Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Africa, New York

Ladji Camara was one of a few prominent West African musicians in the US in the 60s and 70s, a group which also included the griot and kora player Foday Musa Suso, and drummer Babatunde Olatunji. His name is less familiar than those others, I think, because his practice of music wasn't primarily performative. His bent seems to have been more towards pedagogy, the teaching of music as a practice embedded deeply and in particular traditional ways with life and culture. As a performer, his mastery allowed him to associate with many famous musicians in the Sixties and Seventies, but he didn't often record and tour on his own, because he was too busy teaching Americans how to play music from West Africa and how to integrate African culture with their modern lives.

This album, Africa, New York, bears the description "Drum Masterpieces", and it is heavy on the drums, but the pieces are anchored by melodic vocal passages and foule, a bamboo flute. It jams out. It's a recording of a 1975 live radio set, and the performers, except for Ladji himself, are all Americans. The notes on the cover about the pieces (as told by Camara to the producer, Verna Gillis) emphasize their function in ritual and tradition, highlighting that this music has function beyond, or perhaps opposed to, its situation on a record or in a concert.

One piece, "Saa", is "a social dance for two close girlfriends who seem to be like twins because of their closeness. The dance they do resembles the movements of a snake." Ok, that's just beautiful, right? In America, do we have something like that, where we can express physical and spiritual closeness to each other, that isn't all creepy and sexualized? Pinky-swears, maybe? Um not so much. It's cool how ritual can acknowledge and express complex, difficult aspects of human existence.

Another piece, "Nofoule", "is a protest song of slavery during the period of French colonialism in Guinee. After independence of Guinee this song became a folk song and is now performed in the cities by the young people." Hey wow. The function of music as communication and commentary enables resistance to power and injustice. Its acceptance as ritual empowers it.

Ritual. The word has a whiff of the exotic about it, no? Take "ritual" and add "Africa" and all of a sudden you're in some 1950s filmstrip, gawking at "natives". The word, in our cultural milieu, seems to invite a "looking at" or an "observation" rather than a shared experience. Something other people do for painfully unenlightened reasons. Take away "Africa" and there's still a bit of the primitive in there, the "rituals" of the church, physical actions whose physical effect is literally useless, actions which exist and are repeated solely to symbolize something outside the world. Something we're not supposed to believe in. Something that's not important. Something that will not advance us in the institutions of the day. Then there's the "daily rituals" we engage in, the stop at the coffee shop on the way to work, the half hour of TV and the wine. Closer to home, with reasons understood, the necessity becomes apparent. But when it's us doing the useless shit, the application of the word feels kind of ironic, humorous, no? A concession to our primitive nature.

This is what I think: rituals exist to check progress.

Some years ago, I went to see the Gyuto Monks perform at Symphony Hall in Chicago. You know, the throat-singing guys. They did their thing. No other way to put it. No other thing like it. If there is another world, these guys are partly in it, and if you are in this world where they are, you can maybe feel some of that too. It wasn't really like going to a show, though. They weren't "performing" "music". They were actually just doing an excerpt of their daily rituals. They are monks. They live, they breathe, they eat, and presumably, they have no value for progress. As someone who lives in a world where progress is everything, and who has noticed that the chief product of progress is anxiety, I confess that I see the appeal of the lifestyle. Wake up, work, eat, chant, sleep. Ignore pain and discomfort. Render it irrelevant. Chant. Work. Chant. Work. Sleep.

But why were those guys chanting on a stage in Chicago? If the lifestyle is so self-sufficient, I mean. Probably, they needed money for one reason or another. Maybe politics were involved. Progress. For whatever reason, they took their life and made of it a performance by chanting an excerpt of their chants.

So Ladji Camara. Djembe master, born in Guinea. Capsule bios here and here. From the liner notes by Verna Gillis: "Ladji has become an important cultural resource for New York City. His lack of commercialism made him readily available to the black community seeking closer ties with traditional African culture." Ladji's mission was to offer a living culture to a part of the world (America) wounded by genocide, slavery, and the erasure of history and identity. Progress. Check.

Friday, May 11, 2012

The FMDP: Led Zeppelin III

'Zep, dude. 'Zep three. Heck yeah dude. I looked it up on my favorite online, peer-edited encyclopedia, and I learned that the round spinny thingy in the cover is called a volvelle, and that Jimmy Page once said the art "looked very teenybopperish".

I was gonna try to say a bunch more deep stuff about records and junk but what had happened was, I caught Frances on video in this amazing "Gallows Pole" moment (we all have them, eh?) and I knew there was no way I could top that. Hence, today's FMDP:

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

A Rhapsodic, Mediated Meditation

Today's meditation is about how a medium mediates. All records are intermediate between you and the immediate; they offer their own version of the present, which is more or less acknowledged as its own "true" experience, depending on what the record's trying to do. The medium through which I aim to explore is a classical record from the Sixties or Seventies with recordings from the Fifties or Sixties of music written in the Aughts and the Twenties (and in one case, revised in the Forties). It all goes to one.

I'll get the discographical details (which you may not be receiving elsewhere) out of the way first: you can skip this paragraph if you don't care about that stuff. Four pieces on this record, all by different composers and played by different groups. Bela Bartók's Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 1 is done by Rolf Reinhardt conducting the Orchestra of the Southwest German Radio with György Sándor on piano; Igor Stravinsky's Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra is done by the same orchestra but with Harold Byrns conducting and Charlotte Zelka on piano; Arthur Honegger's Concertino for Piano and Orchestra and Leoš Janáček's Concertino for Piano and Chamber Orchestra both feature Walter Klien on piano, the first with the Pro Musica Orchestra of Vienna conducted by Heinrich Hollreiser, and the second with an unnamed chamber group (maybe people from the Pro Musica, but it's not clear from the notes).

It's a quiet record, by which I mean that the musical "signal" is closer to the "noise floor" than it should be. You need to turn it up super loud to get clarity - and when you turn up the music, the noise bed that it lives in comes right up with it. The pops and the hiss are too loud. It's annoying especially in the case of the the Bartók Rhapsody, which thrives on dynamic range, with thrilling, sweeping, climactic peaks in continual dialogue with tender moments of orchestral calm. On this record, it's all pressed together, significantly compromising its emotive power.

Dynamic range. Compression. Fidelity. Presence. Space. When we talk about records, these terms remind us that we're describing a mediated experience - a window through which we but dimly perceive the true art that transpired in some other space and time. Turnabout crammed an hour's worth of music onto this record, which made the grooves thin. Less room to render the differences in wave amplitude required for loud and soft sounds to coexist.

The Honegger Concertino fares better; its emotional core is a kind of herky-jerky jazzitude. Its scoring is more intimate, with space and clarity provided by focusing on the interplay between individual instruments and a pervasive percussiveness. It starts politely derailing towards the end, too. Disintegrating. Space increasing. Stravinsky's Capriccio feels less capricious than stern, with its long passages of light-hearted flitting unable to overcome the furrowed-brow blast that opens the work - or their own barely concealed pensive agitation. The concluding Janáček Concertino, written by an old guy from the generation previous to that of the other composers (but contemporary in its composition to the other three pieces), bounces yet with the same early modern nervousness, releasing the listener from his hour-long mediated experience with a dull anxiety, a feeling of incompleteness, a sense of denied compromise.

We encounter so many layers of mediation these days that we've lost sight of the line between the true present and experience as re-presented. Information technology has created multiple meta-worlds with their own values and contexts! For real! I'm gonna fuckin punch you in the head, dude! Writing systems enabled the broadcast of abstract ideas; accuracy improved; ideas came alive; information became art through the novel, a hundred thousand words in the right order, enabled by printing. Musical notation and instrument technology took us from chant through just intonation to horn charts and graphic scores. Jazz musicians did heroin! Sound recording began as Archive, and made its own inexorable way to Art. Somewhere in there, the concept of a "budget label" arose: a mediation by which you smart Americans with your limited resources could avail yourselves of the riches of recorded sound. Vox began in the mid-1940's with a mission to bring European recordings to the US; Turnabout was its "budget" imprint, launched in 1965.

What we have here, then, is an assemblage of works, loosely bound together by a common instrumentation (piano with orchestra), with some notes about their individual characteristics, but each performed by a different group, and lacking explicit information about the performers or the reasons for presenting them together - though it becomes apparent that all the works share a certain spirit of Modern, pensive lyricism. A mediated exuberance, if you will. Thanks. It would seem that they just wanted so much to get these four things together in this one place, that they said, technological limitations be damned!

It was a risky bet: the seriously blunted (flattened, not high on pot) Bartók opens the record, and I couldn't get past the dullness for a number of listens. Once I recalibrated my reception apparatus, though, it popped out: Rolf Reinhardt's and György Sándor's reading of this remarkable, brilliantly rhapsodic work has a joyful precision with high highs and tender lows that nearly shine through the dampened grooves. The murk plagues the other works much less, and the performances are comparably precise and exciting, if their moods are more restrained. I'm not one to judge the nuance of piano performance, but it seems that Walter Klien, who performs both the Honegger and the Janáček here, is a pianist of some reputation (who, according to this source, was "discovered" by Turnabout [scare quotes not mine, but possibly indicating that the cover thus lifted was one that had kept a famous European pianist obscured from the light of American eyes - not so much a discovery as a translation. Or a mediation. If you will. Thanks.]), and it's true I can find no fault with his playing.

So thanks, Turnabout. You put these Germans in my house for a low, low price. You selected and transmitted their highly artful interpretations (mediations?) of the musical vision of some really creative European guys, who themselves used the medium of composition to reflect, communicate, and, yes, mediate their own experience of reality. Life flows directly from Bartók's Hungarian brain to mine, with technology as the water, money the dam, and Turnabout the channel. I'm gonna keep a lookout for higher-quality pressings - but you have delivered to me an experience of value and taste. Delicious, yummy European dudes.