Tuesday, July 31, 2012

American Recording Society

The American Recording Society made a bunch of recordings of American music about sixty, sixty-five years ago. This one is two pieces done by their house orchestra under the baton of one Walter Hendl. The world has changed. The recordings have not. Context is the only thing: we see and hear them with new eyes and ears, and they are changed.

Jerome Moross's ballet setting of the traditional blues potboiler "Frankie and Johnny", heard here, is a masterpiece, orchestration that goes nine directions at once and never lets up, the song stretched and exploded, vocals eerily harmonized. The 1951 recording adds drama, murky with the peanut-butter-smeared reel-tape technology that was the sound of recorded music in those dark days. (My wife, listening from the next room, was convinced it was a modern recording, so consciously alien it sounds.)

Frankie and Johnny were lovers
Oh Lord and how they could love
Swore they'd be true to each other
True as the stars up above

He was her man, but he done her wrong
So wrong

Frankie went down to the corner saloon
To buy her a large glass of beer
She said to the big bad bartender
Has my lovinest man been here?

Style flows up the class gradient. There's your vernacular, vulgar, all manner of "V" style, for the low-class sort who just primitively express, who inhabit the roadhouses and the blues and the jazz and steamy, steamy, exotic sex. The body. "Hollering". The savages are then fetishized, when someone white but Jewish, a Gershwin or a Moross from somewhere like Brooklyn where poor was poor and people were people, rescues it from the vernacular, makes people sing it all opera-y, and gets it in the concert hall where the decent people can go and safely feel the excitement with their high brows, and think about how it must feel to be honest and poor and noble.

I ain't gonna tell you no fable
I ain't gonna tell you no lie
Your lovinest man just left this place
And with him went Nellie Bly

Frankie went back to the crib
This time it wasn't for fun
Cause under her old red kimono
She toted a forty-four gun

Ok. One, "crib". Cool, daddy-o. Two, kimono. Who knew bar-going common folk wore kimonos back then? Three, .44. That's a serious gun.

So then there's the part where Frankie catches her "lovinest man" in the "parlor house" with Nellie Bly, and it's curtains for Johnny. And then this verse, which is just the awesomest thing:

Get out your rubber-tired carriages
Get out your rubber-tired hacks
Cause they're gonna bury her Johnny
And they ain't gonna never bring him back

Just reading the words, it's easy to forget it's a ballet. The narration is sung by a trio of Salvation Army ladies - awesome - and at the end, Frankie and Nellie get drunk together and cry on each others' shoulders at Johnny's funeral. Awesomer.

Music of another Brooklyn Jew (and a gay one to boot!), Aaron Copland, is heard on the other side, an early work called Music for the Theater. I dig his early stuff a lot: he's got this way he turns a motive into a hooky melody, and a penchant for dramatic open fifths. The common narrative of Copland's career arc has him being fucked-up/awesome/brilliant in the 20s, poppy/sellout in the middle (Appalachian Spring, Rodeo), and then maybe crazy again at the end but no one cares. Less generous: his late embrace of serialism was pander to academia as his 1940s populism was pander to the people. This piece, written in the jazz/avant-garde period (1925) and recorded twenty-six years later at the height of his popular interest, rules. It pairs well with the Moross, too.

At the heart of this record and the series it comes from is the idea of America, always a work in progress and at its best a conversation that admits many voices. The American Recording Society, the orchestra that bore its name, and the records it released all sprang from the Ditson Fund, whose purpose was to "provide support for composers, performers, and performances of new American music".

America has two faces: freedom and oppression, opportunity and enslavement, protector and genocide. Appropriation and incorporation. Eclipse and synthesis. Lover and rapist. Even as it fought for liberation it institutionalized the colonial worldview. Its colonial, hierarchical mentality was and is experienced physically by millions of bodies. This is a present and future experience. Its expression is constant: unequal opportunity, defining people as "illegal", belief as antithetical, sexuality as commercial, DNA as determinative, on and on. These problems are larger than America, true - but the American engagement with them is unique. White liberals, urban renewal, "cheese product", charter schools, "entitlement".

Nineteen fifty-one. Eighty-six years after the end of the Civil War, sixty-one years before the now I'm sitting in. Copland was called the "Dean of American Composers". A clunky title, but it stuck because he embodied it. As Dean, he played the academic, always seeking a high-minded theoretical grounding for even his most populist choices. As American, he synthesized: jazz and classical, low and high, pop and art. The vision he expressed was the positive spin of the American Janus. He incorporated more than he appropriated, offering a concert music that evokes the freedom, boldness, and synthesis of America, attempting to continue a conversation rather than stamp an approval. Jazz and joy inhabit the concert hall and join hands with the European complexity he got from hanging with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. It's music you listen to but you understand it with your body.

Art and music always leads the conversation. It compels you to show not tell. Whatever's in the seedy undermind, that will come out through music first, before it finds expression in politics and social movement.

So what's the point? Jerome Moross says:

This story ain't got no moral
This story ain't got no end
For this story just goes to show you
That you can't put no trust in any man

We see. We hear. We cannot know.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Cassette Tapes and Hyper-Dimensional Objects

Industry generates product in unexpected ways. At the dawn of the personal computing era in the early 1980s, commercial computer software was distributed on...


It's so true. This one time I was on vacation with my family, and we stopped to visit a friend of my dad's from like, the army or college or something. I was sent off to interact with two male children who I guess were about my age, and their thing was computer games. I had Atari so I knew about computer games, but these kids had an actual computer, and to play games on it, they had to put a


into a cassette player and like rewind it and fast forward it and stuff. To load the program.

Information technology. Tiny metal shavings aligned in the shape of information.

While this was going on in Massachusetts, some entrepreneurs in England were creating what Caroline Bren calls, in the liner notes of this album, "some obscure kind of hyper-dimensional object". Twenty years before VC, angel investors, and "the tech bubble", before there was even a need for the word "start-up", Automata UK was making games for a 16K (K, that's for "kilobyte") system called the ZX Spectrum computer, distributing them on


and crafting a minor pop-culture phenomenon with their breakthrough character, the Piman (that's Pi, like the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter). There was a widely publicized contest where clues were given in the games, television appearances, and comic strips, and it took two years for someone to finally figure it out and win the prize. Amazing. And because the games were on


they could put, yes that's right, music on the B-side. Music which, thirty years on, a record label in western Massachusetts mostly dedicated to the woodsy, hairy noise and free improv scene of that region compiled into this mind-blowing document.

It's so nice: the gatefold cover parodies Axis: Bold As Love with all the characters from the games and the creators. Every centimeter of available space on the inside cover, inner sleeve, and two-sided insert are jam-packed with photos, reminiscences, reprints of comic strips, ads, catalogs, the works. The real-life story is so fun, and the hero is Mel Croucher, composer and idea-man. He's as unlikely a rock star as you'll ever hope to see: he's got a Bun E. Carlos stache, a perma-squint, and a dad-hairline. (And he's the charismatic one!) The music, aside from the magnificent opening track "The Piland National Anthem", is almost unlistenably corny, in a way that's absolutely delightful and endearing for the first, say, five spins, at which point you get really bummed out and put the record away and hope your daughter doesn't pick it out and make you play it again.

Also I can't not mention the just wrong Jamaican and Chinese charac-atures that show up. Mel. You said that the first principle of your video game making was that they had to be non-violent. Making fun of people's accents is violent. Mistake. Hopefully, you realized it later and said sorry? If not, no time like the present!

But anyhow, there it is. This is what an LP is capable of: a whole hyper-dimensional object, wrapped up into a neat little package that you can store on a shelf and unpack when the fancy strikes.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Reverse Prog

Music is about evolution, on all levels. At the micro level, one tone slides into the next, one idea tweaks to another, a direct syntax. Come up a level. Now we get to hear the development of a particular piece as it plays out, an arc of narrative. Then there's albums, love those. The songs go in order. Past that, we love to examine the development of an artist's career from early explosive naivete to late commercial missteps or flowering into greatness. Then there's the history of music, how individual artists relate to each other, absorb and provide influence, producing confluence and divergence. How that American imperialist stew bubbled out jazz and blues and rock and roll, or how the Baroques went to the Classicals and then the Romantics and the Moderns. And then, of course, prog. Don't forget prog's friend, prog metal! Meshuggah and Dream Theater! And prog's other friend, stoner drone metal. All of them have various bits of traditions but then you break them down and it's just people doing whatever they can and whatever they can is notes and noises and sweat and fingers.

Back about 97 or so, Tom and Colin were in a hundred bands and ruling the scene in Jamaica Plain. I first heard about Bull Roarer from this one guy whose name I forgot now, but he had dreads and was into crusty punk, and I was looking for a band for a show and the guy recommended Bull Roarer, saying they were sort of "bluegrass punk", which at the time wasn't a genre fusion that made me feel a little sick but rather was like "hey that sounds like a pretty crazy idea!" I booked Bull Roarer to play my basement, but someone couldn't make it or something and instead Blind Mitre showed up and made some godawful racket. They were, kind of droney folkish noise, as I recall. I made friends with them and started going to their shows and before you know it I had seen Bull Roarer one million times, and they never failed to hit that spot where the crunch meets the groove and the groin releases and it feels kinda religious, you know that spot? That was one great band.

Prog is progressive. The basic blues stew, the rock-a-billy with the couple of chords and the string bass and the country corn whiskey, this is a desperate cry of the soul, or a joyful shout, but what it's not is thought about too much. It's a yell and a thrust and get drunk and it's over. One progresses from there by adding more notes in, and playing them more accurately. Learning. It's stirring some Mahler into the pot. Progressing. The first progs were the King Crimsons and the Emerson Lake and Palmers, and man did those dudes have notes. Prog is really just too many notes! But they have like, chops or whatever too. They could get a groove going and then improvise over it. Not in a wanky Jefferson Airplane way, more like a wanky smart British guy way. But wanky.

A few years later, turn of the millennium, Bull Roarer was over, Tom and Colin were living in Charlottesville, VA, and I was there and Colin gleefully revealed to me the name of their new band. "It's like, the USA is a monster, but you pronounce it 'oosaeesamonster'. USAISAMONSTER!" Heh. Heh. That was in the "Pud House", and there was a pretty great donut place up the street. USAISAMONSTER put out a couple of records on my buddy Tim's label, and I played them a lot, and then in 2003 this monster showed up on Load.

USAISAMONSTER took the punk-hardcore stew that had been bubbling under lo these two decades and to it added a considerable amount of compositional intrigue, bending the the Black Flags through a prism. Like Rorschach but less hardcore metal. With a sharp element of universal examination. And no guitar solos. "Follow crumbled highways made of black stone." Neo-prog, a new progression without wank. Tasheyana Compost is the record where they sealed the deal, and made the music that was serious as fuck and there was no going back. For this, glory but no gold. And precious little glory. "Stare deep into the eyes of the devil."

I have a picture of Colin from 2005. He's wearing a tux and standing with my other groomsmen, looking like a million bux.

Classical music these days is progressing out from a core that it kind of shrank into about fifty or sixty years back, when for obscure but very good reasons it could only define itself as artistically valid in opposition to the massive force of Elvis Presley's private parts by being really hard to listen to, and so the Stockhausens and the Xenakises and the Berios. Elite. Gradually since the mid-Eighties it's been on the way back to the people by making an accessibility stew of itself, a kind of reverse prog, ever on its own terms, never a pander, always trying to communicate something real and direct into the world. The way forward, the current progression, appears to be to stir some things in, a little Balkan music here, some electronics there, and of course Radiohead. Always Radiohead. If you're one of the reverse-prog classicals, you gotta cite Radiohead, otherwise no one will believe your commitment. Serious.

"In this place of rust and fire, time has humbled our desire." Three years go by, and I've got a kid and I'm writing a symphony. 2008. I've got my own prog, personal and musical. It's just me doing all I can. Two years again, and the blog is born from the mind of the kid. 2010. Nine years now after Tasheyana Compost was recorded, 2012, and here's Colin and I talking about starting a record label together. (Shit, did I just say that out loud?) It's a reverse prog label, which is to say composed music that appeals to people. "In my path there lies a poison snake. Should I accept the venom or can I change my fate?"

But the blog, and the kid. I know why Frances picked the album: she was looking for one with a pink cover. She was in the U section, and rejected "Citizens of the Universe" and "Wohaw" precisely because they weren't pink. I was surprised that she didn't recognize the portrait of Mr. Rogers and Daniel Striped Tiger on the cover, given that she is really into that show at the moment. But the pink, that was key. I haven't played her the record, but I'm guessing she would not like it, cause one thing I've learned about Frances is that she can't stand prog! Wank-prog of the Yes variety, or neo-prog of the USAISAMONSTER school. Hopefully she likes reverse prog, and she'll buy the records on my label.