Books on music: the Arcana series

I've been meaning to start some reviews of a few books I consider essential toward an understanding of modern music ("modern" being defined pretty loosely as 20th C. to now).  For me, the most essential books on music are the Arcana series, currently up to Volume V, edited by John Zorn.

In 2000, I was visiting the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, and just before leaving, I took a quick walk through the gift shop.  The first volume of Arcana had just been released, and it was published by Granary Books, a publisher that mostly handles artists' books that are sold through museum gift shops.  And this gift shop had a clever little display for Arcana that I happened to notice on my way out.  As a long time Zorn and NYC Downtown Scene fan, I couldn't believe my luck.  For me, 2000 was still a little on the "pre-internet" side of my life--maybe more accurately the "dialup connection occasionally at other peoples' houses" period of my life--and I doubt I would have heard about the book's availability through my old channels before it was sold out. 

I bought my copy and probably read it 10 times over the next few months.  Many of my favorite musicians and composers had their own essays: Mike Patton, Marc Ribot, David Shea, Bob Ostertag, Eyvind Kang, Bill Frisell, Anthony Coleman, Fred Frith, and many more.  And there were essays by lots of folks whom I knew by name only, or not at all, but the essays made me curious about all of their work: Scott Johnson, Z'EV, and John Oswald are three of my favorites whose work I investigated after reading the first Arcana.  Conveniently, the back of the book featured brief bios and recommended listening lists for each artist with an essay featured in the book.  Again, this being essentially a pre-internet period for me, there weren't yet opportunities to stream or sample any of this music online.  I started buying my way through the listening lists and loving every minute of it.  

As Zorn mentions in the first volume's introduction, the NYC downtown scene was incredibly under-represented in both popular and academic music journalism.  I became a big fan of Zorn's Naked City band in high school, but I don't ever remember reading anything about Zorn or the rest of the downtown folks back then.  As a sheltered Midwestern kid, I stumbled onto the whole scene via one little phrase that appeared in a Guitar World magazine in '90 or '91.  Bill Frisell was mentioned as being a creative, innovative guitarist who also played in "John Zorn's madcap band Naked City" or something to that effect.  I ordered a Naked City disc from my tiny local music store on the strength of that one phrase, and found myself totally hooked.  The only other connection to that scene I remember any friends finding at that time was that Zorn was listed as producer on the s/t Mr. Bungle album, and that record made it to small-town Nebraska probably only because it was marketed by Warner and because of the relative popularity of Faith No More around that time.

I spent the rest of high school and college trolling for more NYC downtown scene discs, both Zorn's work and other stuff that came out on the Avant label, and later the Tzadik label.  (I never told my parents this, but I saved my lunch money in high school to spend on music--I got a lot of popular cassettes that way, but I also ordered a fair share of those pricy Avant Japanese imports!)  To my ears, you can really hear the downtown scene of the 80s and 90s as both a source and a reinterpretation of all of the other music being played in those decades.  The classical/new-music world, jazz, pop, metal, world music, various electronica/sampler/turntablist approaches: everything is in that music.  Yet even in music school, I found that only a small handful of students and only one instructor had much familiarity with the scene.  I loved the music on its own, but as a student, I was craving the bigger context for the whole scene.  I sure wish Arcana would have been published five years sooner.

Since nobody else was stepping up to document this music, the scene tried to remedy the situation by documenting itself through the first volume of Arcana.  Though it's difficult to cover at least 2 decades of musical activity including hundreds of participants in only 30 essays, I think Arcana did a wonderful job.  The only thing lacking was...more of the same!  Seven years later, even that issue was addressed with the publication of Arcana II.  When Arcana III appeared a year after that in 2008, I was elated that such an essential document was expanding into a full series.

The Arcana series is up to five volumes now, and hopefully more are on the way--they've been annual since 2007, and hopefully we'll see a sixth volume before the end of this year.  It's difficult to "review" such a large body of essays, covering so much music, but here are at least a few highlights:

--not only are musicians of the "downtown scene" proper documented in the series, but other musicians from the West Coast and all over the world make appearances, too.  Most folks have worked with downtown scene people at some point in their careers, but the narrative arc of the series over volumes really serves to document how this music has both come from and spread to the rest of the world.

--while earlier volumes mostly documented the folks who were essentially the founders of the downtown scene in the late 70s and throughout the 80s, later volumes have included material from younger voices who continue to carry the torch for this music.  And of course there are also essays throughout the series from folks whose work in the 60s and 70s was foundational for the downtown scene.  Zorn's record label, Tzadik, also curates the scene from these multiple generational perspectives, and I find it comforting to know that both the music and ideas behind it are being preserved with so much care.

--each included essay is presented with the unique style and perspective of its author, so one can expect an incredibly wide variety of subjects and writing approaches throughout each volume.  Though some essays include relatively technical information and might be most interesting to musicians who read music or have fairly deep musical (and spiritual) backgrounds, there truly is something for almost ever music lover in every volume.  You can dig as deep as you'd like.

--a lot of anthology-format books like this tend to include a lot of academic/journalist essays.  In contrast, the Arcana series is primary source stuff.  You can read about the interests and obsessions behind this music directly from the people who make it.  No hidden academic agendas, stretched interpretations, or oversimplifications here.

--each volume has at least 30 essays, and you'll probably want to do some serious listening after diving into this material.  The Recommended Listening section at the back of each volume is a great place to begin your journey if you find any contributor's work particularly compelling.  Volume V doesn't include this list, but it's also a "special edition" that focuses on some of the mystical/spiritual drives behind this music.  The first four volumes go into those areas as contributors need, but the overall focus is on cultural/emotional/aesthetic/technical issues surrounding the music.

I really can't recommend the Arcana series highly enough.  With each volume, my understanding of and love for the downtown scene grows by leaps and bounds.  And there are always new or new-to-me contributors featured, which keep me happily ordering more life-changing music year after year.  If you want to start reading about uncompromising music directly from the people who make it, the Arcana series is the essential place to begin.


Music of Twin Peaks

I'm not sure precisely when this change happened, but sometime in the last few weeks, David Lynch.com became a mostly music-oriented site, where you can listen to a wide range of outtakes and alternate versions of music made for (mostly) the Twin Peaks series and film.  And if you'd rather have the music bundled together for portability, somebody posted it to nodata.tv as well.

I listen to a lot of music composed for film, though I'm not a big movie/TV buff.  There's something I adore about the clarity of motivic material for film, the careful use of timbre and arrangement to create and sustain specific kinds of emotional atmospheres, and the occasional strange moment that's jarring in the audio but needed to match some kind of on-screen action.  And I've long been smitten with John Zorn's file card composition period, which is largely evocative of film music in its atmospheres and its montage approach.  Then you have folks like Ennio Morricone who are masters of the genre, and whose music largely stands alone.

In the case of the Twin Peaks music, Angelo Badalamenti and Lynch have written music with a somewhat simple approach, but it's very resonant with, even critical to, the success of its on-screen counterpart.  20 years later, I can hear just a few seconds of these cues and immediately be pulled back into the series of feelings and images they represent in the TV series or Fire Walk With Me.  They're generally not as epic or highly orchestrated as a lot of big-budget film scores, relying instead on sparse textures and cleverly-written motifs that are simple and incredibly memorable.  In their way, they're the perfect film cues: they fully respect and support the strange, often sparse, and occasionally horrifying world of Twin Peaks with a transparency I rarely find in other scores.  Perhaps all directors should strive for the same level of musical sensitivity and understanding as Lynch--this kind of collaboration between the imagery and the music can make a powerful film even more evocative.  For me, while these aren't as exciting as some scores for purely audio enjoyment, I'm amazed at just how emotionally complete they are on their own.

Here's a video from Angelo Badalamenti describing the collaboration between himself & Lynch in creating this music:

While I'm at it, this is a fascinating video of Zorn describing his file card composition Spillane.  While there's no film to accompany this piece, it's one of my favorite compositions of all time, and the approach certainly evokes the major themes involved with composing for film.


A side project of interest

...Haven't mentioned this on here, but I've started another blog which is documenting a series of bizarre flyers handed out and posted in Lincoln over the last year or so.  There is a really interesting/bizarre narrative formed over the course of the mostly-numbered flyers, and I wanted to make a place where they could be read.  Today's edition is one of my favorites among the low numbers, and things continue to heat up through the course of the run.

I'm posting each flyer with a nugget of Chinese wisdom as company.  The reason that's entertaining will become more obvious as the flyers evolve, too.  Enjoy a homegrown brand of conspiratorial Art Brut!


Extra Life returns to Lincoln

For those of you reading from Lincoln, I want to make you aware of what I'm sure will prove to be the best show in Lincoln this year.  NYC's Extra Life will be at the Bourbon Theater this coming Monday, July 11.  Also playing are Sam Mickens and awesome local act Masses.

Extra Life played at the now-defunct Box Awesome a couple of years ago while touring on their debut full-length, Secular Works.  They played to a decent sized crowd who mostly hadn't heard of them, but there were people weeping after their set.  The music may be fairly "aggressive" or "heavy" to some, but it maintains a powerful emotional presence at all times, and there are plenty of gentle and relatively conventional songs, too.  I would strongly encourage folks to check out this show, as it's a rare opportunity to see such an interesting band stop in Lincoln.

Even though this is one of my favorite bands--their "Secular Works" would totally be a desert island pick of mine along with Dominique Leone's s/t--I find their music incredibly hard to describe.  It does contain elements of Europrog, and at times it's heavy to the point of bordering on metal, but there are also passages that make me think of folk music.  A particularly strong element of this stuff is the incorporation of what I hear some reviewers call Early Music, though that's a pretty generic term.  More specifically, I hear elements of Medieval motet work, which comes through particularly in the melismatic vocal lines, with long, often asymmetrical phrases.  Some of the folk elements that blend with this evoke moments probably more accurately described as reminiscent of Medieval troubadour music.

These influences are integrated in a totally unique depth, though.  Most musical endeavors that mix influences so disparate as these do so either through collage or montage strategies, and you can really hear the "edges" of each idiom rubbing together.  Not so with Extra Life: to my ears, this is a whole new kind of music, and whatever its influences, they're working together in unique new ways that don't always point to individual origins.  It's hard to describe.

I first became aware of Extra Life when Looker was playing in Zs.  At that time, Extra Life was his side project among several others of the Zs family.  But there are a few Zs tunes that point to the direction Extra Life ultimately adopted, particularly "Nobody Wants to be Had" from Arms.  In a way, I miss his regular contributions to Zs, but I think his new direction is even more compelling.

Here are a few videos to whet your appetite:

If you're reading from somewhere else in the US, you may have your chance, too.  Here's the tour schedule as posted on Brooklyn Vegan:

Extra Life/Sam Mickens tour 2011

7/3 Allston, MA @ Great Scott ^
7/5 Biddeford, ME @ The Oak and the Ax
7/6 Montreal, Quebec @ La Sala Rosa
7/7 Toronto, Ontario @ Double Double Land
7/8 Ypsilanti, MI (venue tba)
7/9 Chicago, IL @ Situations (loft space)
7/10 Minneapolis, MN @ Medusa
7/11 Lincoln, NE @ Bourbon Theatre
7/12 Denver, CO @ Rhinoceropolis
7/15 Vancouver, British Columbia (venue tba) *
7/16 Seattle, WA @ Hi Line *
7/17 Portland, OR @ Holocene *
7/19 San Francisco, CA @ Hemlock Tavern *
7/20 Oakland, CA @ Lobot Gallery *
7/21 Los Angeles, CA @ The Echo *
7/22 San Diego, CA @ Tin Can Gallery
7/23 Riverside, CA @ Alladin Jr.
7/24 Phoenix, AZ @ Trunk Space
7/25 El Paso, TX @ the Percolator
7/27 St. Louis, MO @ LEMP Arts
7/28 Cincinnati, OH (venue tba)
7/29 Cleveland, OH @ Now That's Class
7/30 Brooklyn, NY @ Silent Barn
^ = w/ Ehnahre and Animal Hospital
* = w/ Parenthetical Girls


Dominique Leone - Les Noces and more!

Dominique Leone's self-titled LP is one of my favorite records, an absolute desert island pick if I were inclined to prepare for desert island abandonment.  For me, it's a perfect combination of pop songwriting, great lyrics, and all kinds of compositional touches outside of the pop world.  There are passages where ostinatos evoke minimalist soundscapes, sheets of noise flow like early Boredoms tracks, angular melodies evoke the best of 70s Europrog with classical and folk influences (even mixed with electroacoustic and musique concrete textures in the middle section of "The Return"), and those vocals!  Layers of confident vocal harmonies, melodies, and contrapuntal countermelodies evoke everything from the Beach Boys to Magma at times.  And there are some simply touching, beautiful songs like the closing track, "Conversational."

When you consider that Dominique composed, performed, and recorded the whole record alone (on a digital 4-track, no less!), it's even more impressive.  Most of my favorite recordings tend to be singular visions like this, the work of one person following their ideas to detailed, perfected extremes.  The DL s/t LP is nothing if not uncompromising as an artistic statement, but its idiosyncratic nature remains very approachable.  It's a record that deserves both popular and "weirdo music" admiration.

There was supposed to be a vinyl edition of the s/t LP--it was mentioned as upcoming in Important Records emails several years ago.  But it never appeared.  Dominique, if you're ever reading this, is it gonna happen?  This, and the Dirty Projectors "Getty Address," are the 2 recordings I most want to see available on vinyl.  If Important isn't going to do it, do a lathe-cut short run or something.  It really needs to happen.

A few weeks ago, Leone made an amazing piano/overdubbed vocal arrangement of Stravinsky's Les Noces available for free on his BandCamp page.  This is some wild stuff--Leone manages to capture an entire mixed chorus arrangement by himself, with the addition of some electronic manipulation to capture the bass-range parts.  His many voices are accompanied by the very capable piano skills of Kanoko Nishi and Regina Schaffer. If you want a great (and free) introduction to Leone's mad skills, head over and grab these tracks.  While you're at it, you can also pick up the free Summer EP from July 2010, which isn't my favorite of his recordings, but it'll give you a sampling of his approach to pop.  The Works in Progress demo has even more cool-and-free stuff to check out, too.

If you end up liking the Les Noces recording, do consider donating to the new Kickstarter Campaign to help fund a chamber ensemble performance of this arrangement later this month in Berkeley at the Maybeck House.

Here's a live clip of a Dominique Leone gig at SXSW 2010:


Thoughts on "abstract" music

I was thinking today about a post on Killed in Cars from a few weeks ago, and I thought I'd explore my feelings/thoughts about "abstract" forms of music like EAI, free improv, noise, etc.  I wonder if the general music listening public might enjoy some types of music which get described as the above genres, or as "experimental," "atonal," "dissonant" and the like, if only a few different attitudes/approaches toward the music were more widely shared.

When I first started listening to noisy/atonal music, I was a teenager, and I suppose that I was interested in the potential shock value of the music to a large degree.  But like many other things that teenagers approach with less than noble intentions, over time it lost its shock value and developed many deeper strands of meaning for me.  And now dissonance and noise are rich within my favorite kinds of music.

One enjoyable approach for me is to think of musical styles/approaches as discrete languages.  And they are, really--all of the structural elements in a typical language are there, like alphabetical/pictographical components, vocabulary, sentence/phrase formations, punctuation, oral phrasing, emphasis, and so on.  If you enjoy learning languages, comparing dialects, or you read prose or poetry for its aesthetic value and flow, you might come to this music with an attitude like this and find lots to enjoy.

Another listening angle I like a lot is to treat the sounds and rhythms as though they emanate from the "primordial ooze" of music, a sort of unstable singularity from which all sounds begin to spin outward into perceptible patterns of order.  But you're looking so closely at this source that the patterns one expects are still in a kind of undifferentiated state.  I think of this as a fun, back-to-roots sort of approach, like taking the basic ideas of music, returning to unsorted source material, and starting over.  Where will these new approaches to music-making take listeners?  Could things evolve and develop in a new direction?  No one knows until it's happening, and that's the fun of listening this way.

Going in the opposite direction, one could treat this music as though it was coming from, or flying quickly into, the distant future.  In this way, one can treat the material as though it starts with the formats of music familiar to us and spreads out into new terrain, unfolding into unknown or unexplored dimensions.  Like many pioneer attempts, everything starts out feeling alien and unfamiliar on these futuristic edges, but gradually becomes part of us with our increased familiarity.

What, then, can be said of the potential for emotional responses to the music?  I think familiarity might be the most important component of this possibility.  Though there are probably some biological components of the human attraction to music, it's probably fair to say that most of our feelings about music are the result of cultural conditioning.  Most folks are surrounded by the forms of music popular in their culture(s), and those forms are "good" as much for their potential quality as for the familiarity we develop with them over time.  If you start listening to types of music that are somewhat outside of cultural norms, that same kind of familiarity generally happens over time and repeated listenings.  For me, I find that I have increasingly emotional responses to these kinds of "abstract" forms as I experience more of them and live with them over time.  Familiarity with the language will make space for emotional resonance.

By the way, if you like to read/think/talk about music on a fairly involved level, please do investigate Killed In Cars.  It's one of my favorite things about the internet.

And here's some sweet local improv for your enjoyment.  I'll be describing the surprisingly rich tradition of improvised music in the Lincoln/Omaha area in more detail soon.


Colin Marston - 200220032004 Computer Music

Colin Marston is a powerhouse of talent: brilliant bass and Warr Guitar player, composer, and producer/engineer at his own Menegroth Studio.  But before he started making waves as a performer and producer, he apparently created this small handful of untitled computer-music tracks, very briefly available from the now-defunct Arctopus website as 200220032004.

It's not much to look at: sticker on a plastic sleeve, plain CDR, five tracks.  There really isn't any information regarding the origin of these pieces, but I assume they were made during Marston's time at New York University taking composition lessons with Nick Didkovsky of Doctor Nerve fame.  I can't get the necessary "JSyn Plugin" to work on my computer, but perhaps someone else can confirm a relationship between this recording and this "Groove-o-noiseics" link?

These are really interesting untitled works.  Track 3 reminds me the most of Behold...the Arctopus compositionally and rhythmically, and it also reminds me a bit of Conlon Nancarrow's player piano studies, though without the metric-modulation-of-tempo concept.  Track 5 has long passages that are reminiscent of some of the quieter moments in Infidel?Castro! works, or maybe even Byla, if you can forgive the inorganic tonal qualities.  Track 4 is the closest to a rock/industrial arrangement, made with manipulations of one basic rhythm/riff and one overall melodic sequence/fragment.  Track 2 is the most textural or ambient of these compositions, and track 1 is a short but compelling landmine of shifting rhythmic ideas. It's great to hear Marston's compositional approach translated through computer composition.

While I'm thinking about it: around the same time this was briefly available, Marston's Indiricothere solo album was also offered with handmade cloth album art/patch stuff in a plastic sleeve.  This is before it was released through Gilead Media as an LP+CD thing.  I kind of wish I'd gotten an LP, but this early self-release art was pretty cool:

Playlist for 7-4-2011

As you might have noticed, I got out of the habit of blogging for roughly six months.  I've returned with new ideas that I'd like to pursue more deeply, and that's going to demand a change in the format for the "weekly" playlists.  Previously, I posted mini-reviews of the music I bring to the Other Music show on KZUM every Sunday night from 10-midnight Central Time (you can stream the show anywhere in the world by going to kzum.org while it's on.  But I found that the mini-reviews took a lot of time while not allowing for enough review depth--I'd like to get some more "serious" reviews going here.  And Other Music features two other DJs, and I wasn't covering their stuff.  What might be nicer is podcasting.  I'm going to work on developing a podcast system for the show that can be linked from here, and take on more in-depth reviews of both new and old music and literature with this site (along with some essay format materials that I'm forever compelled to play with in my spare time).

I'll likely do one more "mini-review" format post that will cover highlights of music I've brought to the Other Music show in the first half of 2011.  It's been a great year for music!  But let's hope I can get podcasting worked out from a technical standpoint, and I'll focus on that to document radio activities.

Tonight's Other Music will take us right up to the US 4th of July holiday, and I've picked out some music that in various ways pays tribute to concepts of "independence," "homeland," "freedom," and so on (though not always in a flattering light).  So listen to the show tonight and enjoy.  One artist that will certainly make the cut, and I don't think he's been mentioned here before, is Bobby Conn.  I'm sure we'll speak more of Bobby Conn's work in the future, but for now let it be known  how much I appreciate his music: great lyrics, great singing, huge prog-but-modern arrangements, a killer band, and always a great sense of humor.  I'll be spinning a different version of this track tonight, but it's a great introduction to the Bobby Conn approach to Big Ideas on a limited budget:


Vinyl from Chicago, pt. 1--Henry Threadgill

A few weeks ago, I visited a dear friend in Chicago.  Though it was mostly a catching-up and sightseeing journey, I did manage to stop by a few record stores while I was there.  I was especially missing record stores because my local record haunts have all closed in the last couple of years.

It was interesting to see that vinyl is making a comeback: I went to three record stores, one of which was all-vinyl, and the other two were ostensibly representing all kinds of media formats but were easily over half-vinyl.  My own buying habits in the last few years have followed this trajectory, too.  Ten years ago, I was probably buying 3 or 4 CDs a week and maybe a couple of vinyl-format releases per year, but now I buy vinyl almost exclusively.

At any rate, I went with a small list of artists to look for on vinyl--mostly things that wouldn't likely be found in my area--and I totally rocked my list!  The only thing I didn't return home with that I was hoping for was something from Gong's Radio Gnome Trilogy.  Maybe next time.

I wanted to highlight a couple of the Chicago-oriented things I picked up, starting with a fellow whose music I think is tragically underappreciated: Henry Threadgill.  Henry was one of the founders of Chicago's legendary Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, an organization whose contribution to avant-jazz and forward thinking music continues to this day.  But I don't hear Threadgill's work being discussed as much as some of his fellow AACM founders like Anthony Braxton or the Art Ensemble of Chicago.  I'm a huge fan of the AACM folks in general, especially Braxton, but I think Threadgill's work deserves more attention.

My favorite Threadgill periods are his work as composer/bandleader in the 80s and 90s, with the Henry Threadgill Sextet and Very Very Circus, respectively.  And my favorite album of his is the one I managed to find in Chicago, the Henry Threadgill Sextet 1989 release "Rag, Bush and All."  And even in Threadgill's home turf, this mint (still factory shrinkwrapped) vinyl was only going for $6.

The sextet (actually featuring 7 members) takes on 4 Threadgill compositions here, swinging with a lot of attitude and swagger.  The band is tight, but they also broadcast a certain kind of loose recklessness that perfectly captures the ethos of the Bad Note Manifesto of my last post.  Threadgill himself is in fine form, mostly playing alto.  Percussionists Newman Baker and Reggie Nicholson form a powerful unit, playing so intimately together that Threadgill can count them as one person to keep his "sextet" numerically honest.  But one of my favorite aspects of this lineup is Fred Hopkins' work on bass.  On many jazz records, my least favorite moments tend to be bass solos, but on Rag, Bush and All, Hopkins' moments in the sun are among my favorites.  He manages to keep energy and musical momentum high during his breaks, resulting in solo sections that feel more like a simple change of orchestration than "bass solo time."

As I mentioned above, Threadgill's work seems to be underappreciated: I find no videos of this Sextet performing, and this record is long out of print.  But I think you'll find that Threadgill's music of the 80s is a beautiful bridge between the approaches of folks like Mingus and the music of some later 90s NYC bands like Sex Mob or Joey Baron's trio or Tim Berne's groups.