Charles Mingus: a train in Norway

If you were to see me walking down the street, jump out from behind the bush in which you were hiding, and ask me who the greatest American composer of the 20th century was, I would say “Charles Mingus.” Then I would say “that’s a dumb question — ‘best’ is a silly concept, taste and craft are relative to personal experience and expectations, and also why were you hiding behind that bush.”

Today I happened to be down the rabbit hole of a different amazing composer, Eric Dolphy, when I came across this gem of the two playing Take the A Train together with Mingus’s fantastic band in Norway, which I hadn’t watched in a very long time. The most obviously arresting part of the video happens about midway through, when Dolphy takes a long, partially unaccompanied bass clarinet solo. To me, there is not a moment of that solo which seems unthinking or unintentional. Nothing lingers outside the bounds of a specific, purposeful musical decision. As someone who improvises a lot, I can tell you how difficult that is. Not a single note, not even a single sound here, is lazy. 

As I listened and watched I also remembered how great Charles Mingus is as a composer. In this video, his compositional skill isn’t manifested by the tune (which wasn’t written by him) or any particular pitch decisions (as he doesn’t even take a solo), but rather by the way in which he organizes the band, the way he cajoles and exhorts his musicians, and the way he exerts a clear authorial intent over the scenario. Mingus was an incredible composer of people, and that doesn’t always come across when you just hear his music.

Also, how adorable is Jaki Bayard. I mean, his solo is fantastic and his comping is clunky and weird and amazing, but also the man is just adorable.

Toshio Hosokawa: Vertical Song I

I came into contact with the music of Toshio Hosokawa last summer, when I was advised by a percussionist to check out his marimba solo Reminiscence. That piece features some wonderful instrumental writing, so I decided to listen to his solo flute work Vertical Song I as research for a short piece of my own.

Due to curiosity about the notation of the breath techniques, my second listen came courtesy of this video, which shows the score. I was surprised to see some long silences notated out in the music (as well as a fermata over a rest to begin the piece). These long pauses didn’t jump out at me the first listen-through. In fact, I had a difficult time grasping onto anything during my first pass. This isn’t particularly unusual for me with most music. It can sometimes take 3 or 4 hearings for me to begin to get my bearings with a piece, or even more depending on how focused a frame of mind I’m in. Anyway, I had a difficult time with this piece. Much of it sounded similar to me. The most striking portion was the tea-kettle whistle tones at the end, an interesting sound which was an outgrowth of what came before but sufficiently different as to feel fresh. I didn’t find too much more on second and third listens, even with the score, although I did enjoy Hosokawa’s notation, which is precise, efficient, and clean. After multiple hearings the music is still a stranger to me, and I’m even more perplexed by its title. I can live with that. Perhaps more Hosokawa exposure will lead to more clarity, though perhaps it’ll lead to new, exciting confusions.

Jürg Frey: Extended Circular Music

The composers of the Wandelweiser movement are having something of a moment right now, or at the very least I seem to keep reading and hearing about them. From what I’ve heard peripherally, this music is slow, long, and quiet. Today, I decided to take a listen for myself and check out Jürg Frey’s Extended Circular Music, written 2014-15. This is a set of 10 pieces for various ensembles (it rotates among solo piano, piano quartet, and 3 or 4 saxophones). I listened to pieces 1-3 and 5-7 in the set, which is what appears on the album Jürg Frey from Musiques Suisses CD with the Mondrain Ensemble and the Konus Quartett (not to be confused with the Kronos Quartet), which can be accessed on Spotify.

The pieces consisted of repeated, soft harmonies in either homophony or simple, repeated patterns. From this literal description it’s difficult to convey how and why this music is so lovely. As Frey is working almost exclusively with harmony and timbre, I was most drawn to the pieces with the intersection of the harmonies that I enjoyed the most and the timbres I found most pleasing — this turned out to be the 2nd piece, for solo piano, and the 6th, for saxophone trio. Not coincidentally, these pieces began with an almost-identical (it may have been identical, I’m not entirely sure) minor 7th-ish chord (which is, in technical terms, my jam).

I’ll readily admit that I was not prepared to enjoy this music as much as I did. My attention span tends towards the short side (which has been part of the motivation for undergoing this project of focused listening) and I thus often have a difficult time listening to long, non-active music. I usually feel trapped and restless. This music, though, provided nothing but comfort and the ability to wallow in the warm hug of Frey’s sounds. Admittedly, my comfort likely had a lot to do with the relative short length of these pieces, which were, except for the 7th piece, only 3 or 4 minutes long. Regardless, this has been a heart-warming and nap-inducing first taste of Wandelweiser. My next step is to calm my pulse and dive into one of the more marathonic selections.

Hildegard Westerkamp: Talking Rain

If you know me, there is a good chance that I have, at some point, talked with (at) you about Hildegard Westerkamp. I am the (unofficial) president of her (imaginary) fan club. Westerkamp is a composer most closely associated with a scene that began in Vancouver during the 1970s which emphasized soundscapes, field recordings, and careful attention to the sounds of the world in which we live. Today, I chose a Westerkamp piece I hadn’t heard before, her 1997 work Talking Rain (her notes and a link to an interview can be found here, which I’ll check out after writing this so that I can listen with my own ears).

I listened to Talking Rain while observing the snowy scene outside my window. This didn’t prevent me from being transported to the shifting scenes implied by the piece’s metamorphoses. Talking Rain sounded like a journey, a voyage. There were some concrete destinations (a street scene, a beach) and others that were more abstract (Perhaps that was the sound of rain on a window pane? Maybe that was two buckets collecting the drops from a leaky ceiling?). The marvel of this piece, for me, is the way that Westerkamp moves from one suggestion of place to another. She connects the various water sounds seamlessly, moving gradually until we’re in an unmistakably different place but are not sure how we got there. It takes the patience and craft of a master composer to execute this effect with such subtlety.

This piece also made me think about the sounds themselves. Part of Westerkamp’s project is to train the ear to hear the musicality of the sounds which make up our environment. I felt the ordinary become musical in this work especially when Westerkamp played with pitch. I’m not sure of the exact methods used, but it seemed as if she often used very soft sine tones and light processing juxtaposed against the more pitched moments of the bare rain sounds. The produced pitches were thus in counterpoint with the pitches created by the water sounds, highlighting the latter’s musicality through contrast and placement. This may be what I appreciated most about Talking Rain (and Westerkamp’s music in general) — her methods reveal so much by using mostly juxtaposition through editing, with little processing. Without changing the identity of the sounds, she is able to make them sing.

Gérard Grisey: Partiels

Most of the posts here will detail my experiences listening to music I haven’t encountered before. Today, I chose a piece I’m familiar with but haven’t heard carefully in a long time: Gérard Grisey’s Partiels. Written in 1975, Partiels is part of Les Espaces Acoustiques, a cycle of pieces in which Grisey explored sound and timbre.

Thinking about sound and touch yesterday made me want to listen to Grisey. His music, to me, is very physical. You almost feel his harmonies instead of just hearing them. This certainly happened to me with the beginning of Partiels — I was on the floor of my apartment listening through speakers and could feel the vibrations of the opening low attacks. I had a first listen while cleaning my living room and discovered that our vacuum was sounding a near-perfect seventh partial above that low E. It actually blended with the music quite nicely. Maybe that says something about why I associate Grisey’s music with bodies. We feel his harmonies because they’re so resonant. His sounds vibrate richly and we vibrate in sympathy (as do our vacuums). Partiels almost reaches out and places itself within the resonating chambers of your body.

I’ve little else to say for Grisey today. My apartment is now more clean. I’m not saying that listening to Partiels will declutter your living space, but there does seem to be a highly suggestive correlation.

Liza Lim: Invisibility

Liza Lim is a composer currently teaching at the University of Huddersfield in England, a hotspot for experimental music. Today I had the chance to listen to her solo cello piece Invisibility, performed here by Séverine Ballon. There are some program notes at the bottom of the video, but I’m going to ignore them for now. Today’s post will be in two short parts: a paragraph after having just watched the video and a paragraph after reading the notes and doing a second hearing (without watching the performance).

First time through (watching): A cello teacher once talked to me about trying to remove artifacts from the sound while playing. I love that turn of phrase. What he meant was trying to limit the unintended squeaks and grunts that a string instrument tends to make when you bow it. For performing common-practice music, removing those sound artifacts makes a lot of sense — the composers often intended for you to produce a clean tone. My impression of Invisibility was of a piece that rejoiced in artifacts. The celebration was most apparent in the portions which used the specially prepared bow. To give just one example, the patches of bare wood against the string tend to produce distinctive whistling glissandi, which intermingle with the sounds produced by the hair. Unlike my squeaks while playing the cello, Lim’s use of artifacts is careful and controlled. The changes in bow location and left-hand glissandi in the normally bowed passages mimic and develop* those whistling glissandi. The splash of tiny, suggestive noises that comes with every note creates a polyphonic richness of texture. The music made me imagine feeling the surface of a bumpy, complex rock.

Second time through (listening): I recommend listening without the video if you have the time, it was a very affecting  experience. I was surprised that I kept losing track of which kind of bow was being used and briefly forgot that the final portion was with two bows, which I think is a testament to Lim’s inventiveness and Ballon’s talent. A musical idea which I didn’t really catch the first time around was the semitone harmonic motive. This seems to keep returning (and developing), sometimes in a bare way — a moment of smoothness between torrents of roughness. Those and other contrasts felt powerful, meaningful. The program notes touch on some of the things I mentioned above, but more precisely and eloquently. I love this description: “a landscape of unpredictable nicks and ruptures as different layers of action flow across each other.”

*it strikes me that I’ve used the idea of development in my first two posts now without problematizing it. This seems, unsurprisingly, problematic. Folks tend to use the idea of development in terms of Beethovenian, teleological, linear progression (the classic Intro to Music example is the beginning of Beethoven 5 — “look at how many different ways he does da-da-da-duuum and the way it transforms”). My definition of development is similar, but I want to emphasize that I mean the term in a very basic sense: a musical element that gets repeated in a different way. I think, perhaps, the difference is that I don’t mean development as a progression per se. Development to me does not necessarily lead to an ultimate transformation or a particular end result, though it can, and it’s super cool when it does (it’s also super cool when it doesn’t).

Ornette Coleman: Science Fiction

In beginning 2017, I’ve decided to reserve time every day to listen to some sounds in a focused way and put down briefish, semi-coherent first or second thoughts in reaction. Since I don’t believe I’ve ever kept a resolution of any kind past about a week, I’ll put all my reactions here in hopes that a devoted public readership* could act as an incentive to keep going. Feel free to listen along and let me know how you heard things differently.

Today is Ornette Coleman’s 1971 album Science Fiction. I’ve been on a Bad Plus kick recently, which reminded me that I’ve somehow managed to neglect careful attention to Mr. Coleman’s output, save the stunningly beautiful The Shape of Jazz to Come (1959). Ornette Coleman, for my non-jazzish reader(s)*, was a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and saxophonist (also a violinist and trumpeter) who passed away a little over a year ago. It’s difficult to overstate his influence upon not only jazz, but classical and creative musics of all kinds at large.

Many things struck me about Science Fiction. First, the gorgeous, sweeping, circular melodies of the vocal tracks (“What Reason Could I Give” and “All My Life”) powered by Asha Puthli (who has not only a beautiful voice but a very odd wikipedia page). I’m a sucker for long-breathed melodies with rhythmic churning chaos underneath (a holdover from The Shape of Jazz to Come). I was also struck by the careful variety of Mr. Coleman’s compositions in terms of form, adherence to rhythmic grid, affect, and orchestration. All the tracks feel very formally tight to me, with well-crafted inflection points — take the second track, “Civilization Day” as an example. First, on a small-scale level, I love how Billy Higgins (drums) and Charlie Haden (bass) take the tiniest pauses between the breaths in the melody, something which I imagine could have only been the result of years playing and feeling together. Moving one level up, I love how the horn duet after the head adds a lot of structural tension/excitement/surprise. This “surprise duet” idea is then developed once after the trumpet solo (really it’s a trio) when the drums briefly lay out to leave a sax-bass duet and developed again after the sax solo when the bass lays out to leave a drum solo to lead us back to the head. Moving up even one level higher, I love the way the album itself is structured. I think there’s a kind of arch in terms of intensity, with the dense and trippy “Science Fiction” as the peak.

I was also struck by Charlie Haden. Sometimes I forget that Charlie Haden was an amazing bass player and then I listen to Charlie Haden and I remember that Charlie Haden was an amazing bass player. See particularly the seventh track, “Law Years.”

Anywho, day 1 has resulted in my renewed love and admiration for all things Ornette and a hunger for more. (Un)Incidentally, the pianist and writer Ethan Iverson has written a lot about Mr. Coleman and has even done an analysis of this very album, which I haven’t read yet because I wanted to listen with my own ears. I’m going to go read his article now though to get educated about all the wrong things I just said, so you should too if you’re interested.




*hi mom