Local time: Let's start with Papers

I plan to include some local folks in this series, and I'm delighted to open with Papers. Their album is probably the Lincoln recording I return to most often, as every song is a true delight. Papers, sadly, is no more.

Mostly led by multi-saxophonist (and facile dabbler on other instruments, too) Junebug, Papers delivered a mix of truly great songs presented in arrangements that are simultaneously creative/fun and respectful of many pop and jazz arrangers of the past. One hears moments that are reminiscent of everyone from the Duke to Burt Bacharach, and songs are played in a tight-but-loose style that forces you to listen while suddenly craving a case of Old Style. I always return to this album for the excitement of hearing a band that manages to make cultural/musical references to every decade from the 1920s to present day while still feeling fresh and new.

Take the intro to "Headlong & Hellbent," for example. That bari (or bass?) sax D# pulling into a concert E Major chord by the whole band, plus the almost pointillistic rhythms used throughout the intro, create an atmosphere that manages to be both timeless and emotionally specific. And I'm not sure enough good things could ever be said about album closer, 'The Chorale," which pulls the listener through several epic rounds of tension and release. This is a band who knew how to make an emotional statement. It doesn't hurt that most Papers members are multi-instrumentalists, and folks who love to learn more about their instruments. It really showed.

Rumor has it that another batch of Papers songs were nearing the recording phase when they fizzled out. Here's hoping for a CD, at least, if not a full-out reunion. In the meantime, look for shows from Andy Butler, former Papers ivory-tinkler, who has played a handful of shows over the last year.

Gorecki - String Quartets Nos 1 and 2

Henryk Gorecki might be a gentle place to start with some "classical" music. He's a Polish fellow, born in 1933, whose early compositions mirrored many of the trends in 20th Century Art music: he incorporated serialism in his Epitafium (1958), sound-mass in his Symphony No. 1 (1959), and extended performance techniques in Scontri (1960). His mature style began to develop in the 60s, though. Registers and tessatura narrowed in his Choros and Refren; themes and timbres were kept to a minimum in 1969's Old Polish Music. Through the 70s and 80s, he composed mostly for the voice on religious texts.

Gorecki gets a little love from the NPR crowd, as his Symphony No. 3 gets the occasional spin. But I really like these first string quartets best of all. His mature works introduce a concept that I plan to revisit with a few more albums, which I like to call the "low and slow" approach. Simply stated, "low and slow" has to do with tempo (kept fairly slow), note durations (kept fairly long), and melodic ranges (kept fairly low).

The "low and slow" approach applies to most of these string quartets, too. Let's look at the 2nd string quartet more closely, "Quasi una Fantasia": even the somewhat aggro second movement is on the slow side--the score asks for something around 108bpm. And pitch ranges stay low--the violins, for instance, stay well below the top of their range throughout. I think the appeal of this approach is that it evokes the human voice. In other words, ultra fast guitar solos and super high sounds from violins and piccolos are hard for people to relate to emotionally, because they're sounds that we can't reproduce with our own bodies. There's something familiar or comforting in music that speaks a language closer to that of our own bodies.

I decided to get a little technical in describing some of the musical stuff going on here, so no need to read the rest of this post if you're not into that sort of thing...just enjoy the music!

Let's look a little closer at my favorite section of this disc, the second (Deciso) movement of the second string quartet. That's track 3, if you happened upon the CD. This section is somewhat harsh, but it really grabs me. Like much of Gorecki's music, the architecture of this movement relies on the juxtaposition of a handful of sections that create motion and development through contrasts: tonality versus bitonality or metrical movement, sharp versus lyrical articulations, homophony and hererophony, tempo juxtaposition, etc.

This movement begins violently. The soft drone on E used by the cello for most of the first movement becomes a brash E-G doublestop in violin II, viola, and cello. Violin I plays a stabbing line against this, mostly in whole tones, which each phrase ending on C#. At measure 45, Gorecki introduces a very lyrical melody in the violins, tonicized in E aeolian against the continued E-G diad in the viola and cello. Commingling the lyrical motif and the pointillist jabs of the introduction in measures 64-78, the basic melody is restated one last time. Up to this point, the music has been very loud, very fast, and heterophonic. At the apex of dynamic and tessature of the melody in measure 82, Gorecki suddenly pulls the plug (exuviation, as Slonimsky would say), reverting to two measures of quiet, slow, homophonic music in chorale style, tonicizing a V6-I in Eb major. As if using this moment to catch a breath, we brutally return to what amounts to a development of the introductory theme. Viola and cello continue their e-minor diad, violin I runs through variations on the first theme, predominantly using the same six whole tone scale notes, and violin II further blurs tonality by interjecting doublestops on D-E and D-Eb. It is worthy of note that this is the only section of the entire piece in which the groupings of instruments are not completely binding, as violin II functions harmonically more as a dissonance to the accompaniment and rhythmically as part of the melody.

After a rallatando on two measures of rest (127 and 128), the movement ends in the homophonic chorale style, slow and quiet. Interestingly, this material is culled from the end of the first movement (measures 53-83). This section is in a triple feel where the rest of the movement has a duple feel. Dissonant and droning, the movement "resolves" on an A7 in second inversion. A wicked ride, somehow both minimalist and romantic in style.


Jonathan Bepler - Music for Cremaster 2

Artist: Jonathan Bepler

Album: Music for Matthew Barney's Cremaster 2

Matthew Barney uses every available resource in his Cremaster Cycle of films. Composer Jonathan Bepler is no slouch in the "every available resource" department, either. For the Cremaster 2 soundtrack, he employed:

The Organ at Riverside Church. Gregory D’agostino, Organ.
The Norian Philharmonic Orchestra. Tabernacle Bass Choir.
A Hybrid Country-Western 2-Step sequence with singer Patty Griffin.
A Death Metal ensemble featuring legendary (Slayer) drummer Dave Lombardo, vocalist Steve Tucker (Morbid Angel),
and 200,000 honey bees sampled, processed and sequenced by the composer.

All of those things sound as awesome as you might imagine pulled into the same project. Totally insane, but it all works in these capable hands. The death metal piece alone deserves some kind of reward. Devoid of guitars and basses--most of the track is just bees and Lombardo on drums--it manages to out-brutalize most "true" DM bands. And I'm sure Barney was delighted with the idea if it wasn't his, as he's an avid death metal fan as well. An almost impossibly wide range of tastes--and the guy is married to Bjork. A class act.

Bepler's choral and orchestral arrangements are perfectly suited for the wild changes in scope and perspective through the Cremaster Cycle, too. His work with Barney might be the most underrated film scoring in the last decade. Massive writing, and perfectly controlled.

Now if only Cremaster 3 would be released on DVD, so I could study both the film and the music for about a zillion hours.


Einsturzende Neubauten: 1993 EPs

Artist: Einsturzende Neubauten

Album(s): Interim EP, Malediction EP

Reflections: EN earned their reputation in the world of industrial music more literally than many of their peers. Much of their earlier music features sounds generated by banging on various kinds of metal, wood, and glass objects, new instruments and devices built from found/abandoned objects, and an powerful live presence, sometimes staging shows where buildings and bridges could be incorporated directly into the performance or recording. Around the time of these two EPs, though, the band began a real metamorphosis, adding many gentle moments and passages of real beauty into their arrangements. These albums feature a few tracks from the 1993 full-length release Tabula Rasa with a few B-sides.

I found myself compelled to highlight these recordings especially because of the multiple language versions of "Blume." It is interesting to note that Tabula Rasa documents not only a musical transition in the music of EN, but languages other than the band's native German suddenly become prominent in the vocals. In addition to German, English, French, and Japanese versions of Blume (all of which also feature some Latin passages), there are English vocal versions of several other album tracks, and full translations between German and English in the liner notes. At the time, vocalist Blixa Bargeld reflected on the change:

"German is still my major language, but we are talking in English right now and the majority of our audience just doesn't speak German. For long periods of my life I don't even speak German. I go on tour with the Neubauten and with Nick Cave, and when I go on tour I almost never speak German. Talking in English comes naturally to me now. . .when I'm two weeks on the road in America I start thinking in English. I comes as naturally as it is thinking German when I am home. . . now trying to write everything in German would be the same kind of lie that writing in English ten years ago would have been. . .not to forget the alienating effect! More than writing in English I would like to sing in languages I don't actually speak just using some translations that somebody else did for me." --from Einsturzende Neubauten, Stampa Alternativa/Nuovi Equilibri Collana Sconcerto, Prima Edizione Gennaio 1993