Thursday, January 31, 2013

Chris Watson: Outside the Circle of Fire

This blog simply posits that music is organized sound.  In the case of Chris Watson's remarkable Outside the Circle of Fire, the sound is produced by animals in nature, captured by Watson's highly-advanced recording equipment and brilliant techniques of placement of microphones, and then edited into an album format.  This is certainly not music in the popular sense, but one could argue that it is quite musical.

As a statement on the back tray of the CD case observes, "these are the sounds of secret languages, particular events that have been recorded as close up as possible to try and reveal something of their individual beauty, rhythm, eloquence and sheer power."  Watson's adroit use of technology, his keen understanding of natural environments and the incredible patience this must have required waiting for the right moment to capture a particularized moment of sounds that could not otherwise be heard by humans make this a profound experience, if it can be accepted that these recordings of animals in nature are of music.

Watson first came to attention in the human music world as a founding member of the experimental "industrial" trio, Cabaret Voltaire.  From 1974, he and band mates Stephen Mallinder and Richard H. Kirk huddled in Watson's loft in the gritty industrial city of Sheffield, England with rudimentary tape machines, synthesizers, drum machines, bass and electric guitars, wind instruments and other material and forged an unusual world of sound that had song-like structures, but leavened (if that is the right word) with a wild admixture of harsh, abrasive, highly-treated sounds.  Not musicians in the traditional sense, the trio nonetheless created a way of making music wholly their own and, by the time they began recording for the indie label Rough Trade in 1978, they were getting some recognition.

Cabaret Voltaire issued a few albums, some EPs and several singles until Watson departed to take up a career as a television sound recordist.  Continuing in that line of work, he also formed a new group, the Hafler Trio, which made highly experimental and idiosyncratic music over its long run.  But, Watson's later recognition came with his staggering sound work with natural environments as shown in television and documentaries.  When the very interesting and eclectic Touch label began releasing some of his independent work, Watson had a new portfolio of several awesome recordings of which this an important entry.

From Africa to South and Latin America to the British Isles, Outside the Circle of Fire consists of twenty-two pieces capturing animals of the land, sea and air making their music in a variety of settings.  The opening piece of a cheetah resting under a baobab tree in Zimbabwe sounds much like some of the electronic equipment Cabaret Voltaire employed in its early experimental days.  Other pieces are of hippopotami surfacing on a river in Kenya, birds chattering in the forests of Costa Rica, the roar of a stag in a Scottish forest, vultures feeding on a zebra corpse, also in Kenya, and many other fascinating environmental soundscapes, as well.

Most of these works were recorded in the middle 1990s, with one going back to 1983, consisting of a group of kittiwakes at nesting sites near a castle in northern England, and others coming in the late 80s and early 90s.  One was even the sound of beetles making sounds in the oaken beams of Watson's home, so he quickly set up his recording devices and captured the busy work of those creatures.

As noted above, many of these sounds are reminiscent of the electronic work Watson had done with Cabaret Voltaire--with rhythms, tone, dynamics and even melody that evoke some of that mid-70s to early 80s experimentation done by three humans in their natural habitat.  So, maybe the transition from that to these ambient nature recordings isn't that far removed.

But, is it music?

Sunday, January 27, 2013

John Zorn: Mysterium

While the amazing John Zorn is most known for his notorious noisemaking projects in free jazz and exploratory classical composition, he has some remarkable recordings that are less intense in volume and sound, if not less innovative and experimental in content.

One of these is the brief, but memorable, Mysterium, a 2005 release on Zorn's Tzadik label that finds him creating three varied and highly interesting pieces with a cadre of sixteen excellent musicians that tap into various magical expressions of the feminine.

The first piece, "Orphée," finds a stunning combination of brilliantly-played flute by Tara O'Connor underscored by David Shively's well-placed percussion, Stephen Gosling's ephmeral celese and keyboard, Lois Martin's sturdy viola, and the background atmospherics of June Han's harp and Ikue Mori's electronics coming together to take the listener on a nine-minute musical excursion to the mythic underworld of the Orpheus legend, steeped deeply in the inspiration of, as Zorn's liner notes from the airport in Toulouse waiting for a quick flight to Paris make known, the work of Claude Debussy, but with the modern touches with which Zorn excels.  The composer also provides a typically eclectic list of those French artists whose impressionistic works, not just in music, but in art, film, and literature, animated this fascinating work.

To this listener, untutored in the specifics of classical composition, the minimalist female choral work, "Frammenti del Sappho," is the highlight of the record.  With the work of the Rustavi Choir just recently highlighted in this blog and earlier appreciation given to the work of the polyphonic mastery of female Bulgarian choral music, this piece fits in nicely as a complement and contrast.  Zorn noted the interest he took in the very different translation of Sappho's poems by Anne Carson and this blogger has that volume buried in a box up in the attic, having read it not too long before Zorn created this beautiful piece.  The five singers perform with perfection and Zorn's take on the Renaissance's motet form is traditionally harmonic, as he explains in this liners, yet he adds the twist of creating over two dozen sections named for the letters of the Greek alphabet.  Zorn felt that it is "one of the most breathtakingly beautiful pieces in my catalog" and it is certainly one of the most striking and memorable pieces this blogger has heard from the composer.

Finally, there is a piece in three movements called "Walpurgisnacht," or "Witches' Sabbath" and featuring the string trio of two violins and a cello.  This is a work, influenced by the work of Anton Webern, that is generaly harsher, faster-paced, and heavier in dynamics.  The composer had intended to create only two movements, after abandoning an earlier attempt at a first one, but then went back and completed the third, which is a very soft, slow and disquieting conclusion to a striking piece.  Overall the work's mannerisms, with plucking, intense bowing and a complex sense of interplay between the trio of instruments conjures up a sense of the wild ways of witchcraft, which with the occult and mysticism, have been a continuing fascination for Zorn.

It is always a great pleasure to listen to the myriad ways in which John Zorn creates his own universe of diverse sounds and in the multivaried formats in which he presents them.  Mysterium is a record in the "John Zorn Composer Series," which finds him at both his most accsssible ("Frammenti del Sapho") and dense and challenging ("Walpurgisnacht") and, additionally has a crisp, clear and rich sound.  It is an experience that definitely rewards close attention.

John Zorn:  Mysterium (Tzadik, 2005)

1.  Orphée  9:07
2.  Frammenti del Sappho  13:28
3.  Walpurgisnacht  9:58

Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Rustavi Choir: Georgian Voices

Formed in 1968 by Anzor Erkomaishvili, a folklorist and singer, The Rustavi Choir is an amazing all-male ensemble performing the dramatic and stately repertoire of vocal music from the republic of Georgia, most of it a capella, although others have some accompaniment on stringed instruments and dancers have also been part of the organization.  Unlike other ensembles, the Rustavi performs material from throughout the country, rather than specializes in the music of a particularly region or given ethnic group.

The 1989 album, Georgian Voices, another impressive release from the Elektra Nonesuch Explorer Series, takes fourteen selections from among 100 Georgian folk songs compiled by a record label from the Soviet Union (then only a couple of years away from revolution and dissolution.)  Producer Ted Levin worked with Erkomaishvili to winnow the wealth of material recorded between 1981 and 1988 to those pieces that appear on the album.  Given the significant appeal at the time of Les Mystere des Voix Bulgares, the project of Bulgarian female choral music that emerged from an Elektra Nonesuch album to stunning success, there are some obvious connections, most significantly the use of polyphony and the intersection of Western and Eastern influences.

Georgia' s position near the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea along the Caucasus places it at a nexus between Asia and Europe and the area was a flashpoint for centuries of political and military battling that has created the cultural and musical circumstances from which this album draws.  Levin's very informative liners trace the historical background of this extraordinary music, noting that Georgia's immediate neighbors in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkey all feature homophonic music, making this island of polyphony all the more remarkable, as it has tenaciously maintained its hold in its home country.

The types of songs include ones for plowing fields, general work, traveling or riding, a paean to a deceased child, religious chorales, and weddings, though the direct connection of the song to the original references have been lost in modern Georgian society.  They range from fast-tempo, very rhythmic pieces showcasing impressive vocal techniques like yodels and rapid melodic runs to solemn, emotional pieces with a drone setting the basis for solo performance.  The performers learn by ear and this is remarkable given the great complexity of the styles they develop and master.
Three-part harmony is commonplace in which an established rhythm is developed and then different chords are utilized by each part working with their independent melody, with improvisation also beigng utilized.  In some pieces, separate ensembles work their magic, so that a part might be sung by a trio of singers in a higher pitch, while a bass refrain is sung by another group.  In a work song, you might have one coterie of workers singing in one melodic line and another developing an independent one, with a slow tempo building in intensity in power over the course of the tune.
Levin concludes his excellent essay by noting a trip to a Soviet collective farm and enjoying a night of food, music, drinking and friendship, in which the connection of singing to the simple pleasures of the evening brought to his mind, "the Dionysian rites of ancient Greece . . . [and] the celebration of the vine and the fervent power of music lives on."
Georgian Voices is a powerful and uplifting record, showcasing the best of what a timeless folk music can be, even in a rapidly-changing modern world—and certainly the transformations in Georgia that began with the fall of the Soviet Union only a short time after the release of this record and in the two decades and more since must have provided even more in the way of challenges to preserving this music.
The Rustavi Choir:  Georgian Voices
1.  Tsmindao Chmerto  2:54
2.  Tshkenosnuri  1:49
3.  Mival Guriashi  2:11
4.  Ali-Pasha  2:02
5.  Orovela  5:25
6.  Lasgvash  2:21
7.  Odoya  4:07
8.  Hasanbegura  3:08
9.  Mirangula  3:13
10.  Chakrulo  5:04
11.  Sabodisho  3:32
12.  Lechkhmuri  Makruli  2:07
13.  Kebadi  1:54
14.  Guruli Naduri  4:41

Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Music of Ornette Coleman: Something Else!!!!

This past week Jayne Cortez, who was Ornette Coleman's wife from 1954 to 1964, passed away. She was also a well-known poet and artist who had roots in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, but spent her later years in New York, where she collaborated in spoken word and musical projects with her son by Coleman, Denardo, who has been a drummer for his father since he was just about ten years old.

It seems opportune, then, to have Ornette's first album be highlighted in this post, both because it was his debut recording and because one of the pieces was named for his then-wife. While his New York debut in Fall 1959 just before his first album for Atlantic, The Shape of Jazz to Come, which has been featured here, is legendary for its revolutionary reaction, negative and positive, in the jazz world, the recording of this record on the small Contemporary label in Los Angeles in February and March 1958 proves to be an important precursor to the splash later made in the world's jazz capital.

Coleman had been pursuing his unique and utterly "out" vision of music for several years and in almost complete obscurity in Los Angeles.  He was regarded as highly eccentric for his long hair and beard and his clothing style in addition to his music, which many musicians thought was a joke or a reflection of someone incapable of playing jazz as it had become standardized in the bop world; that is, according to the chord changes that guided the genre.

Though gigs were highly infrequent and often regarded with blatant hostility, there were a few musicians who were keyed in with what this visionary was doing.  Chief among these was his main foil, trumpeter Don Cherry, as well as drummer Billy Higgins, though there was also bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Ed Blackwell, who would later join Coleman's group.

Bass player Red Mitchell, though certainly not an "outside" player, was impressed with Coleman's compositions and got him an appointment with Contemporary's chief, Lester Koenig, to demonstrate his songwriting, not his playing.  But, Coleman's works proved to be too difficult for others to play, so the alto sax player, who used a plastic instrument because he didn't have the money for a standard sax, but kept the instrument even when he could afford the other because he liked the sound, auditioned the pieces himself.
To Koenig's everlasting credit, he signed Coleman for two albums, with the second recording being Tomorrow is the Question.  Koenig, who used excellent recording equipment for the era, had such names on his label as drummer Shelly Manne (whose LA jazz club, the Manne Hole, was a major venue for quite a period of time in the 60s and 70s), Art Pepper, Sonny Rollins and Cecil Taylor, the latter being as revolutionary as Coleman.
On the debut, there is a tension between Coleman's desire to break free of chordal restrictions, regulated time signatures and other conventions and his use of bassist Don Payne and pianist Walter Norris who, while playing well, were also performing in a bop style that clashed with the freer ideas of the other band members.  In fact, the piano was insisted upon by Koenig, who produced the album.  The instrument, which normally is so chordally oriented as to force other musicians to play the standard changes of the day, unless the pianist was Thelonious Monk or Cecil Taylor, was not featured on a Coleman recording again until his Sound Museum dual albums with the great Geri Allen.  There are some songs, like "Chippie" and "The Disguise" where identifiable signatures are definitely present and indicative of the transitional nature of the album.
Still, this is an excellent record, with tunes like "The Blessing" and the aforementioned "Jayne," revealing a fresh approach to the blues underpinnings of jazz that combined Coleman's Texas roots and long professional experience in blues and R & B settings in gigs played throughout the South in the later 1940s with his radical ideas that developed after coming to Los Angeles in the early 1950s.  One track is titled "When Will the Blues Leave?" and it is a tongue-in-cheek one, presumably, because they never have! 
Accounting for the conventional, but solid playing of Payne and Norris, with the pianist wisely keeping himself in a low profile, the telepathic melodic and harmonic interplay between Coleman and Cherry, which matured and blossomed over the next few years, was well advanced and Higgins proved to be an ideal drummer, who could discard standard time, but still provide the swing that makes this album work so well.
To this untrained and unschooled listener, Coleman's melodic bent has always created a feeling of playful inventiveness, rather than the powerful intensity of John Coltrane, who was a great admirer of the altoist.  In fact, when Coltrane recorded an Atlantic album with Coleman's sidemen (Cherry, Haden and Higgins) in 1960, it is notable that most of the tunes were from these early Contemporary Records, perhaps because they were not as free as what came later.
It would be a mistake to avoid these first two albums, thinking that the revolutionary nature of Ornette Coleman's music only began with his Atlantic recordings in late 1959.  To these ears, which were, indeed, first exposed to Coleman's music in 1990 with the album of Atlantic outtakes issued as The Art of the Improvsiers, starting with Something Else!!! and Tomorrow is the Question!! and then moving to the Atlantic albums is a great way to see the work-in-progress of Coleman's remarkable ideas. 
Let's hope that the 82-year old Coleman still has many more years of music and life in him--he is truly a living master of American music.
The Music of Ornette Coleman: Something Else!!!!
1.  Invisible  4:11
2.  The Blessing  4:45
3.  Jayne  7:17
4.  Chippie  5:37
5.  The Disguise  2:46
6.  Angel Voice  4:19
7.  Alpha  4:09
8.  When Will the Blues Leave?  4:58
9.  The Sphinx  4:13

Monday, January 14, 2013

Howlin' Wolf: Howlin' Wolf/Moanin' in the Moonlight

The great Howlin' Wolf, born Chester Burnett in White Station, Missisippi in 1910 and who died in 1976 at age 65, was a massive 6'3" and about 300 pounds and his imposing physical stature was enhanced by his imposing growling voice and his manic stage presence.  Songs associated with him that have become legendary blues masterpieces include "Smokestack Lightning;" "Back Door Man;" "Killing Floor;" and "How Many More Years."

He began his career in the 1930s, working as a solo performer and in bands throughout the South before serving a two-year Army stint during World War II, though he was not sent overseas.  He farmed and continued performing for the remainder of the 1940s and was finally discovered by Sam Phillips, who was later instrumental in launching the careers of early rock legends like Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley.

In 1950, nearing 40, Wolf cut his first sides for Phillips and shortly afterwards made his first recordings for Chicago's famed Chess Records.  He was a bit of a free agent those first couple of years, but became an exclusive Chess artist from 1953 when he settled in Chicago.  With singles being the medium of the era, Wolf had several top ten R&B tunes during the Fifties and it wasn't until 1959 that his first LP, Moanin' in the Moonlight was released and it consisted of singles dating back to his early years with Chess.

Three years later, he followed with 1962's Howlin' Wolf and there was a distinct difference in approach for this record.  Whereas with Moanin' Wolf wrote all the songs, save "Evil," written by blues stalwart Willie Dixon (another track, "Forty Four" was credited to Wolf but was composed by Roosevelt Sykes), the eponymous album featured only two of Wolf's tracks and another by St. Louis Jimmy Oden, with the remainder penned by Dixon.

For the new CD generation, Chess issued a two-fer in 1986 combining the two legendary albums, making this one of the great blues discs of all.  The seemingly-strange aspect about this is the sequencing, with Moanin' placed after Howlin' Wolf, but the playing on the latter is just incredible and Wolf's gravelly singing is at its best.

Yet, the revelation, especially for the novice like YHB, is the staggering playing of lead guitarist Hubert Sumlin, who is only really known to true aficionados.  Discovering his keening, piercing style, full of unexpected twists and turns of rhythmic invention and powerful soloing.  Other great musicians include Dixon on bass, pianist Spann and future giant Buddy Guy, who played bass on the Howlin' Wolf record.  Wolf was a formidable talent, whose singing was rough, but also finely honed and emotionally resonant, but he also had incredible sidemen and the combination makes this dual package a great way to get introduced, as this listener did, to the phenomenon that was Howlin' Wolf. 

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Georg Friedrich Handel: Water Music and Music for the Royal Fireworks

Though a German by birth, Georg Friedrich Handel became British by virtue of his move to England following the accession of Prince Georg, Elector of Hanover, to the throne of Great Britian as King George I.  For nearly a half century, Handel became a preeminent composer of baroque music, completing a vast array of works of various types, including his famed oratorios, concerto grossos, operas, and much more.

Among his best-known works are "Water Music" and "Music for the Royal Fireworks," which came over three decades apart.  The first was composed just a few years after Handel settled in England and was made for a pleasure cruise for the king on the River Thames which took place on 17 July 1717.  Fifty musicians on a barge performed the piece while the king's party was on the nearby royal craft.  The work was so well received that the sovereign ordered the musicians to perform the work three times and they were undoubtedly worn out by the three hours of playing.

In the case of the latter work, it was created for King George II for a performance at Green Park in London on 27 April 1749 to celebrate the treaty that ended the War of the Austrian Succession, a conflict that raged through much of Europe for the preceding eight years.  There had been a performance six days before at Vauxhall Gardens that drew 12,000 people and there was a three-hour wait as carriages vied to reach the gardens for the concert.

When played at Green Park to support the massive display of fireworks, the music overshadowed the pyrotechnics and "Music for the Royal Fireworks" became another masterpiece for the composer.  Because both it and "Water Music" were written for outdoor performances, the two pieces are often paired together in concert programs and on recordings.

The German budget label Pilz issued the first two of the three suites of "Water Music" and the concerto grosso, "Music for the Royal Fireworks," in 1993 along with a second disc of the fifth, sixth and seventh concerto grossos.  The music is filled with beautiful and graceful melodies, stately rhythms and the baroque majesty that, while different from that of Bach, who was Handel's contemporary, proved with his fellow composer to be the acme of the music of the age.

These two great works were performed by the Süddeutsch Philharmonie or Southwest German Orchestra in Konstanz on Lake Constance where Germany, Switzerland and Austria meet.  While this orchestra is probably not considered "world class" by connoisseurs, and amateur like YHB enjoys the performance perfectly fine.  In any case, the brilliance of Handel's famed works shines through.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Shakuhachi—The Japanese Flute

This 1976 recording by Kohachiro Miyata, a master of the Japanese hollowed-out bamboo flute called the shakuhachi, is staggeringly beautiful and evocative.  Even though the instrument appears simple, five holes and no keys, the technique of covering the holes, moving it closer to or further away the player and various methods of blowing provide layers of complexity and richness that belie the appearance.

The shakuhachi, along with the koto and taiko drums, are the quintessential instruments of classic Japanese music, but this has the most contemplative and emotional resonance by far.  Miyata's playing has been hailed for its purity of tone and evocation of emotion and these five solo pieces are simply gorgeous.

The first, "Honshirabe," is, as explained in David Loeb's helpful liner notes often used as a prelude to a concert and is, consequently, the shortest piece on the album, giving a good introduction and groundwork for what is to come.  With "Sanya," there is a portion with a faster tempo, while "Tsuru no Sugomori" is often used for virtuosos to demonstrate their skill at creating bird sounds (the piece refers to cranes), while it is the haunting nature of the song that is most affecting.

"Shika no Tone" is also evocative of the animal world, concering the calling of deer, and is one of the best-known pieces in the shakuhachi repertoire, as David Loeb's helpful liners indicate.  The closing piece, "Akita Sugagaki," refers to a remote portion of Japan and this sense of distance is a perfect theme or metaphor for the plaintive sounds of the instrument, with the piece consisting of variations on melodies introduced in the tune.

The album was recorded in New York during the first tour of the Ensemble Nipponia, of which Miyata was a member, to the United States and it was his debut recording in this country.  Though this record is 35 years old, Miyata is still an active player now in his early seventies. 

This blogger has had the opportunity to own and enjoy several dozen Nonesuch Explorer albums over the years, but this one is certainly one of the best and most affecting.

Shakuhachi—The Japanese Flute

1.  Honshirabe  3:50
2.  Sanya  6:17
3.  Tsuru no Sugamori  6:08
4.  Shika no Tone  7:32
5.  Akita Sugagaki  9:30