography

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To Begin at the Beginning …

We become fans of musicians, actors, painters, filmmakers, authors, playwrights, for many reasons, but usually because we sense an affiliation of some kind, and/or a deep appreciation for what the artist is trying to say. The artist is expressing something that we, if only we possessed the tools, would express for ourselves. I came upon Tess’s album Rainy Day Assembly not long after it was released, and after listening to the CD more times than I can count, I am intimately familiar with the songs it contains. Because it can be both challenging and totally accessible—keeping the listener guessing while at the same time drawing us in—it continues to hold a fascination years after I first listened to it. My attempts to identify where the songs come from have failed: their antecedents remain obscure. Sixpence None the Richer is a pop/rock band with several hit singles to their credit and a reputation for making music that is both brainy and catchy. There is a relationship between them and the music Tess Wiley is making in the late 1990s and early 2000s, though hardly a direct one. Recorded from 1999-2001 and released in September 2002, Rainy Day Assembly seems in some respects to drop out of nowhere, a product of stark originality that feeds 1980s and 1990s pop influences through a subversive and mischievous aesthetic filter. With their mix of pure pop ambition and occasional structural eccentricities, songs like “Small Things Define,” the title track, and “Out of My Head” seem a distillation of everything she has accomplished since and serve as a perfect introduction to her music.

I realized, of course, that I had got my hands on something special. In 2002 Tess Wiley was making music for grown-ups at a time when much of the music dominating the airwaves was for kids. By the time the fourth track, “Breathe,” was over, I knew I would be listening to this album often.

Her second album, 2004’s Not Quite Me, places more of an emphasis on linear pop structures and downplays some of the delightful eccentricities that make Rainy Day Assembly a unique listening experience. Taking their place is a more straightforward approach to crafting harmonious sounds and radio-ready songs that have a broader appeal. Naked pop rhythms abound, such as in the title track and the sinewy and seductive “How Does Silence Feel?” But Not Quite Me is a Tess Wiley album, and there is something different going on. This becomes apparent on “Let it Come,” when toward the end of the song the instruments fade into the background, vanishing behind a rising swell of voices, a rich wordless chorus. Overall, despite the jaunty closing cut, “This Shadow,” and a track titled “Happy Now,” the album weighs in on the meditative, melancholy side, with an abundance of minor keys and lyrics that do more questioning than celebrating.

In 2007 she released Superfast Rock’n Roll Played Slow, which leaves behind the electric polish of Not Quite Me in favor of a simplicity and rawness in its predominantly acoustic arrangements and occasional whimsical flourishes that give the album the spontaneous feel of a demo. The primary instrument here is Tess’s voice, which is front and center throughout the recording, and exhibits an expressive range that is nothing short of remarkable. There is a quality to her voice and her approach to singing on this album that on a few songs seems to leave her utterly exposed, dangling somewhere between tough and vulnerable. As you listen you begin to suspect that maybe the toughness is nothing more than an attempt to mask the vulnerability. To this point in her career Tess’s lyrics have included confessional elements and at times can even be described as self-critical, but here the self-doubting becomes explicit. This is most noticeable in the sublime “Idle,” in which she admits:

No matter how much I protest,
No matter how much I am blessed,
I’ll always have to prove myself to me.
I can’t let it go. I don’t know what they might think of me,
And I know I shouldn’t care, but I can’t let it go.
I don’t know how I should feel.

Tess Wiley 5

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Question & Answer

IC: You come from a creative family. What music were you listening to growing up?

TW: I heard a ton of jazz and classical, of course: Steely Dan, Miles Davis, Beethoven, Mahler. But I was drawn to the radio like any other kid. My first “favorite song” was “The Tide is High” by Blondie. I can remember telling my mom that when I was four. I’m sure she was thrilled. Later I loved Billy Joel, Whitney Houston. My dad got me the Amy Grant cassette tape “Unguarded” to finally give me something else to listen to than Whitney’s debut! I wore both of those tapes out in the end. My very first purchase with my own money, oddly, was the first Skid Row LP. That was the beginning of my “metal” phase, although it was probably more glam. Dangerous Toys, Mr.Big, but of course: Guns n’ Roses.

IC:   Tell me about your earliest attempts at making music.

TW: I recall having fooled around on the piano early on, and when I turned five my parents signed me up for piano lessons. My mom would tell you I started singing before I spoke in full sentences, though. “Tender Shepard” and “Create in me a Clean Heart” were in the early repetoire. Apparently, at my recitals even age 5 or 6 I would improvise when I made a mistake or forgot how the song went, until I could find my way back into the piece. Unfortunately, my improvisational skills may have been nipped in the bud by too much classical music, too much reading notes and not being free with it. I do have one of my first recordings still on cassette tape. My dad brought home a synthesizer to try out, and I recorded a piece that had an A-B-A form and found two different sounds that fit the different moods. A bit ahead of my time at 7.

IC:   Who were you trying to emulate?

TW: That didn’t start until later on when I actually started making my “own” music, it was with a band of high school friends. They had a lot of idols: Bob Mould, REM, U2. To be honest, mostly stuff I wasn’t interested in. I can’t exactly recall what I was listening to in the 9th grade (other than the classic rock radio station), but soon after I discovered indie. Throwing Muses, Belly, Juliana Hatfield, Lemonheads. Then our bass player found out about The Frames. They were on the listening booth at the local music store, promoted by Glen Hansard’s part in The Commitments. That and very early Green Day consumed us for a while.

As far as singing, I can’t really say I ever tried to emulate anyone, honestly. I’ve always felt that the influences I had were more things I internalized, and what came out of me didn’t necessarily reflect those sounds. Maybe I’m just a true original?

IC:  What prompted your decision, at the age of 22 and after only one album, to leave Sixpence None the Richer and embark on a solo career?

TW: Well, ahem, I was 20 at the time, so – ya – really immature. The problem with Sixpence in that phase was that they were going in circles, no one seemed to be pushing them out of the microcosm they toured, and no one in the band had a whole lot of gumption to take things further (it seemed). I was antsy, plus they wanted to move to Nashville, which at the time seemed like a hellish idea. I can’t explain why. Maybe because it represented country and christian music, two genres I didn’t want to have much to do with. I didn’t see the singer/songwriter aspect of it, and I didn’t see myself as a singer/songwriter then, anyway. I was punk! I was indie! I was alternative! I was way more Austin than Nashville, so that’s where I decided to stay. In addition, a certain someone in the band was in love with me and frustrated that I was dating the sound guy. We butted heads, both in our stubborn ways, and I basically got kicked out. There you go.

IC:  What was it like, at 25, to be recording your first solo album in NYC?

TW: The entire NYC experience was pretty mind-boggling. I knew it then, but I keep having flashes of, “OMG, I can’t believe THAT person played on my record, too, and now he’s playing with David Bowie/Aimee Mann/Sam Phillips/Solomon Burke/Elvis Costello.” The list goes on and on. At the time, the most amazing thing was to have Jeff Buckley’s drummer play on it. It was definitely one of the fancier studios I’ve been in, and being able to say that Kevin Killen mixed the thing still provides me with credibility from those who know.

But on the other hand, I was an awfully shy thing for a long time in my life, and it absolutely intimidated me. I didn’t really find my true voice anyway until a few years later, but I feel like I sound a bit stifled. It’s a shame. I kind of wish I could re-record the vocals to it one day.

IC:  Has your approach to songwriting changed over the course of a career that now spans almost 20 years?

TW: Holy moly – 20 years. Can’t believe I can say that. Yeah, I’d say I’m trying hard to be less precious about it. I try to think less, not use such “big” words or be so grammatically correct (although it is a desire of mine to promote good language!) I also start more often with lyrics. I try my best to write down everything that comes into my head, hoping to be able to use it later. Sometimes something doesn’t make sense until later. And in any case, if I don’t write it down immediately, it’s gone, gone, gone. So frustrating.

IC:  You moved to Germany in your twenties and just as your career was getting underway. Musically speaking, how do you view that move today?

TW: Hmm, musically speaking, it wasn’t the best idea. I used to joke that the Beatles kick-started their career in Germany, but of course, they were in Hamburg, not Giessen, which I like to refer to as Germany’s armpit. That’s not really fair anymore – a lot of music has been coming out of this town for a while now, and the city planners are starting to finally get a bit of a grip on aesthetics. It’s changing. Slowly. And I get out more, I have a manager with a vision, and I’m MUCH less intimidated than I was before. I shot myself in the foot every day with my “humility”. Was a waste of time! But better to learn late than never, eh?

IC:  Does your career have a defining moment?

TW: I think that’s on the immediate horizon.

IC:  What are your hopes for the new CD?

TW: That it provide that defining moment.

I really hope to be able to find a good niche for myself. I don’t want to become a huge star, which is good, because I imagine I’m a bit too old for that now, but I simply don’t want to be on the road constantly. I have two wonderful boys who need their mommy close to them as much as possible. I hope to enter the songwriting world more, possibly write with and for other people. I love to sing, and I enjoy performing, but there’s something enticing about hearing what other people do with my creations. Plus I imagine it must be nice to stay at home and let the checks come in.

Tess Wiley 2

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Timeline

1995

This Beautiful Mess (Sixpence None the Richer)

2002

Rainy Day Assembly (full-length CD)

2004

Not Quite Me (full-length CD)

2007

Superfast Rock’n Roll Played Slow (full-length CD)

2010

Tess Wiley – Live (live in the studio recording)

2012

Tornados (EP)

—Ian Colford

—Tess Wiley Photographs by Apolonia Wieland at Bang Bang Photography; you can watch more Tess Wiley videos on her Youtube channel, TessWileyMusic. Her new CD, Little Secrets, is due out this fall.

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Ian Colford

Ian Colford has been publishing stories and reviews for a long time. This profile of songstress Tess Wiley is his first venture into music journalism. His short story collection, Evidence (2008), was shortlisted for the Danuta Gleed, Raddall Atlantic Fiction and ReLit awards, and his novel, The Crimes of Hector Tomas (2012) recently won Trade Book of the Year at the 2013 Alberta Book Awards. Most of his disposable income goes on books and the rest goes on music. Recently he has been mourning the death of Ray Manzarek by listening to too much of the Doors. He works as a reference librarian at the Sexton Design & Technology Library at Dalhousie University.

Apr 072013
 

McCabe phot (2)

For your Sunday morning delectation, over coffee and bagels or eggs and bacon or hominy and grits and the New York Times or the Sunday Star or the London Sunday Times, preferably while you’re still in bed, here is Marilyn McCabe singing Leconte de Lisle‘s “Les Roses d’Ispahan” put to music by Gabriel Fauré. Marilyn’s popular translation and performance pieces have a very special place at Numéro Cinq; she’s done a bunch and I have to say it’s a treat I keep returning to, just to switch onto NC, find Marilyn and shut my eyes listening to her voice. So I’ve collected all her the contributions onto one page to make this easier for readers. Just click on her name in this paragraph to be taken to The Marilyn McCabe NC Archive Page. For each of these pieces, Marilyn also provides a deft translation of the original poem.

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In keeping with the West’s long love affair with the idea of the East, Leconte de Lisle (1818-1894) invokes the mystery and seduction of Iran, its aromas and flora. He plays with formal constructions, limiting himself to four end words in French poetry’s traditional alexandrine or twelve-syllable lines.  When he put the poem to music, Gabriel Fauré dropped two of the original stanzas, but breathed something into the lines that the text does not quite offer. Translator/traitor indeed, my pale rendering into English fails the poem’s romance. The original’s oo’s and oi’s naturally purse the lips to a murmur, toward a kiss.

Marilyn McCabe

Leconte de Lisle

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Click on the PLAY arrow and listen to Marilyn McCabe.

Les Roses d’Ispahan

Les roses d’Ispahan dans leur gaîne de mousse,
Les jasmines de Moussoul, les fleurs de l’oranger
Ont un parfum moins frais, ont une odeur moins douce,
O blanche Leïla! que ton souffle léger.

Ta lèvre est de corail, et ton rire léger
Sonne mieux que l’eau vive et d’une voix plus douce,
Mieux que le vent joyeux qui berce l’oranger,
Mieux que l’oiseau qui chante au bord d’un nid de mousse.

O Leïlah, depuis que de leur vol léger
Tous les baisers ont fui de ta lèvre si douce,
Il n’est plus de parfum dans le pale oranger,
Ni de céleste arôme aux roses dans leur mousse.

Oh que ton jeune amour, ce papillon léger,
Revienne vers mon coeur d’une aile prompte et douce,
Et qu’il parfume encore la fleur de l’oranger,
Les roses d’Ispahan dans leur gaîne de mousse.

—Leconte de Lisle

 

The Roses of Ispahan

The roses of Ispahan, their sheath of moss,
the jasmines of Moussoul, their orange blossoms,
send forth a perfume less fresh, a scent less soft,
O pale Leila, than your breath, so light.

Your lips are of coral and your light
filled laugh more lovely than swift water, your voice more soft;
more joyful than the wind that shivers the orange blossoms,
than the bird that sings beside its nest of moss.

O Leilah, since all the kisses have fled light-
ly your lips, there is no soft
perfume in the pale orange blossoms,
nor scent of roses in their moss.

Oh, that it would return on light
wings, your love, that butterfly, quick and soft,
and perfume again rise from the orange blossoms,
the roses in their sheath of moss.

—Translation & Performance by Marilyn McCabe

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Marilyn McCabe’s poem “On Hearing the Call to Prayer Over the Marcellus Shale on Easter Morning” was awarded A Room of Her Own Foundation’s Orlando Prize, fall 2012, and is forthcoming in the Los Angeles Review. Her book of poetry Perpetual Motion was published by The Word Works in 2012 as the winner of the Hilary Tham Capitol Collection contest.

 

 

 

Mar 062013
 

 Choreographer Elizabeth Schmuhl & Composer Ariane Miyasaki

I’m very proud of this one, almost paternal: A Numéro Cinq first, an original piece of music by Ariane Miyasaki combined with an original dance choreographed and performed by Elizabeth Schmuhl, commissioned specially for Numéro Cinq. In other words, the first NC ballet. Never before in the annals of art — okay, well, maybe a bit over the top, but this is extraordinary. Ariane is an MFA student in the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Music Composition program and Elizabeth is an MFA student in the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing program. They had never met before I put them together and suggested they collaborate on a work just for us. The result was recorded on video, a grainy, fixed-camera production that is itself part of the finished product, an edgy, alienated, even terrifying orchestral composition for female voices based on a text written by Miyasaki when she was seventeen, after she had lived wild for four years on the streets of Seattle. The music is concrete, startling, acousmatic — none of the usual instruments appear, but as you listen the voices create an aesthetic space in your mind, the words become notes. The dance follows the movements of the musical composition, beginning with silence/stillness and moving into the frenzied contortions of the a girl on the run, a girl with no skin inhabited by voices and street sounds.  This is just a gorgeous thing to have.

See the video below. Best watched in the full screen mode. And underneath the video we have brief essays by the collaborators on their compositional process (also choreography notes from Elizabeth). So not only do we get the art, we get insight in the making of art.

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Ariane Miyasaki

RUN FALL RUN

Now there is no Where or Where to.
There is no What or What next.
Only Run.
Run through the panic and the blurry vision,
Through the ringing ears and rattled bones.
Run until the spinning stops.

Two sets of feet, out of sync,
Beat the earth, scattering rocks and debris,
Kicking up yellow clouds of pine dust.
The first is all panicked, mammalian desperation.
The second merely follows, waiting for his prey to fall,
With the predatory patience of experience.

Raw throat, lungs breathing air made of salt.
Run.
Chest creaking, on fire, and full of survival.
Run.
Force clear a dazed brain and
Run.

I lifted the poem directly from my notebooks, written at the age of 17, a week after I had finally “come in” after living four years on the street, mostly in Seattle. I had run away from home in southern California in January, 1999, when I was 13; I left the street in February, 2003. I was, to say the least, a super angry person. My uncle described me as “almost  feral.” Oddly enough, I never lost the certainty that I would eventually go to college. There was a Value Village where people would dump their old books; the store didn’t sell books, so the books got thrown out. I used to dumpster dive behind the store and come up with armloads of books. I ended up with a pretty good background in literature (apparently, people don’t throw out their old science and math books — I still have gaps). I didn’t edit or rewrite the text, though now I know it’s not poetry; at the time, I had no idea of the rules of form. But I thought about it and realized that if these were the words of any other 17-year-old, I wouldn’t change them. I didn’t want to tamper with what I had written, even though my aesthetic has changed; now I have what you might call a “reserved aesthetic.” I decided I would accord the past-ME the same respect I would give to someone else.

The music is acousmatic, meaning that you hear the sound through speakers, the source is unidentifiable. Compositionally, I am really interested in the way the human voice affects the sound and text and the way the sound will affect the perception of the words. Formally, the piece is written in two main sections with coda that goes back to “run;” the first section focuses on “run,” the next part focuses on “fall,” and then “run” comes back again. The texture of the sound begins to change about two and a half minutes in and then again at the five and a half minute mark. The coda is very short, only a minute, and it’s calmer, using vehicle sounds like a train. To get the voices, I basically spammed all of the women I knew on Facebook, asking them to record readings. I asked 42 people; 15 sent in recordings; of those I used only 13, 13 different women reading the text. There were places where the voices become decorrelated, they begin break up, kind of come apart, the rhythms start to change; originally, I was going to use a granular synthesizer but in the end did it the old way, I just spliced it by hand, which isn’t that difficult anymore, splicing them or stretching them out without changing the pitch. What I hadn’t expected was the vocal range, from young girls with high pitched voices to the two older women, in their sixties, who had low grainy voices; I could almost make real harmonies with the voices — they contrast nicely with the sampled sounds and presented me with a nice way of blending the voice-text in with the train in the last section.

— Ariane Miyasaki

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 Elizabeth Schmuhl

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When making a dance, I usually begin with an idea or situation I want to explore through movement. Shortly after, I find music to help give structure to the dance I’m creating. The music serves as a skeleton, often shaping the narrative (if there is one, and for me, there usually is). Collaborating with Ariane Miyasaki was so refreshing to me as an artist, as my process was altered: I directly responded to the song “Run Fall Run’ that Ariane gave me, instead of searching for music that complimented my initial idea for a dance. In order to make a dance, I first listen to the music and then break apart into segments I hear. I use this as the basis for different sections of the dance. Usually I do several recordings of myself improvising to the music and watch the videos over and over again until I can see what type of movement phrases I’m repeating, as they tell me something about what I’m feeling. Once I have several movement phrases, I begin to make floor pattern drawings, and write my movement phrases with counts (especially phrases that are difficult for me to execute).

I staged this in a rectangular space, in the city of Benton Harbor. I had a deadline nearing and there was snow on the ground; the temperature was hovering above 10 degrees Fahrenheit. I decided to dance anyway, with boots on, no less. The cold gave me a new energy that I never experienced during my studio rehearsals of the piece. The weather was bewitching, and I was able to get into character quite well. It’s also important to note the importance of the sky, and how it created a feeling of limitlessness while I was dancing. Not only did it create this for me inside, in my interior, I believe it is expressed in my focus throughout the dance. If and when the piece is performed indoors, the dancer must make a huge effort to dance beyond the walls, something that is possible, but never quite the same as dancing underneath the sky.

For me, the feeling invoked in my body when listening to the music was one of claustrophobia. I envisioned a girl who is in turmoil, desperately trying to get herself through a difficult situation. She experiences reprieves, moments of rest, but ultimately, whatever situation or life-phase she is in is affecting her deeply. In the beginning of the piece, the threat of falling is present. The girl acknowledges the possibility of falling and ties a string around her middle, to keep herself up (see 3:59). It doesn’t completely work, because she still experiences moments of great sadness, when her body feels almost not her own.  However, throughout the piece, there is a force running through her; this force is what I believe to be the human spirit, which gives her the ability to get up and persevere, despite her situation.

— Elizabeth Schmuhl

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Elizabeth Schmuhl is a modern dance instructor, performer, choreographer and writer. She is a graduate of the University of Michigan, where she studied dance and earned a BA in Creative Writing and Literature. Currently, she is an MFA in Writing candidate at VCFA. She has won an Avery Hopwood Award and recently published a story in Ghost Writers: Us Haunting Them, put out by Wayne State University Press.

Ariane Miyasaki is a composer based in Schenectady, New York. She is chiefly interested in electroacoustic and acousmatic work, though enjoys writing acoustic music as well. Her piece “she said” for hand bells and stereo fixed media was premiered in 2013 by Cassandra McClellan as part of the 2013 I/O Festival in Williams, Massachusetts. Miyasaki is currently pursuing a Master of Fine Arts in composition at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She also holds a Bachelor of Music from State University of New York at Potsdam, where she studied music theory and history, an Associate of Science and an Associate of Arts from Schenectady County Community College, where she majored flute performance and humanities and social science. While attending classes at the Crane School of Music at SUNY Potsdam, she studied electronic composition with Paul Steinberg. She is currently studying electroacoustic and acousmatic composition at VCFA. Miyasaki remains active as a flutist. She regularly plays with the SCCC Wind Ensemble and Capital Region Wind Ensemble, and frequently can be heard in other area ensembles and in the pit  orchestras of local musical productions. Miyasaki studied flute with Kristin Bacchiocchi-Stewart, Norman Thibodeau, and Kenneth Andrews.

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Sep 252012
 

Darryl Gregory lives in Connecticut but has roots in Texas, plays country music on his lap steel guitar, and sings like a mournful soul. He can also write, and so we have here an analysis of the genesis and composition of an entire album, music and words. He tells a story about telling stories, eloquently and generously, and incidentally tells the stories again,  family stories. I love any insight I can get into the working language and practice of an art form other than my own. It always creates analogies, parallels and connections in my mind. While you’re reading, you can listen to the songs (click on the widget half-way down the page).

I met Darryl through his wife, Sophfronia Scott, who published an essay here last issue and is a student at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She told me a delightful story about how they found each other during a football game when she was in the stands and he was the band leader. I tell you this because I like the family connections here on NC which in the end is very much about friends, families and students (this is one of the reasons so many of the author photos on NC have children in them — have you noticed?). Also I think talented people find each other.

dg

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I’m a songwriter. I’m also a storyteller—a raconteur with melodic intent. When I set out to write  a song, I want to guide a listener through my character’s state of mind as that character plays the hand I’ve dealt them. I use music to groove along with the words and to fill in for the fat I trimmed off when crafting singable lyrics. I doubt a novelist or a poet would or could do such a thing. But I can, in a sense, leave out some words that my lap steel guitar will intone with a reverb-ladened wail. That’s the really cool thing about being a songwriter, but you still need to tell a story and connect to the listener no matter how much reverb you soak in.

I say this all up front because as I began work on my latest album, Big Texas Sky, I had to keep reminding myself that I was a storyteller. I needed to tell a story, not just within each song, but over the entire album. What did I want to say and how could I string an album’s worth of songs together in order to convey it to a listener? I had a lot of songs to choose from as I had been writing consistently since my previous release in 2007. But which were the songs that told their own story and told a bigger story when played together with other songs?

Life, as it does with many a creative process, played a hand in answering that question. Last year as I began thinking about the process of writing and recording a new album, I was dealing with a boatload of family issues. I lost a very close friend and then my sister-in-law, attending their funerals in two different states only days apart. At the same timeI watched my mother’s health deteriorate as her age sapped her strength and will to live. I spent months saying my farewells to her. She passed away two weeks before her 86th birthday.

Last autumn I received a photograph in the mail from my Aunt Thelma, my father’s sister, who had just turned 95. She resides in Fort Worth, Texas. It was a photo of her, my other surviving aunt, their children (my cousins) and their children, all at the gathering for Thelma’s 95th birthday. As I looked over the picture a feeling of deep regret began to well up in my heart. Besides my aunts, I did not know any of the people in the photo. There were many familial characteristics that I latched onto (that man in the second row looks a lot like my brother) but I had no names and no story to go along with the photo. This thought truly saddened me.

So as I gathered songs for my then untitled album, I began to notice I was putting together a collection of songs about family. Consciously or not here was a group of songs that said something about how I was feeling. I saw the love and the regret in the words I had written, and those lyrics felt like unsent letters waiting to be postmarked.

From one of the songs emerged the phrase that would become the title of the collection and give me the way to connect all the dots. “Anywhere But Here” is a story about a young girl trying to escape one abusive situation after another. She curses her fate for being born under a big Texas sky. The image of a big sky overhead makes me think of God: the omnipresence, the spirit that is always there, watching as we live our lives. We either acknowledge it or not, but the fact remains that it is there. So for me the sky became a metaphor for God and Texas became a metaphor for family and these two ideas strung the beads together. After I saw this, picking the rest of the songs for Big Texas Sky became easy. Though I ended up with fewer songs than is on a usual CD these days, 7 instead of 10 or 12, I feel these seven songs are solid stories of family, life, spirit and love. Together they create a tableau the listener can comfortably insert themselves and feel right at home.

I’m very fortunate to have a recording studio in my basement. I built it when our family moved from cramped quarters in NYC to expanded-suburban-landownership in CT. I can go downstairs, shut the door and take my time finding the right way to record the songs I’ve written. For this CD I wanted to have a country/Americana sound throughout because I knew, even before I decided on the title, I wanted the album to be associated with Texas in some way. I was raised listening to country music: Conway Twitty, Merle Haggard, George Jones, Waylon Jennings. I hated it all. I hated it all because my parents loved it. But I absorbed it through the pores of my musical skin and when I got very serious about songwriting I found that my songs were inherently country. Oh I can write a mean post punk power pop diddy, but country is where my heart is.

I don’t have an exact process to recording, but the general path goes something like this: first drums, rhythm guitar and bass, add in the lead guitar, keyboards and background vocals, top it off with lead vocals and mix it all together.

I like to spend a lot of time finding just the right sound for my guitar through different amplifier settings and just the right groove for the bass. When a musician talks about groove he is talking about a couple of integrated items — the rhythms that allow the listener to move along with the beat (can I dance to it?) and how the other instruments all fall within that basic rhythm. You know you’re playing with good musicians when they know their place within the groove.

That being the case, I will record those instruments first over a looped drum track, kind of like a metronome, but with more of a rhythmic groove from a bass drum and snare (no one likes playing to a click-click-click-click). Once I get the bass and rhythm guitars down, I will go back and record a real drum part. I’m not a great drummer, so I will call in a pro to play these parts.

Next comes a scratch vocal track. Scratch means that I know I’m not going to keep it and it’s just there as a guide, like a piece of scrap wood. I use the scratch vocal to help me record the lead guitars, keyboards, lap steel guitars, background vocals and anything else that plays off of the lead vocal. The reason for doing this is so that those instrumental parts do not get in the way of the vocals. It’s all about the words and the story in country music, so the voice is center and upfront. Next time you listen to rock or pop, take a moment to listen to where the voice is in relation to the band. It’s usually even with or a little in the back of the instruments. Not the case with country. The voice is always more prominent than everything else.

Now I go back and do many, many takes of the lead vocal part. I find singing to be deceivingly difficult. Especially when you go back into the control room of the studio and listen closely: swallowed consonants, odd sounding vowels, bad pitch, poor phrasing. I usually record 5 or 6 full passes of the song, then go back and record multiple takes of verses and choruses and bridges. The real fun begins when I try to find the best sounding bits from all that and edit it together onto a single track. Digital recording sure has made this easier, but it still comes down to singing the part right, knowing what you want the song to sound like an being able to tell the story while singing. By the way, I never use auto-tune. If I can’t sing in tune then it’s time to find another line of work.

Here’s a quick run-down of the songs on Big Texas Sky and the thread that strings them together. A complete set of lyrics is available at the Big Texas Sky web page. I’ll also include a few notes about the sound as well just to give you an idea of how the music pulls the story along.

Aunt Jean’s Piano

This a story that makes a connection through time using the piano once played by a long dead relative as a pivot point. Jean was my father’s younger sister and she was always described to me as “the talented pretty one” of the nine children. She died of a brain aneurism at the age of 19. I often thought about what might have happened to the piano she played.

I run my hands across the keys
Black and white and yellowed with age

What might it be like to come back to her house and play it as the ghosts dance in the room?

I feel her ghost inside the chords
As they drift around this room
I see her dancing on the porch
Singing an old Texas tune

The interesting thing about this piece is that there was no piano in it. It’s a song about a piano and yet, no piano. The song is stark with just a guitar, mandolin and fiddle to accompany the voice. Of course this bugged me to no end until I came up with the idea to record a prelude. In the lyrics there is a reference to Jean’s father loving the old Methodist hymns. I decided to begin the song with a hymn being sung by Jean and me (the storyteller). I pulled in a dear friend to sing Jean’s part way out of her range so she would sound like a young girl and I sang the alto part down an octave. It comes out well as a very cool effect.

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Anywhere But Here

I wanted to write a story in the vein of Emmy Lou Harris’s “Red Dirt Girl”. A story about a young girl who is trying to escape one abusive situation after another and not quite getting out.

She’s gonna run far
From this broke down life
Stepdaddy’s greasy hands
And his visits in the night
He ain’t gonna hold her down this time
She ain’t lookin’ back this time

The listener hopefully realizes that she’s never going to find peace because it’s always anywhere but here.

She got a ticket for a bus
Headed to Austin
Or is it Detroit?
Maybe it’s Boston?
As long as it’s
Anywhere but here

The guitars are special in this song. There’s a twangy-ness to them that makes me think of an East Texas Buddy Holly sound. Layered on top of this is a lap steel guitar played with a slide and drenched in reverb. If you’ve ever heard the Flatlanders you’ll know the sound I was aiming for.

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Workin’ Man

This is my tongue-in-cheek poke at why some guys work so damned hard: for the pretty little woman at home.

Yeah work
Cause baby needs a penthouse view
I work
Cause baby needs caviar
I work
Cause baby needs a mink coat
I work
Baby don’t know why I’m broke

I usually perform this song as a talking blues or a work-song. A work song is the grandfather to the music we know as ‘the blues’. It’s sung or chanted without instrumental support (acapella) and usually has a rhythmic groove that would go well with swinging a sledgehammer. I wanted to add atmosphere to the song and that meant adding instruments. I decided to arrange it for this CD with a pounding bass, a dobro and junk percussion. Junk percussion meaning, well… junk: tin cans, metal bars, trash cans, pots and pans, etc. I recorded the voice and then ran it through an amp to make it sound like the singer is talking through a bull horn at a union rally. All of this is intended to create a mood and a groove for this guy to wail about his lot in life.

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How Do I Tell Her

In my job as a music educator, I have been in the position of having my job eliminated as school districts try to cut the budget. It’s a fearful situation in so many regards, not least of which was having to go home and have a discussion with my wife about the possibility that I might not have a job in the coming school year. “How Do I Tell Her” relates the story of a man who is let go from a long standing job and doesn’t know how to tell his wife.

Now I feel like a thief in the night
Like a ghost in my soul I’m going out of my mind
I’m afraid to deliver disappointment
Collecting her tears in kind

He finds that his wife knows more about his fear than he does and together they have the strength to weather the storm.

Next to “Anywhere But Here”, this is the most ‘country’ sounding track on the album. I wanted to go for that late 60’s, early 70’s sound with the pedal steel awash in reverb and a male chorus of background singers. Sad sounding, but not too sad. This is the type of song that a guy would call up on the jukebox, order a shot and a beer and after having a listen he’d raise the shot glass and say – “Here’s to that guy… I know how he feels… Man, I wish I had a woman like that…”

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What About Love

Picture a couple in their mid to late 60‘s. The children have moved out, the house is too big, they have their ingrained habits and the love may or may not be there anymore. The song is written as a duet where each person is questioning the other – Were you, are you, and will you be the one I love?

What about you
What about me
Was I your guiding light
Your rock of Gibraltar
Did I part the sea

I love a good country duet. George Jones and Tammy Wynette, Merle Haggard and Janie Fricky, Dolly and Porter Wagoner just to name a few. I asked a good friend of mine to come into the studio to sing the female part. We discovered that the really interesting thing about getting the right takes was in the vocal inflections. We had to make sure that as we sang to each other we sounded like we were in love and that these two characters were questioning their relationship and yet reaffirming it at the same time. A singer needs to be an actor.

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Elegy for an Old Man

Death has been a constant companion for my wife and myself for the past year. I’ve thought a lot about it and written on it many times in my journal. This song is about dying from the point of view of the one who, while on his deathbed, realizes he never really thought about dying.

I was a man of broad shoulders
Never thought my strength would disappear
Death snuck up behind
Cause I paid him no mind
Now we sit here in familiar conversation

I drew inspiration from the old cowboy song “Streets of Laredo” in the way that the character laments some of the things he has done yet relishes the full life he did have. After I wrote it and listened to it a bunch of times I realized it was an unintentional song about my father. He grew up in Texas, served in the Navy, settled in Cleveland and was always a cowboy in my eyes.

A note about the arrangement. I wanted to originally have a very mellow piano and bass accompaniment interspersed with a very distorted guitar sound in the vein of RadioHead or Adrian Belew. But as I listened, I found that the sounds were very distracting (as I mentioned before, the vocals are job number 1) and so I opted for a more chordal distorted guitar that, in my mind, represent the old man’s fists coming down on the table in defiance as he is about to relate his story.

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Prayer & Hallelujah

This is a very simple song as far as lyrics are concerned, yet when I perform it I always get a powerful response. The song starts slowly with two verses that are a prayer to the divine for peace, love and compassion.

 Give me peace
In my soul
Give me love
Let me rock-n-roll
I’m gonna reach up into heaven
And touch the light of an angel’s wing
Bring it all back to my heart
So the world can hear me sing
Hallelujah

The song then breaks into a rousing gospel section with a repeating refrain:

May we all feel the light of a brilliant love.

I put this song at the end of the album to sum it all up by saying that we all need some spiritual connection to get through all that life hands us. It’s the connection to family and friends that allows us to sing a Hallelujah every now and then.

When I began writing this song, the guitar part in the beginning prayer section reminded me of Led Zeppelin’s song “Ramble On”. The more I played it the more it touched that musical memory so much so that I almost abandoned the song entirely. But I loved the way it grooved with the lyrics and so I kept at it and it found it’s way onto the album. I do tip my hat to the mighty Zeppelin song by emulating that great bass line of John Paul Jones that stands out as a melodic counterpoint against the voice and guitar.

So I’m turning 50 this year. 50 is a good number to make one look back and think about regret, or not. I’ve decided to make a list of things I want to do in my 50th year – a to-do list for the man peering over the edge. I think one of the top items on this list will be: Visit family in Texas, bring guitar, leave regret behind.

— Darryl Gregory

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Darryl Gregory is a true multi-instrumentalist who honed his skills as a rocker and singer-songwriter in NYC in the late 1990’s and early part of the new century. He produces other songwriters in his studio (Blue Cave Studios) in Sandy Hook, CT. Darryl has composed music for many different types of ensembles including orchestra, band, brass quintet, string quartet and Javanese Gamelan. He has composed music for film as well as incidental music for several off and off-off Broadway theatrical and dance works. Darryl has degrees in Music Education, trombone performance and music composition. He lives with his wife and son in the backwoods of Connecticut.