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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

A new tuba concerto.

I just finished watching a live stream of what should have been a major world premiere - that of Gunther Schuller's Concerto No. 2 for Tuba and Orchestra. The work was the last major commission of Harvey Phillips, whose importance as a musician and champion of the doofiest of all orchestral instruments cannot be overstated. Phillips was single-handedly responsible for bringing into existence probably about 65% of the music written for solo tuba in various contexts, some of which is actually worth hearing. The man was a giant and a huge inspiration to every tuba player - it's unfortunate that he looked so much like a tuba player. A very nice profile from the early 1980s can be seen below:

Anyway, with all that aside, Phillps' last commission before he died last year was for the work premiered tonight by Mike Roylance with the Boston University Orchestra, conducted by the composer. A preview article in the Boston Globe mentioned some of the background, and quoted Roylance, who is the principal tubist for the Boston Symphony, as saying it was the most difficult piece he ever had to perform.

It sounded difficult to play for sure. I can give nothing but credit to Roylance for his performance tonight of a piece whose technical demands were beyond most musicians' reaches regardless of their instrument. I have given my share of world premieres, too, and it's a tough task no matter what - you don't have the interpretive ideas of previous performers to fall back on, and you have to find the music in the ink that's placed in front of you on top of finding the technique and practicing all the licks. And it's a huge responsibility. If you blow the first performance, the chance of a second or third performance diminishes rapidly.

Well, at least as Roulance and Schuller performed the work, I am sad to say that I wouldn't expect many more performances. It's a stuffy, uninteresting work that takes itself far too seriously, and has little to offer the soloist other than an ingratiating quote of Stravinsky's Petroushka in the first movement (that quote is from a 15 second long tuba solo, one of the most prominent in the orchestral literature, that tuba players start working on in high school and seem never to stop). In all honesty, tuba solos are still kind of a new thing, and they have to serve a function beyond the composer's wishes for a while longer; they have to help audiences get over the prejudices they have about an instrument that's much more flexible, lyrical, and enjoyable to listen to than its reputation implies, and they have to make tuba players want to lobby for further performances. Schuller's concerto is stodgy, muddily orchestrated, and unforgiving, and frankly it's not going to be heard again.

It's really too bad, because serious tuba players have a serious problem. We play an instrument that is every bit as nimble as a trumpet, with a wider range and a lovely, dark color that makes for great solos - but we have to prove it. After years and years of spending more time as salesmen than artists, it's colored the whole tradition of tuba playing. A basic of tenet of tubism, if you will, is that it's more important to prove the worth of the performer than to make music. So now you get fantastic musicians with insane technical abilities and the ability to turn a phrase better than most violinists playing things like this all the time:

Some day I hope that will change. I dream of a day that I no longer play weird music on a tuba - I just play weird music. Until then, the best we have, from a musical and marketing standpoint, is still Ralph Vaughan Williams' Concerto for Bass Tuba and Orchestra, which, lovely as it is, remains the semi-humorous eccentricity of a crotchety old English octogenarian. Still, lovely:

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Neil Feather's Strange Inventions

I'm not generally familiar with the subculture of inventors of musical instruments. The tuba is weird enough for me, so I stay focused on that for the most part. But about ten years ago, I played at the High Zero Improvisation Festival in Baltimore, and I met Neil Feather. Nice guy. He has invented and built whole new families of musical instruments and devices that use electic pickups and strings and bicycle wheels and things. They are really quite lovely to look at, and they sound great. It's pretty easy to get lost in his website, . In three clips below, you can see him playing the melocipede (a strange electric instrument that's a cross between an exercise bike, a music box and passing traffic), the nondo (sheet metal, piano wire, and some sticks to beat on it with), and one of his suspended string instruments (which show the influence of Keith Rowe). Fun stuff.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

In Memoriam: Milton Babbitt and John Barry

Two big losses in the music world happened over the weekend, and I'd be remiss if I didn't at least mention them here.

Composer Milton Babbitt died on Saturday at the age of 94. Babbitt was a giant in the American avant-garde - a total serialist who arranged the parameters of musical sound (pitch, rhythm, envelope, timbre, anything he could control as a composer) into complex systems to such a sophisticated degree that he just about ended the possibilities of composing as a total serialist. And at the same time, he helped start the next big thing, helping to develop the first electronic music synthesizer with RCA, founding the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center and fueling one of the few genuine revolutions in music.

Babbitt wrote an article for High Fidelity in 1958 which explained his strong belief that music should be researched and studied in the Academy the same way science and mathematics are (read it here), which the editors cheekily entitled "Who Cares If You Listen?" It's a fascinating read -- without the title, it's an interesting argument for allowing musicians to work with sound as experimentalists in a safe space, but it became known as a primary document in the establishment of ivory tower elitism in the United States.

He wasn't entirely opposed to populist music, as much as his reputation indicates the contrary, though. Among his students, the most recognizable name outside of the New Music world was Stephen Sondheim, who really put self-indulgent musical theater on the map. And Babbitt flirted with Gunther Schuller's Third Stream concepts a bit, as well. While a lot of his music strikes me as elegant if somewhat uninteresting, I've always had a thing for his 1957 composition "All Set" for jazz ensemble. There's something genuinely swinging about the aggressive lack of swing. I've heard performances of the piece that bring out the "jazz" in it better than what I link to here, but the sound quality is good, and the commentary on the screen is another nice read:

Yesterday, composer John Barry died at 77 of a heart attack. The celebrated film composer is best known for the soundtracks of 11 James Bond films, but in poking around today for something different to post, I realized just how ubiquitous his music was in the second half of the 20th Century. I can think of no one whose orchestration sounds like his, and I can only come up with a handful of composers for western orchestra who can be as easily identified by tone color alone (Messiaen for sure, maybe Xenakis and Holst). He was another electronic music pioneer of sorts, adding some very early synthesizer parts to his scores in the 1960s and 1970s.

Here's a classic Barry recording that isn't from a Bond film - the theme to the 1970s TV drama The Persuaders:

Sunday, January 30, 2011

What you missed if you missed the opening act for Mission of Burma last night

I went with some friends last night to the sold out Mission of Burma performance at the Bell House in Brooklyn, NY. It's always a thrill for me to see Mission of Burma. As a boy, they were one of the greatest bands I had ever heard (and the older recordings still hold up as great documents in American punk rock history), and later as a young improviser I got the chance to share a bill with guitarist Roger Miller, who was once again an inspiration by being so encouraging. When I went to their "reunion" show at Irving Plaza, I cried, and I wasn't the only one in the audience who did.

The show last night was terrific, and it was everything I have come to expect from the show - a lot of their "new" material is a few years old now, and they aren't a nostalgia act at all. The reunion a few years ago led to a genuine re-formation of the band, and they have released three full albums and an EP of new material since 2004. Great stuff, but the crowd still hoots and hollers the loudest at the big "hits" of their first career. And the audience is always half the show for me, since it reflects the two part career of the band. The crowd is split - about 60% over 35, doing our best to act like our backs and legs don't hurt from standing so long, and always yelling at one or two of the 40% under-25 faction, who try and fail to start pits with geezers that used to love moshing but just can't deal anymore.

About half the audience, in classic Aging Brooklyn Hipster fashion, took it easy in the front lounge of the club and missed what, to me, was the really exciting portion of the evening. Buke and Gass, named for their highly modified guitars (a Baritone UKElele and a Guitar bASS hybrid, and Gass rhymes with Bass and Face, by the way) have all the markings of a 21st Century Indie Rock band that old ex-punk kids can mock mercilessly. A boy-girl duo, like the White Stripes and everyone that started a band after the White Stripes got a hit, young, pretty and Williamsburg quirky, they had my expectations set low when they went on stage, even though I've enjoyed their first EP for the last year or so (and to add to the just-another-Brooklyn-hipster-band vibe, it's titled +/- in the new tradition of symbols instead of names). But they were fantastic, and nailed very technically demanding songs full of rhythmic trickery and difficult vocal lines with charm and drive. I'm looking forward to seeing how they develop as a band. The potential to fall into schtick is great, but so far they showed me a lot of creativity and serious songwriting despite (or because of) the limits of strange instrumentation.

Here's a performance they did for NPR's Tiny Desk Concert series:

And you get their full length LP, Riposte, here.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Derek Bailey and the Death of Jazz (and the future of music blogging?)

In 1992, in conjunction with the release of the second edition of his landmark book Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music, Derek Bailey wrote and narrated a companion documentary series for Channel 4 TV in the UK. Roughly five years later, I got seriously interested in Bailey and his deliberately off-putting improvised guitar performances, and started an on-and-off love affair with the idea of tracking down and watching the documentary.

I wasn't serious at all about it - it has been screened a bunch of times, occasionally within a couple miles of me, and I wasn't thinking about it at the time. I finally sat down today with a couple hours to kill and stumbled across two of the four episodes posted here. I also found some ten-minute excerpts on youtube, and the clip below is one I find especially worth discussing right now:

The whole clip is worth your time. In the series (and the book before it), Bailey takes a look at the phenomenon of improvisation as an aspect of music making without regard to tradition or genre - there are chapters on music from all over India, on flamenco, on post-1960s "free improvisation," and all kinds of other stuff, presented in a mostly organized, but deliberately rambling fashion. It's an effort to pin down something about music that is, by necessity, not really pin-downable. In episode III of the four part series, Bailey looks mostly, but not entirely, at the jazz tradition. In these ten minutes, you get to watch Max Roach working with children and a lovely clip of a young Louis Armstrong, and hear a lot of facts, opinions, and errors about the jazz tradition. But the sentence that got to me today is Bailey's own, and shows up at about 5:30 of this clip:

“Great jazz now mostly belongs in the archives, and successors to the innovative giants of yesteryear are nowhere to be found. Kept afloat by the nostalgia industry and the education system, jazz is no longer the expressive force that uniquely combined a revolutionary art with working music.”

For me, this argument raises many more questions than it solves. If you look at any kind of music magazine that has been in publication for ten years or so, you'll catch a cycle in the criticism - Jazz (or rock, or hip hop, or opera, etc.) "dies" every few years, and folks lament and celebrate, and look around desperately for the Next Thing. That Next Thing, depending on the critic's point of view, either saves the dying culture for the next 20 years or so, or gives us a new direction in which to move forward in a new, post-rock, post-jazz, post-CD, post-whatever era.

This little critical cycle is almost invariably full of bad predictions and mislaid hopes. But what is curious to me about Bailey's line isn't so much what he's saying as the context, both historical and on the scope of the documentary, in which he's saying it. 1992 was not really a year for this kind of debate in the jazz world. That was all Down Beat was devoting itself to maybe ten or twelve years earlier, when fusion ruined everything. But by 1992, Wynton Marsalis was already old hat, and he had come on the scene with guns blazing to make America a Jazz Nation again, and the debate was squelched for a long while. And there was already the beginning of a resurgence in New York of 1960s style free jazz by then, and only a couple years later, Homestead Records would release an album by the David S. Ware quartet, at which point jazz was officially no longer dead, but the music that punk kids listened to when they became grownups. I think in this sense, Bailey emphasized the phrase "innovative giants" to good purpose, and as a pretty direct jab at both Marsalis and Ware. Bailey's own records, while not jazz in any kind of purist sense, sold out of the jazz section of most record stores, and he played as often as not in jazz clubs. And in the early 1990s, even as audiences for jazz had started growing again, the popular jazz artists were all looking back and not bringing much innovation to the party. Marsalis sounded like 1958, and the more advanced "avant-garde" wave all sounded like 1967. I think that that era in jazz has passed as well, but has it? On my more jaded days, I think that the most anyone is doing in jazz to make it sound like 2010 is covering old rock hits, like the Bad Plus does, or adding a danceable beat and playing for ex-Grateful Dead fans, like Medeski Martin and Wood did. I do start to wonder if there's a voice for this tradition now, even if not a herald of a new era, who is really bringing anything to jazz that hasn't been heard before. There's room for your comments here, and I'd like to hear them.

The other strange thing about Bailey's line is its placement in the special. We've just seen Max Roach, one of the most innovative, groundbreaking, and long-lasting musicians in jazz, teaching children, who seem to be taking his lesson well. Then Roach talks about jazz being sprung out of necessiity, that musicians like Louis Armstrong couldn't get formal music training so they improvised and then jazz was born. At which point, a few moments of a Louis Armstrong performance lead into Bailey's declaration. It's very strange, sandwiched between scenes of children being taught how to improvise by a jazz master, to hear a statement that indicates that all that footage is of an education process gone to waste. And it's further strange because Max Roach, musical genius that he was, had his history wrong about Armstrong, about the availabity of formal musical training (Armstrong had it, getting trumpet lessons in the orphanage at an early age) and the pervasive improvisation in Armstrong's music (it has become clear through careful listening to Armstrong's recorded ouvre, and to his copyrighted trumpet solos in the Library of Congress, that Satchmo wrote a lot of his stuff down, learned it, and played it more or less the same way for years at a time). It occurs to me that Bailey's decidedly non-linear approach to music is at work with his words here, and that the questions raised by his statement are more important than the statement itself. Again, I'd love to hear what you think.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Spanish Avant-Garde, apparently.

Ubu-web, one of my favorite sources for information about and recordings of deeply weird music of the last century or so, has just posted a page dedicated to the Spanish avant-garde here.

I don't fully understand what that means yet, and I'm not terribly familiar with experimental music in Spain - my biggest exposure to Spanish creative musicians so far has been going to grad school where a composition professor was a pretty arch-conservative composer who liked to write everything in the same time signature. But briefly skimming, this seems like a pretty interesting anthology of strange music, with a range of sonic abnormality from proto-New Wave non-dance music (Esplendor Geometrico sounds like Suicide en Espanol) to environmental soundscape to academic electronic play.

I intend to revisit this link after a busy weekend with some more thorough reviews, but skimming briefly as I did this morning, I am hearing a pretty interesting document of Spain in the late 1970s. Not too different than what was going on in New York or London, but a bit more mechanical and aggressive than a lot of similar stuff from other countries. No doubt, with some extra time to reflect and listen closely, I'll find a way to talk about a culture coming out of dictatorship and dealing with newly found freedom after becoming accustomed to extreme control, or something like that. For now, at least I've found a fun web page to share.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Scream of the Week

A day late, but worthwhile to get the series back on its feet.

Previous to this week, I've been trying to focus on genuine screaming. The goal has been to find real terror, real anger, real existential cries. This week I want to spend a moment focusing on more artificial, theatrical use of screaming, and I can't think of anyone better at that than Iron Maiden's Bruce Dickinson. On this clip, the proper scream doesn't happen until the very last note, but Dickinson's whole vocal style depends on the sense that he's at the very edge, ready to abandon pitch and technique at any moment and just let loose. There are probably better examples of Dickinson's screaming, and I'll revisit him, because time is short and I want to get into this a bit more. But this song is a classic, and now there's an excuse for you to listen to it again.