July 26, 2001

2:41 AM
I did my last show at KURE tonight. It didn't go very well - I just wasn't happy with the way the songs flowed. At the end I tried to force it by just playing a string of some of my favorite songs, specifically favorite ones that I thought make the night feel more special - because I wanted it to be, and it wasn't. The songs did make it feel... different. At first I think my reaction was just sort of the typical one I have when listening to those songs. I think that by the last two, though, I was pushed into feeling sad about it being my last show (which wasn't quite the "special" night I wanted).

The last two songs I played - "The City" and "Laser Beam".

July 24, 2001

5:05 AM
Before just now I hadn't listened to Bjork's Post remix album, Telegram, since getting it quite a long time ago and being very put off by all the styles of music I just didn't like at all. I never really tried to get used to it. So it's very interesting and pleasant now, now that I actually like all the styles that make appearances on the album. In fact, it's like getting a new Bjork album, just a sort-of random one.

Reading through the amazon customer reviews reminded me how much lots of listeners feel compelled to hold remixes up to the originals - is it "as good" as the original? Yes or no are your only answers. Please use a number two pencil. Please do not darken outsde the oval.

Who cares if you like it better or not? Listen to it! It's got similar parts in it, but different. Maybe they're broken up somehow, put in different orders, more horns, no beats, more beats, faster beats, no words, whatever. Remixes like this are valuable because of the light they shed on the originals.

Also because they sound good. I am going to go listen to the "Headphones" mix again.

4:27 AM
we exhaust ourselves tryin'a get there

2:00 AM
Because I was around a decently equipped browser when
Golos Termena popped up in my referers log, I was finally able to load the page (it loads as KOI-8 which my usual browser can't do), which I get hits from occasionally due to a link to a Rachel's summary I wrote. I was pleased to find that it's actually the page for an indie radio show in Russia. Looks like a very nice playlist, too.

1:57 AM
keep turning me on
with those french words
that I can't

July 23, 2001

6:05 PM
Basement Jaxx, "Romeo," ca. 2:48 - it's a pop song with a house beat, and the kick drums behind the diva speed up to sixteenth notes right when she's at her most excited. I needed this.

2:08 AM
Also I would like to point out that Bob Weston plays on this album, and is also in Shellac ("just kill him... fucking kill him... fucking kill him..."). I must remember to use this somehow in the future.

2:05 AM
Ahaha, and now I am listening to Rachel's, The Sea and the Bells, and the production has the same thing going on but not quite, on the first track, where the bass clarinet is in one ear and the bass guitar in the other, everything else mostly room-ambient in the center.

1:41 AM
I am listening to OK Computer right now. It's been a long time since I listened to it, at least since I bought Kid A, probably longer. I am listening on my headphones - I would like to see how it's different at the moment on speakers, but it's 1:43 and I can't turn it up that loud.

I hate the production.

Well, not all of it.

But now it sounds a lot different to me than it did before. There's an awkward mixture of sounds with lots of "room sound" to them, sounds with "air" - and sounds that are very close in the sound field, not much "air" or "room sound" to them. I understand that perhaps this is part of the appeal of the production. But in the intervening time it's really come to annoy me, mostly on the songs where it's pushed the hardest. There are songs where it doesn't really show up at all, because they're much fuller, so the things floating in and out of the closer range don't really seem out of place ("Karma Police," though that has less of this, and "Climbing Up the Walls," for example).

Now that I've got some hindsight courtesy of the next two albums, I can sort of hear some of this stuff as indicative of different modes of production that they made more use of later. But that makes it sound more bungled.

I suppose what I might be missing is a more integrated sound, but I want to note that I'm not looking for something to pull together the crazy-schizo sound, in that way. Cf. Laika's Sounds of the Satellites, which has all kinds of nutty-nervous production - but it seems more gracefully done to me.

1:11 AM
Heard "Creep" today on the radio and could not help thinking of Tom and Al's
Egomaniac mix, and thus had to supress laughter in a public place.

The station played a new Tool song, then "Sunday Bloody Sunday," then "Creep." They are "Channel Q - the New Music Revolution." I wonder if they actually play any songs from Kid A or the more-likely Amnesiac. Not sure I want to listen long enough to find out, but I suspect: no. Almost every time I tune it in, the station is playing something which could safely be described as "guitar rock."

But: the next song they played: by Gorillaz.

12:28 AM
Saw Kiss of the Dragon tonight. Mystikal songs in two places: "Shake Ya Ass" in opening scene, where hooker dances for and then kills dude, and then "Mystikal Fever" during fight scene between Jet Li and a dude. Not sure why, but it seemed weird having the first song in the movie. The second was far odder, but I have a feel for why. Like all the rest the fight scene is super-brutal, super-precise. But it's also a lot funnier, because they're playing up the unbelievable nature of what both fighters are doing - kind of a "holy shit, can you believe that I just kicked you like that - ha ha ha ha ha" thing. The Mystikal playing in the background just intensifies things - because he's barking and growling, hooting, his usual mix of primitive je nais sais quois and comical buffoonery. Li and the French dude (one of a pair of twins) deliver a sequence of three weary, alternating come-hither finger motions that made for the funniest thing in the middle of a very unfunny thing that I've seen in quite a while.

But then to conclude the fight Li flips the French dude, lands him on his neck, which breaks. The music stops simultaneously. And of course in walks twin no. 2, shocked at seeing his twin dead; he goes berserk, and another fight ensues, only this time Li's assailant is totally unchecked, the violence is barely mitigated by grace, and there's no music to cover it up, just grunts and the smacks from the foley artist. Which makes it infinitely more brutal than the preceding fight.

July 22, 2001

7:11 PM
All kind of interesting things to read in this
ILM thread about "the cult of the new".

July 20, 2001

5:59 PM
Mitch requested something about the change in Low's music over their career. What follows is from something I sent to the Low list, ca. the release of Things We Lost in the Fire, in response to some criticism of people who missed the old Low.

I think there is a very palpable difference between Secret Name and, from the one time I've heard it (while playing it live on the air - still hasn't been delivered to my record store yet, dammit), Things We Lost in the Fire, on the one hand; and the earlier records (probably pre-Dead Pilot), on the other hand. Just because it's difficult to explain what that difference is, that doesn't mean there isn't one.

I think part of the difference lies in this: compare the first three records to some more conventionally "pretty" record by some other band, slow or not. It doesn't necessarily have to be slow or anything, but good candidates might be some Red House Painters stuff, or Ida, or maybe Flare. Now compare the last two Low records to that same "pretty" record. I think they will likely resemble it a lot more than the earlier records do.

If this sounds pedantic maybe it's because I'm saying, in a roundabout way, that the newer record are more conventional. I didn't want to start out saying that, though, because that's a kneejerk thing that lots of people who prefer some music they regard as "experimental" or nonconventional in some way say, when they're confronted with for example a band which becomes more conventional over time. There's something to this idea, though, which is why I am being pedantic. I definitely think that Low still write good songs, and I still like their music. But I don't like it for exactly the same reasons, precisely because there was something about the "old Low" that I liked which has changed.

The thing I think has changed probably has something to do with two aspects of their music. First, the faster tempos, and second, the more complicated arrangements and just music in general. For the moment I won't go into detail about those, though I'm sure someone will gripe about my bringing them up - but trust me, it's not as if I'm a Metallica fan or something, lamenting the Ride the Lightning days' passage. Or whatever. I think the reason these things matter is that they give the songs a lot more momentum. They move more as I expect songs to move, somehow. All the extra stuff, the faster tempos, they undercut some kind of special thing - maybe if I say "drama" right here you will understand me, but I think that's a terrible word for it, it's something like a threat that the song will not in fact go on, that it might collapse at any moment, in their best songs - which is essential to their earlier sound.

Also, see here, for the first paragraph, which I wrote. I think that applies best to Low ca. The Curtain Hits the Cast, which is my favorite album of theirs and one of my most favorite of any album. It probably extends well to Low ca. Songs for a Dead Pilot and things scattered here and there, but it describes the earlier albums less well (the sense of time is almost too motorik, if that makes any sense), and on the whole, Secret Name and Things We Lost in the Fire the least well.

July 19, 2001

5:18 PM
"I can't really breeeeathe but I feel liiigh-ter"

5:15 PM
Hmm, it's a pity I didn't remember to continue doing
this - but I stopped keeping my log of CD purchases so I get a little confused about what I bought even a month ago, anyway.

Will probably resume logging them eventually though since I need to have a list of them anyway.

"anyway, anyway"

5:00 PM
I think it's the "as you put down the keys" that clarifies the opening, "time stands still/all I can feel is the/time standing still" to I Think I Need a New Heart. It's inconsequential enough an action that I can easily see it as being one glommed onto by the narrator in a moment of crisis - if it weren't such a moment, putting down the keys wouldn't noteworthy at all.

4:54 PM
Thought I had yesterday while listening to Aaliyah, directed specifically at Jon because I remember there being an Aretha CD in his bathroom (he said it was their morning wake-up music): it really doesn't sound like there's much (by some metric) distance between old soul, new soul, old R+B, new R+B. So, like, you have no excuse.

Tom said there's no good big book on soul and R+B, one that treats the continuity. (Also difficult-to-disentangle intermingling - which is akin to continuity.) Why not, dammit?

4:53 PM
Stephin Merritt on "Absolutely Cuckoo" and Aaliyah on, well, lots of songs - they both sound like weak singers in similar ways (not singing out, kind of tight-mouthed). Production touches - army of Stephins and Aaliyahs - compensate for it in similar ways too.

4:52 PM
The opening "quiet" track to Rodan's Rusty is louder than the following "loud" track.

I wonder if that's true on the meters.

4:49 PM
Have been listening more to Rooty. Songs still have vague personalityless feel to them, which I expect will change in time, but it does feel a bit different than, for example, some of the other dance-related music I've heard and liked: Plasticman, Amon Tobin, Underworld. Maybe because a lot of the parts that make up the Basement Jaxx songs are much more "public property" in a sense. (I know there are problems with this.)

4:48 PM
The ICN, which is Iowa State's upstream service provider, has been having problems today, which is why this page may have been unavailable.

Also, there is scheduled downtime on July 29, but I hope to be moved (my site, that is) by then. (Details to come!)

2:18 AM
Usually when artists make a lot of similar-sounding albums, people will still try to pick one that's "best" or "most representative" somehow, to recommend to newcomers. But if the artist traffics in subtlety, like The Sea and Cake, the very slight differences between albums are very important (parallel them to, say, the differences in character people would perceive in different late-career Beatles albums, or something). So maybe it's inappropriate to pick and choose albums as you might otherwise be used to.

An alternative - picking albums based on the subtle ways they correspond to your tastes, or your mood when listening, and then acknowledging: these other ones just aren't quite what I want.

Then again, this sounds a lot like what I would sometimes like people to do with any music.

July 18, 2001

3:52 PM
The end of The Fawn passes quickly - already I'm nearing the end of "Do Now Fairly Well" without noticing I'd gotten that far.

The second half of the album isn't so electronics-laden - in fact, it's a lot more like the earlier albums, in terms of instrumentation. But what they do with the instruments is different. Maybe that reinforces the common view that the album is an "electronic" one, when mostly the electronic stuff is big at the beginning of the record. (Cf. Eno's spread-out-the-vocals tactic on Another Green World.) The rhythms, song constructions, etc., are similar throughout the album, though, thus the misperception.

3:34 PM
I must admit to being utterly flummoxed about
this review. He sounds as if he's going to end up quite favorably, and then suddenly - "unsubstantial." Why? What exactly leads one to judge Millions Now Living substantial, but a Sea and Cake record, not? Is it just that they're "light" and "airy"? That they make "pop music"?

2:36 AM
Here's an old thing on Selected Ambient Works Volume II that, according to the last-modified date, is at least 4 years old. It was part of an old project of mine to write about the roles music plays in my memories. I would write it differently now, but I'm not sure how much differently (maybe just some stylistic stuff?).

July 17, 2001

11:45 PM
This old review of "Try Again" gets at something I've felt a lot, re "police state of the emotions," but contra the reviewer I feel that way when hearing all this newfangled Timbaland R+B too. Felt that way the first listen through the new Aaliyah. Second listen is wildly different though, the sounds are very different. This might be largely down to hearing it on my home stereo (still headhphones though) - slightly different emphasis on the sounds. I feel less hectored now.

10:07 PM
Big up Mark for the Mille Plateaux review. I need to hear these comps.

8:35 PM
Why are there lyrics included with Rooty?

a) They're not very complicated, and not all that hard to figure out after folding, spindling, and mutilation caused during production. b) Seems kind of atypical for "dance" music, which points to some interesting questions. This is dance music in a certain sense, but also it's pop music that uses the languages of dance, which means that there may be some kind of conflict between the levels of importance placed on the text by pop and by dance (cf. Simon Reynolds' railing against the lit-crit model of music criticism). Listening through (only twice so far), it seems as if this is borne out in the lyrics-as-experienced-while-listening as well: they feel more like the dance lyrics I've heard (i.e. one or two themes repeated endlessly, standard pop music oohs and aahs and yeses and smack my ass babys), but I still get a sense that they're trying to act more like pop music lyrics where the narrator/singer is backing up the lyrics with a stronger personality (that's not really a very satisfactory way of putting it - I can think of lots of other, and totally different, things that these lyrics are not doing).

Could be a pisstake too. There is a gorilla on the front, after all.

8:20 PM
My, Tim was right - the rock guitars on the new Aaliyah are surprising.

3:08 AM
There aren't enough uptempo songs on Hot Shots II. But I like it anyway.

1:25 AM
Mouse on Mars, "Yippie"

Part of the strong sense of motion comes, strangely, from the relatively small amount of harmonic motion: for the most part the song alternates between two two-measure chords, one brighter than the other. The alternations back to the brighter one feel like little surges forward.

July 16, 2001

3:48 AM
The more I listen to old Sea and Cake albums, the more I'm afraid (that's a bit of a strong word though) to go back and listen to their last album, Oui, since more and more it just seems like it will be opressively stiff and prissy by comparison. That's not what I thought before, but it's just a suspicion I have from listening (quite a bit recently) to the much more casual-sounding s/t, Nassau, and The Biz.

3:43 AM
Also today listened to Rodan's Rusty, which
Sterl swears by. Picked this up a couplefew years ago, was never especially moved by it (often bored). Trying, though. I listened to it about five times today. Besides actually working at the moment, my CD player is still playing everything perfectly - which includes Rusty which was one of those funny ones that would never play right. It benefits from being heard in a room rather than headphones.

The other week while at my show I found a CD in the jazz drawer in the studio - I forget which CD - recorded on a single mike, very lo-tech, etc., with a big manifesto on the back about recording values and such. Label stated that the quiet parts were supposed to be quiet, so don't turn it up so loud, dumbass. Something similar might apply with Rodan, but I'm not sure in which way: should I leave it so that the quiet parts (mostly, the first song, but some later) seem really quiet, or should I leave it so that the loud parts later shake my room, like loud parts ought to? More listening imperatives included with CDs would be appreciated.

I'm starting to like it.

3:37 AM
Is there more rap - any rap - that directs sampling and modern hip-hop production at the vocal performance, which is by far the most traditional part of every rap track?

Was listening to Pre-Millennium Tension today, imagining a whole army of Trickys on "Tricky Kid" rather than just the main (chronically raspy-voiced) Tricky and his tape-accelerated alter ego ("YEEEAH!").

July 14, 2001

1:01 PM
It is
In Review's birthday. We shall celebrate by linking them. (Why have we had this idea? Hmmm.) In Review is exactly like josh blog, except totally not. Which is why we here at josh blog industries like it. Happy birthday Jimmy 'n' Sterl.

3:25 AM
And my CD player started working again the other day. I didn't do anything special to it, aside from not using it for a long time. I will not be surprised when it stops again. I am trying to pick CDs I will happily play on repeat forever so as to prolong the inevitable time when I switch discs and the player won't load anything again.

Current favorite for such things: Goldfrapp, about which more later.

2:23 AM
Just so you know, Outkast's Aquemini is one of my favorite albums now.

I mean a specific thing by that. I don't have a list somewhere where I've just added something and possibly removed something else, shuffled the order, nothing that formal. If I were to make a list, though, I would try to put it up near the top, and it would be one of the albums I (hopefully) remembered before I had to go stare at my CDs to make sure I wasn't forgetting anything. In this respect it joins music by Low, Miles, Coltrane, Massive Attack, Spiritualized, the Dismemberment Plan, and others.

I also mean that now for whatever reason I feel like it's not just that I've been temporarily wowed by the CD, as I was shortly after buying it last fall. I would normally wait something out this way, but especially in the case of a relatively new (to me) genre like rap where everything seems less sure to me. Or, where initially everything seemed less sure to me, because I haven't really felt disoriented, as it were, for a long time.

It's still too long - it feels like it takes an hour just to get to "Da Art of Storytellin" (maybe it does), half an hour just to get to "Aquemini". I also trail off a bit near the end, in terms of loving individual songs and just being more familiar with them, because I get to that part of the album less often (also maybe I just don't like the last song as much - would've preferred that the album end with "Liberation"). But also maybe just because it has a whole two songs that I like noticeably less than their neighbors - "Y'All Scared" and "Chonkyfire" (despite not really, really liking "Mamacita," for some reason I don't mind it the same way). But this is a very minor flaw, as much as I like every other track and as much as it all manages to stick together despite the length (like, "interstitial track" stuff for all of the first-side (second-side too, on the multi-disc vinyl?) tracks, and it's still not too much).

If they would make an album with horn arrangements on every track I would weep with joy. Also if they made a 45-minute album. But I'm not an everything-has-to-be-perfect-for-it-to-be-a-favorite kind of guy anyway.

July 12, 2001

1:29 AM
I have a complete and total lack of desire to write anything. Almost - I seem to be very willing to write snide things and curt things. So I'm starting and then not sending lots of emails and posts to I Love Music. I've had plenty of ideas for josh blog, just no gumption to thicken them out even the customary amount. Here's what I did tonight, though.

I went to my radio show in a terrible mood and planned on playing sad mopey stuff the whole time, starting with an hour of Godspeed You Black Emperor! But I had forgotten the particular emotional tenor that disc two of "Skinny Fists" has. I feel very lame putting it this way, but I don't really feel like elaborating things properly right now: the music was "uplifting." I didn't feel so bad once I played it. I also played the final two songs from Mogwai's new album, which complemented the GYBE nicely. I played jazz the rest of the night.

(One of the tracks I played was "Epistrophy." I didn't get it.)

Hopefully this will lift soon.

July 06, 2001

3:22 AM
I get lots of flashes of insight when listening to my headphones, around campus, in my office or walking around or whatever. But unless I work those flashes over into something else, they don't end up on josh blog. I normally do a lot of that sort of percolating at home, listening to my stereo, which of course means I am not thinking very much about music that way right now since my CD player is still dead. So instead here are some bits and pieces about things I've listened to recently.

Beta Band EPs: why is it all of the times I can remember listening to "Dry the Rain" are hot? (Compare to burned-in winter memories of past "spring" semester, seeking solace in s/t.)

Burning Airlines: "The Surgeon's House" is the best song in the world ever. That is all.

Low, Secret Name: maybe the thing is that they started trying too hard. Because it's pretty and delicate and harrowing and lush and all, but it's still just not the same. This doesn't mean I won't listen to it of course. "Days Of..." ... pace of my life now though.

Goldfrapp: moments of scarily insatiable hunger for sensual satisfaction. (?) Of course it's from a woman.

This weekend I am going to Madison to play quizbowl and eat lunch with Jordan. Sunday I will be back and my parents will be in town. So, expect a continuation of the recent sequence of sporadic updates.

July 05, 2001

2:01 AM
Phil asked for a translation of these Russian lyrics.

Franz Joseph Land

There is a land in the north
Franz Joseph Land
There I'll always forget
that you left me.
But I already know
you'll be in the northern lights.

I made a few possibly ignorant choices but I think this works pretty well. The odd phrasing of "there... you left me" and "you'll be in the northern lights" were present in the original. "You" is female, but you can't tell in English.

July 03, 2001

3:49 PM
I've been listening to a lot of
public radio since my home CD player broke, and although I've been happy to hear some of its programming there's been a significant part of it that's disappointed me. I don't remember hearing so many sponsors' messages (i.e. commercials, but for supermegacorps and read by tasteful announcers, not commercials like on commercial radio - loud, crass, tasteless, advertising things normal people can buy) in the past when listening to NPR. Now I hear enough of them that I'm disgusted, not the least because these are blatant messages from corporations looking to improve their image by appearing to support "culture." It's no wonder that all the big stories I hear on All Things Considered are about disputes between capitalists, government officials, and environmentalists about the intended opening-up of preserved or conserved areas for oil drilling and the like. Those are visible stories, and ones that people can feel informed by listening to - maybe it makes them feel more liberal and enlightened, providing a distraction from the fundamental conservatism of the programming on most public radio stations. I've heard better news on 15 minutes of Counterspin, despite its problems.

The "culture" is the part of it that's always bothered me - a similar thing goes for public television. The programming is safe to a fault. Classical music - not too dissonant, always "light" enough. (Overnight programming is especially safe.) Non-classical music is usually jazz, always "tasteful." Some stations play other music. World music is popular - oh, look how enlightened we are, enjoying the simple, authentic native melodies of the land of [people who make western-enough music, like the Irish, or something]. I believe a station in eastern Iowa plays more popular music - from what I know it's the kind of thing you'd expect well-behaved, well-to-do grownups to listen to. Self-congratulatory "culture" which serves as a mark of class for the audience. The same goes for the non-musical programming: "clever" quiz shows, James Thurber stories, and on our AM station here, a chance for the university president to talk to the "public" (uh... the old people that sit at home listening to AM talk radio to call in and ask the guy how he's going to spend their money, or something, or if those protesters on campus they read about in the newspaper are really a problem).

The author of the Salon article above is aware of the problem but I'm not so sure I'd want his ideal station as a replacement (it would probably be better, though). Oh no! Rock music reviews, on public radio! If public radio is supposed to be for the public good, instead of just a big joke that the corporate world and the high-end bourgeoisie take part in, reactionary hiding behind the western canon isn't the answer. The ideal (my ideal) public radio station would play Outkast, Mozart, Berg, Cash, Jaxx, Coltrane, Waitresses, Diddley, Dre, Duke... you get the point. Not just stuff I like, either. The ideal public radio station wouldn't be able to handle it all, there'd have to be multiple stations in every area. The ideal public radio station, if it were to start up tomorrow in my town, would probably have almost no listeners over the course of the day - people wouldn't be able to put up with the guerrilla cultural diversity. But public radio isn't about that kind of celebration of (all) human culture - neither are the public or the government. Isn't that exactly the kind of thing that's supposed to make it something to be done for the public's own good?

(I got the Salon link from Badger.)

3:45 AM
Artists who I have heard tracks by that I enjoyed lately: Armand van Helden, Slam, Basement Jaxx.

If you are Tim Finney you may now be quitely amazed and pleased. And yes, I am thinking about why Protection is my favorite Massive Attack album, Tim, but it will take me a while.

3:30 AM
I'm resistant to this idea of "filler" on records. It's related (but maybe only because I'm saying so right now) to an idea that lots of logical positivists (and indeed plenty of philosophers before their time, like Kant) held to and that Wittgenstein worked against, the idea of "compositionality" - that the meaning of a sentence was solely a matter of its structure and the meanings of the terms involved. The parallel for records and music criticism, then, is that the goodness of a record is solely a matter of how many "good" songs it has on it, and whether they're sequenced (structured) the right way. I want to assert, counter to that, that a record isn't necessarily made better by removing or ignoring the songs that don't hold up as well, qua song, to the better ones on the record. Those pieces of music have their own place, they change the character of the record. On Amnesiac they poison the relatively greater (compared to Kid A) level of normality, for one thing. (Or sweeten it, if you will.)

And I like "Pulk/Pull" and "Hunting Bears," dammit.

Not that this should reflect on those two songs, but things I also like: presence of "boring" parts in books and films.

3:20 AM
DJ Premier's samples for Gangstarr have a kind of shimmering quality to them.

Surely someone has already written academically (probably badly, sadly) about rap music and sampling in light of Walter Benjamin's "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" and its ideas about the "aura" of an art work.

3:17 AM
I'm very pleased to see that the increasingly personal tone Mark's reviews have taken will now find expression in a new column at Pitchfork. I hope he continues it (whatever happened to Brent Sirota's, anyway?) for some time to come.

2:25 AM
"Most musicians today laugh when asked 'How much of that is improvised?' I think that what's funny to them is that the distinction between composition and improvisation is so blurred that the question itself points out the absurdity of trying to sort them out."

That's Dave Douglas, in the liner notes to his 2000 record A Thousand Evenings, which I listened to again the other day. I thought of the quote because I was struck by how much the style of the music on the record obscured the seams between the composed music and the improvised music. It's enough an amalgam of "classical" chamber music, "new music" (as in, the kind with improvisation), jazz, and ethnic genres (some not-always-clear drawing from eastern Europe and the mideast), that it's not really appropriate, or maybe even possible (within the limits imposed by everything else going into the mix, and the guiding requirement of some kind of unity of the disparate influences), to have clearly marked-off "improvisation" sections. There are comparisons to be drawn to lots of different styles and genres. Bebop, in contrast, seems to be fairly definite about where some (not all) of its improvisation comes - during the solo sections, often structurally situated sequentially between the beginning and ending melody statements. But Dixieland jazz, or free jazz, in many cases, involve a sort of constant interveaving of composed and improvised playing (it gets a little hard to make the distinctions, as in Douglas' quote). I suspect klezmer, for example, falls into that latter group in some way, too, but I don't know enough about it to really say.

Interestingly, I recall Wynton Marsalis making somewhat related statements when talking up his big push of Armstrong's music (and prior music) - he said something about how he wanted to promote more composition in jazz, and ensemble playing, which wasn't all that unnatural anyway, since there wasn't such an emphasis on solo improvisation before bebop. There was something to that, but of course I don't like the conservatory attitude he was justifying with it. The main difference is probably that by working with such established music, Marsalis draws a very different reaction from listeners (rightly so? perhaps, perhaps not). There are more stable expectations about the role improvisation will play in faux-20s jazz.

Listener expectations are what make this question of composed-or-improvised more than esoteric. Knowing when you're hearing improvisation helps you to form your responses to what you hear. There are different standards for improvisation. (I'm not going to expand on that right now, except to say that it's not a simple matter of improvisation being "spontaneous composition," and thus getting slack for not having as much time to work out what's being composed.) Or, I might say, because of the kinds of music featuring improvisation that have been instrumental in forming out ideas about improvisation in the west, we apply different standards to improvisation, or at least are sometimes expected to (it's still quite possible to sit down and listen to e.g. a jazz record, "just" as music, without a care where it came from). So a record like A Thousand Evenings challenges that by using improvisation to provide things for the music that are perhaps harder or not possible with through-composed music, while simultaneously pushing the listener into responding to the whole range of music in much the same way, without the typical improvised-music cues.

Some of these thoughts were strengthened upon listening to Uri Caine's Mahler in Toblach record last night while I was filling dead air time at KURE. While lots of the songs on that record change moods or styles multiple times, there are a couple that have substantial bop "blowing" sections. As soon as those sections kick in, I feel like I know much better what's going on, my reponses are more definite. Part of this may be the bop, separate from the convention of having one soloist up front - it's hard to tell. I say that because certain other sections that are in significant ways "straight" also affect me more - the klezzed-up funeral march from the fifth symphony, or the similar music that opens disc two, from the third movement of the "Titan." There's clearly improvisation going on all over the disc, but it's more muddled. During the bop sections I feel I can listen to the solo, and say, yeah, man, listen to him blow, and talk about the solo like I would one from most any jazz record from the fifties or sixties. During the other sections, sometimes I'm left responding to something that I have broader categories for - "music". (It would help if I knew what all the "proper" performances of the original compositions sounded like, because that would give me at least one thing to reference for each track.)

July 01, 2001

10:57 PM
Some of the more interesting things at that site (below), then, are quotes from composers and such, because the composers tend to approach their music at something between the purely formal level and the level listeners tend to come from.
Penderecki's comment about how his music wouldn't work when written in bars (as in, time is measured according to some standard - a quarter note will be this fast - and then the music is written out in divisions time according to that standard, with the instructions to the musicians taking the form of certain pitches to be made at certain times, for certain durations) speaks to a number of things.

Aside from the aleatory aspects, he could probably write the music in standard western notation. But to do so would probably make it prohibitively difficult to play, when instead it can be written in some simpler form which the players can be made to understand. So in part this is just ("just") a pragmatic consideration.

More importantly, though, the system of western musical notation is made for writing the sort of music that is written with it. It is adapted to suit a specific task, or range of tasks. It's popular to view music as a "language," and if you do so and you're inclined to think of western art music as "music," period, I can see how the idea that music should be able to be written in western notation would be tenable. But western notation is quite inadequate by itself to represent (and make available for reperformance) an enormous range of music. Even fairly straightforward jazz, with western music a distant relative, can't be captured in vanilla western notation. The notation allows for ways to show syncopation, for example, but if you played "Take the A Train" as marked up that way, it would sound awful - "swing" is more subtle than that. This isn't simply a matter of the musician having to bring some "interpretation" to the performance, which one might want to parallel to the case of someone playing a Bach fugue: if the musician plays the Bach fugue "straight" it might sound a little rote, but it would probably be judged as much more appropriate a rendition of the composition than a similar performance of a syncopation-marked Ellington tune.

The problem that notation presents Penderecki with is far more unavoidable - even if western notation can't totally accurately capture jazz, it's still widely used to give a good approximation (though note, before the 40s or so, perhaps, the number of working jazz musicians who couldn't read music). Working outside of the barline conventions is crucial to creating Penderecki's blocks of sound - which are what give his music such presence in the sound field. Rather than sounding like, as in a Beethoven symphony, sounds reproducing or representing notes (chords, etc.) on paper, the orchestra in Penderecki's music sounds like... sounds. Masses of it. I'm overemphasizing, slightly, because this isn't always the case. There are, for instance, plenty of note-sounds to be found. But especially when the instruments combine, the result is less like "the string section playing a G minor chord behind the theme played by the flutes and complemented by an inversion of the theme played by the clarinets," which I think has an effect of reducing the power of the orchestra, down to simply something that thickens out, or fills in, what we could imagine to be the same music, the core of it, played by four or five people. No - in Penderecki's music, at its most thrilling, you need all that sound, it can't be explained solely as some way of orchestrating a more basic structure.

This is why, I think, Penderecki is viewed (or so say the liner notes to EMI 7243 5 65077 2 2) with scepticism by the musical establishment, or just scoffed at (by my pre-Romantic-era fetishizing acquaintance Bob). He's engaged in something similar to what earned a lot of free jazz musicians uncomprehending listeners, or more extremely, denouncing critics - music which is just too damn different to be explained in terms of conservative extensions (in the sense that they preserve some substantial part) of what came before, of the tradition. Listening, you can't really say "oh, he's got some nice tunes" with a straight face, although he has his surprisingly lyrical moments. You're confronted with screeching, whining violins, huge masses of sound shifting about in glorious ways on your headphones, nattering, hissing choristers, and either a) responses that you don't know how to describe with your usual emotional vocabulary, or b) surprise, a sense of menace, fear, because of Penderecki's preference for what we would usually expect to find in a horror movie score, rather than in a concert hall - emotional material at "dark" extremes. For (b) I have to fight the urge not to dismiss some of the feelings I get (and by extension, the music that prompts them) as schlocky sub-expressionist manipulation. But then I've had to fight similar feelings when Mozart's sweetness struck me the wrong way, or when Rachmaninov never failed to evoke saccharine old film scores for me. So I can't really let (b) dissuade me, I have to work against it to know that I'm giving the music its due. Something similar goes for (a), though by now I am too used to being amazed by the capacities music has for presenting me with these kinds of unlabeled, hard-to-categorize responses that I would hopefully never allow laziness or the overrule of preconceived ideas about what music can do to prevent me from appreciating the value in this music.

10:56 PM
This page for a course on twentieth century western art music collects a number of useful factoids, although since it's designed, apparently, to supplement class lectures and readings it tends to do little more than provide some formal information about different composers' music (Penderecki used sound-masses, Part's third period makes use of "tintinabulation," etc.).

to June 2001


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