Sunday, December 29, 2013

Japan: Koto Music

This recording of music of the koto, a 13-string instrument about six feet in length played with picks (plectra) on the thumb, index finger and middle finger, demonstrates the phenomenal skill and unerring beauty with which Japanese masters perform on this national instrument.  The delicate high-pitch of the instrument has a highly spiritual quality and the clear and full tones when plucked by these masters are something to behold.

Recorded by Katsumasa Takasago and released on LP for the remarkable Nonesuch Explorer series of "world music" recordings in 1965, this disc was remastered and released in 1998 with a beautiful booklet reprinting Takasago's original notes.  Notably, most of the performers on this album are women, including Master Shogin Hagiwara, who lost her vision at six years of age and earned her degree of "koto master" when seventeen. 

Master Hagiwara takes solo turns on "Rokudan-no-Shirabe," or "Music of Six Steps," a 17th-century piece that has six sections and is a spectacular showcase and on "Shin-Takasago" an 1800s song based on the Takasago drama in the Noh theatrical tradition. This latter is especially beautiful.

She and her student Master Ginsho Mineuchi perform a stunning duet on "Godan-Kinuta," a song for weaving cloth and then a trio performance with Master Kikusui Kofu on the shakuhachi (bamboo flute, of which music there will be discs highlighted here some day) on "Haru-no-Kyoku," or "Music of Spring."  The use of the shakuhachi conveys a mournful, contemplative and highly emotional tone to the piece, as well.

The other two works are "Echigojishi," an 18th-century folk song of a lion dance from an ancient festival in the community of Echigo, performed solo by Master Hatta and the trio piece "Yugao" or "Evening Glory" which includes koto master Yamaguchi with shamisen (three-stringed lute-like instrument) master Kitagawa and Master Kikusui on the shakuhachi.  This song takes its story from the famed The Tale of Genji from the 11th century and a girl named Yugao with whom Genji fell in love, but she died due to a curse from a haunted spirit.  This is a particularly interesting piece and a nice close to a fantastic album of traditional Japanese koto music.

Japan:  Koto Music (Nonesuch Explorer Series, 1965/2008)

1.  Echigojishi  2:02
2.  Godan-kinuta  11:50
3.  Rokudan-no-shirabe  6:03
4.  Haru-no-kyoku  8:57
5.  Shin-takas ago  2:07
6.  Yugao  12:49

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Cecil Taylor: 3 Phasis

It was a beautiful thing to read articles and Web pages and see photos of the great Cecil Taylor receive the Kyoto Prize in Japan in early November and heartening to know he was performing, still active at the age of 84.  The phenomenal pianist, so sadly underappreciated and little recognized for so many years, has gradually received increasing attention for his staggering technique, imagination, and innovation.  So, it was nice to see him receive the kinds of accolades he so well deserves while he was in Japan.  Hopefully, he'll be getting some further measure of this in America before it's too late.

This is because we are losing a lot of great jazz musicians quickly--just a few days ago, Yusef Lateef, who was a major figure in incorporating other sounds from musics around the world into his conception of jazz, passed on.  As mentioned here, the remarkable drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson died not long ago.  In fact, this Taylor album, 3 Phasis, features the talents of Jackson along with trumpeter Raphé Malik, violist Ramsey Ameen, bassist Sirone, and Taylor's longtime sidekick, alto sax player Jimmy Lyons.

In the informative and perceptive notes by Gary Giddins, it was pointed out that the record was "the last of the four evening sessions in April 1978" that included the Cecil Taylor Unit album and that the performance was not titled, but referred to as "the suite."  It was also the final of six takes recorded in a marathon session that stretched into overtime late into the morning hours.  That final effort was so striking that the producer, Sam Perkins, exclaimed that "this was the best yet by far."  Moreover, as the band hit its stride, some forty minutes into the take, Perkins added that, "we've got a record now!" but soon worried about what would happen if the band didn't stop and editing was needed "because I'd hate to cut it."

If anything, Cecil Taylor is always aware, so as the clock got near an hour, he moved into a finale that brought the stunning session to a powerful conclusion.  As excitement reigned in the studio after the last notes died down, the cool-as-ever leader simply remarked, "Well, you know we knew it was good, too."

Giddings included a quote from Duke Ellington about the orchestra as "an accumulation of personalities, tonal devices" and noted that Taylor's band music with its variety of instruments provides just that, an opportunity for a vast array of tonalities.  This is certainly the case with Ameen's violin, Malik's trumpet, Lyons's alto and Cecil providing both free-ranging solo work, but also striking and notable accompaniment, both to other soloists and in group work.  Sirone and Jackson make for a supple and supportive rhythm section.

For those who argue that Taylor is so strong a (tonal) personality, that he can overwhelm the other players on a recording or in a live setting, this is definitely not the case here.  This is a great ensemble work, where the trumpet rises above the din during those dense passages where everyone plays in a carefully calibrated (and, to this listener, beautiful) maelstrom, with the alto and piano punctuating frequently through the sound.

As Giddings carefully notes with reference to times, Taylor proves to be a master at feeding ideas to the other instrumentalists through his use of apt figures.  And, despite his reputation, Taylor comes up with some beautifully melodic figures (this blogger heard his gorgeous short piece "After All" just the other day from 1975's fantastic Silent Tongues, to be covered here someday) and one comes, as Giddins observes, at near 33 minutes, though there are some other moments of delicacy, such as at around 11 minutes that can quickly move into flurries of rapidly played runs interspersed with mournful bowing of the violin.

In a piece this long, running over 57 minutes, and with such a rich variety of instrumental tonalities, there are little nuggets and treasures scattered throughout.  Giddins refers to it as "a masterwork, a testament to the perfectionism and unpredictability that go hand in hand in Taylor's music."  This is definitely the case with 3 Phasis as it is so often with the music of a man who has made some of the most impressive and uncompromising music in any genre over nearly sixty years. 

Cecil Taylor: 3 Phasis (New World Records, 1979)

1.  11:10
2.  9:17
3.  11:52
4.  11:55
5.  13:06

Saturday, December 21, 2013

King Crimson: Discipline

In 1974, disillusioned with the direction of King Crimson, traveling on the road, and dealing with the music business, as well as feeling in a spiritual crisis, Robert Fripp disbanded the group that had just made the revelatory recording Red.  After working on a final statement in the form of the live album U.S.A., released in 1975, Fripp stopped making music and took a ten-month course at the International Academy for Continuous Education, created by John G. Bennett as a means for studying the aim of the spiritual life based largely on the teachings of the Russian-Armenian G.I. Gurdjieff (whose music was performed by pianist Keith Jarrett, profiled in this blog, in a 1980 recording.)

Fripp then did something remarkable for someone who came up in the music world of the late 1960s, he moved to New York and immersed himself in the independent music scene there.  Meantime, he was lured back into performing when Brian Eno, with whom Fripp made the innovative 1973 album No Pussyfooting, asked him to work on some tracks for David Bowie's 1977 album, Heroes, with Fripp's distinctive guitar providing the backbone for the title track.   Fripp went on to produce an Peter Gabriel solo record, one by the folk act, The Roches, and even a solo album by Daryl Hall.  Finally, Fripp created a remarkable album of his own, Exposure, which was released in 1979 and which will be profiled here later.  In 1980, Fripp resurrected the name of his first significant group, The League of Gentlemen, and teamed with XTC keyboardist Barry Andrews (later in Shriekback), Sara Lee, a bassist who later played with Gang of Four and the B-52s among others, and drummer Johnny Toobad, replaced later by Kevin Wilkinson, who subsequently was in China Crisis and Squeeze.)  The band released one album and toured for much of that year before the project was terminated.

Determined not to go back to the past, Fripp then conceived of a group called Discipline.  Bassist Tony Levin, who had worked on the Peter Gabriel solo record (and has been touring with him lately), impressed Fripp greatly, as had an amazing guitarist and singer, Adrian Belew, who was hired by Frank Zappa from obscurity and subsequently worked with Bowie and Talking Heads.  The one link to the King Crimson past was Fripp's offer to drummer Bill Bruford to join the new quartet.  After rehearsing, Discipline began playing shows and developed an immediate rapport.  Soon, however, it became apparent to Fripp and the others that the new group was actually King Crimson and Discipline was jettisoned, though it would, in 1993, be resurrected as part of Fripp's independent label, Discipline Global Mobile.

The 1981 version of King Crimson bore almost no resemblance to the earlier iterations, which was one of the most remarkable aspects of it.  Belew was the first guitarist to work with Fripp and his extensive use of the whammy-bar and other pyrotechnics were stunning, as well as being an excellent counterpoint to Fripp's more subdued, but complex and idiosyncratic sound.  Based on a new-found interest in Balinese gamelan music, the two also developed a highly integrated cross-picking sound that made King Crimson distinctive.  Levin's use of the new Chapman Stick, which is a guitar-like instrument that is able to play bass and melody lines as well as ambient like textures and thick chords, was also highly unusual and he also played the traditional bass.  Finally, Bruford was asked (restricted?) by Fripp to disdain too much use of the cymbal and be more of a rhythmic accompaniment to the group and also used a new technology, an electronic drum kit by Simmons, augmented by some acoustic pieces.

The record the band issued that year, Discipline, was not only light years removed from earlier King Crimson lineups and recordings, but was radically different from anything else of the time.  It is a testament to Fripp's desire and that of his bandmates to be forward thinking in terms of sound, but it was also essential to have the rhythmic flexibility and virtuosity of Levin and Bruford, who made a fantastic team, and to have the rare combination of a staggering guitarist, a fine vocalist and good songwriter in Belew.  Belew, in particular, provided a goofy humor and an engaging warmth to his other talents to make this new version of KC something different and timely.

As has been stated here before, it is hard to look at In the Court of the Crimson King (1969), Red (1974) and Discipline (1981) and choose which one is "best."  They are dramatically varied from one another, but have that unifying spirit of experimentalism and adventure that marks the spirit of King Crimson.  It has to be said, though, that Discipline is more accessible and has a continuity and seamlessness that the others don't possess, although "21st Century Schizoid Man" and "Starless" are epochal recordings that stand head-and-shoulders, in this listener's opinion, above everything else the band did, excepting perhaps "Lark's Tongues in Aspic, Part 2," and a personal favorite, the fascinating "The Talking Drum," both from 1973's Larks Tongues in Aspic.

But, "Indiscpline" is right up there.  Belew's agitated soliloquy based on his wife's reaction to a work of art she created is accompanied by some fabulous instrumental accompaniment, including a guitar solo by Fripp reminiscent of the one found on "A Sailor's Tale" from 1971's Islands, Levin's anchoring bass playing, and Bruford's rare opportunity to rove around his kit, but highlighted by his beautifully tight roll just before Belew tears into his distinctive solo.

"Elephant Talk" has a cool lyrical format, in which Belew spouts out words from each of the letters from A to, you got it, E--he has a knack for clever lyrical conceits that break down some of the heaviness of the KC sound and Fripp's processed "mouse" solo is fascinating.  "Frame by Frame" has a nice soaring vocal by Belew with backing vocals from Levin, something not found in previous versions of the band. 

"Thela Hun Gingeet" is an anagram for "Heat in the Jungle" with another unusual compositional element--during rehearsals, Belew explained his idea to the band about what the song was about, the hardness of an urban street environment, when Fripp suggested he take his portable tape recorded and go out into the street and record what was there.  Belew was then actually set upon by some men who thought he was an undercover cop with the singer/vocalist protesting that he was in a band recording an album and that he was on the street for that reason.  Somehow, the men decided to walk away only to have Belew run into a police officer.  Returning to the studio and visible shaken and upset, Belew retold the incident to his fellow band members, but Fripp had the presence of mind to ask the recording engineer to tape what Belew related.  This was added to the song to give it a disconcerting element of unreality--though, at first listen, it seemed to this blogger to be contrived, though still effective as a vocal device.

Aside from "Indiscipline" the other highlight is the gorgeous "Matte Kudasai," for which Fripp had a previously-existing guitar line, but it is Belew's vocal that stands out.  Later incarnations of the group would come up with such Belew signatures as "One Time" and "Eyes Wide Open."  While fans of the older versions of KC would point to "I Talk to the Wind," "Cadence and Cascade" and others as being emblematic of the balladic aspect of the group, "Matte Kudasai" is both beautiful, but less baroque.

Discipline concludes with two instrumentals, the evocative "The Sheltering Sky" and "Discipline," which features that complex, interwoven, cross-picking playing by Fripp and Belew mentioned above.  In all, this album is a striking, original and daring leap to a modern sound that most 1960s era bands and performers could not conceive of trying.  It is notable that John Wetton, whose powerful and nimble bass playing and smoky vocals on the classic 1972-74 KC lineup, became a pop rock phenomenon with Asia just a year later.  The differences of where he went (albeit leading to great riches, if not longevity) compared to where Fripp headed are telling.

An early CD version of the album, in 1989, as with all of those made at the time, was heralded as "definitive."  Of course, this was not so, and a 30th anniversary disc came out about a decade later in 2001.  Then, with further technological advances, came the 40th anniversary version in various formats (including 5.1 DTS Digital Surround, MLP Lossless and PCM Stereo) and with some bonus material.  Produced and mixed by Fripp and Steven Wilson of The Porcupine Tree who has overseen most of the reissued 40th anniversary material, the sound is excellent.

The Eighties version of Crimson released two more albums, the underrated Beat (1982) and Three of a Perfect Pair (1984) and, after the excellence of Discipline, it was probably unfair to ask the band to come near to reaching that level.  This listener first heard the band in spring 1984 when a friend wanted to see KC play at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles.  After curtly declining in some disdain, visions of prog excess (side-long suites about court jesters, dancing in the sun, and Tarkus, etc.) roiling about in the brain, the friend asked for a listen to a few Crimson records to demonstrate that they were different.  Indeed they were--a run through ITCOTCK, Starless and Bible Black, Red and, most strikingly, Discipline clearly showed this.

The June concert was amazing.  The tall, balding Levin providing a notable presence aside from his unbelievable playing, Bruford expertly laying down electronic and analog rhythms, Belew crooning, elephant talking, and whammy-bar wailing his way into the audience's hearts, and Fripp, as always, calmly seated at the side and playing off the various strengths of his fellow band members and himself.  A month or so later, it was over as Fripp decided to walk away from Crimson once again.

For this listener, the budding interest in the band ended--it was an unexpected detour from the alternative rock that ruled the roost.  In 1994, the VROOOM CD was picked up out of sheer curiosity and, though it was intriguing, nothing further came of it.  Then, in 2009, a nagging question about whether Crimson would still be of interest (Starless and Bible Black, in particular, kept popping into the cranium) led to a hesitant purchase of Larks Tongues in Aspic and it was "The Talking Drum" that did it.  Since then, it has been a near-continuous exploration of all things Crimson and Fripp, though the news that the grand plans for the 40th anniversary year ground to a halt followed by Fripp's "retirement" was disappointing.

Suddenly, with a long-standing dispute over royalties with Universal Music Group and other difficulties resolved, this September Fripp announced another version of Crimson would be "in service" by that time in 2014.  The news was tempered some by the revelation that Belew was not invited and the vocalist would be Jakko Jakszyk, who performed on a recent KC "projekct" with Fripp, Mel Collins from the 1970-72 KC era, Gavin Harrison (of The Porcupine Tree and the short 2008 Crimson mini-tour).  The "projekct" has been defined as a sort of "research and development" aspect of portions of the larger Crim to move to the next phase. 

Now that the five men who worked on A Scarcity of Miracles are in the new lineup along with two other drummers, KC vet Pat Mastelotto and Bill Rieflin, formerly of Ministry and REM and who has worked with Fripp on other projects, including The Humans, the band of Fripp's wife Toyah Willcox, it will be interesting to see what new directions will come of it.  Undoubtedly, much of the attention will be focused on Jakszyk, who will, fairly or not, be compared to Greg Lake, John Wetton and Adrian Belew.

Whatever happens, it is sure to be interesting and unexpected and nothing less can be expected from the iconoclastic, enigmatic, but remarkably and resiliently creative Robert Fripp.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Harry Partch: Delusion of the Fury

Slogging, as a total amateur, through Harry Partch's book Genesis of a Music and trying to grasp as much as possible the complex and highly ordered system of "monophony" he developed with 43 tones in just intonation reflecting precise vibrational ratios in place of the notation system of equal temperament found in "classical" music, what has been most striking and memorable, actually, is the composer's differentiation between corporeal and abstract music. 

Namely, that ancient forms of music, such as that found in Greece, was corporeal, in which music was not separate from other performing arts like theater and poetry/recitation/singing and that the integration of these art forms was represented in a purer expression through the human body in a coordinated theatrical and musical setting.  Vocalizations were not done for their own sake, but to clearly express the text of what was sung, which also related to dance and other visual representations.

Later, however, European "classical" music, in Partch's view, became abstract, removing the music from the integrated bodily expressions of those prior societies and traditions and employing an artifice that prized technical ability over message and virtuosity over direct human emotion.  He criticized operatic singing, for example, as emphasizing drawn-out vocalizations that sacrificed the text and its meaning for showy, self-conscious expressions of the talents of the composer and the singer.  But J.S. Bach's devising of equal temperament for the "well-tempered clavier" seems to have been where the abstraction wrongly pulled music away from its corporeal roots.

Partch's arguments are interesting and compelling and he developed a truly original compositional form with instruments of his own design and construction, while also being heavily influenced by, among others, ancient Greek and Japanese Noh and kabuki theater traditions (his parents were missionaries in China and the family also lived in the American Southwest, where native societies had a great impression on the young Partch.)

Another interesting element to the book is his discussion of the contrast between standardized definitions of consonance and dissonance and it seems that his views are that what one person might view as "noise" through dissonance can seem quite consonant, when heard through the monophonic system Partch developed.  This is fascinating because equal temperament is so well-established and traditional melodic, harmonic and rhythmic forms are so different from Partch's vision that, given how we listen to music, it can be argued, perhaps, that Partch's "dissonance" seems actually "abstract."

Over time, though, in listening to a wide array of his works, this amateur listener has come to admire the dissonant beauty and compelling palette of unusual sounds coaxed from the varied custom instruments this brilliant iconoclast designed and built (and which are only rarely played by acolytes because of their complexity and logistical challenges.)  It has taken time and effort to develop this appreciation and the advise offered, and mentioned here before, by jazz musicians Albert and Donald Ayler concerning the former's idiosyncratic music, comes to mind:  try to follow the sound, not the notes.

As much as it is desirable to want to understand the nuances and complexities of Partch's discussion of monophony and the ratios building from a 1/1 ratio (corresponding roughly to the "G" note in equal temperament) and the utonalities and otonalities (referring to the top or over number and the bottom of under number in the ratios as overtones and undertones) and all other manner of concepts embodied in his system, ultimately for most people, listening to Partch is an attempt to "follow the sound" and be caught up in the wonderful and exotic sounds coaxed from these amazing instruments.

To many fans, Partch's 1965-66 composition, "Delusion of the Fury", is his masterpiece.  First performed in 1969 at UCLA in Los Angeles and, amazingly, released by the mainstream Columbia label, the recording is a 72-minute excursion into the unique world of Partch's monophonic system and his remarkable fusion of ancient Greek, Japanese, and other elements that explore the meaning of ritual.

Partch's statement in the liners: "Words cannot proxy for the experience of knowing—of seeing and hearing" is essential, because his idea of corporeal music is that you can't separate the visual from the auditory and the total experience cannot be captured in a recording that only gives you the latter.  While Partch maligned opera from moving away from the corporeal to the abstract, his larger-scale works can lead to the feeling that they are a unique and personalized form not that far removed from opera.  And, when listening to a recording, as with opera, much is missed in not seeing and experiencing the unified whole.

In any case, it is still a great treat hearing the vast forms of percussion, including the "marimba eroica," and the "quadranglaris reversum," and the "cloud-chamber bowls," and the "spoils of war," and the "harmonic canon II." The plucked strings include the two forms of "kithara," and that "harmonic canon I" as well as a Japanese koto.  And, the list of interestingly-named and played instruments goes on, including the "eucalyptus claves," the "Fiji rhythm boat," the "gubagabi," and the "drone devils" or jewsharps.  The vocalizations are chants and singing done in monosyllables, not the ornate and elongated operatic arias Partch frowned upon.

Partch did offer a synopsis, stating that the setting was "an olden time" and that the lengthy overture, titled the "Exordium" was a "music-theater portrayal of release from the wheel of life and death," giving a distinctly Buddhist-like  connotation concerning the move to enlightenment.  Partch observed that the storyline was based on a fallen warrior's ghost appearing to the killer and the latter's young son and working through a reconciliation to enlightenment from fury from being killed during battle.

Not surprisingly, Partch models the second act on an Ethiopian folk story, noting that the idea was to link life and death as "an accommodation toward a healthy—or at least a possible—existence," rather than as separate elements.  The tale involved a misunderstanding over the muteness of a vagabond (Partch also uses the word "hobo," a theme he often developed in his career, having been a hobo for several years as a younger man) who is mistaken for stealing an old woman's goat and then the couple is forced to appear before a deaf and near-sighted judicial official for a sentence heightened by the earlier misunderstanding as to what the hobo or vagabond had actually done.

Notably, Partch composed the piece to go straight through, without interruption, throughout the hour and ten minute plus length, corresponding to the idea of moving directly from life to death to reconciliation in the first act and the concept of dealing with the interrelationship of meaning, misunderstanding and misapplication of law in the second.

Danlee Mitchell, who conducted the original performance with supervision from the composer and became Partch's heir and executive director of the Harry Partch Foundation, provides an interesting and informative essay about the mounting of the performance and Partch's work generally and there are a few fascinating quotes from Partch to producer John McClure showing his frustration dealing with the long gestation of the work and in dealing with a major label.

Whether or not this appreciation accurate conveys Partch's concepts or understands even on a basic level his tenets relating to corporeal music and theater versus the abstractions of "classical" music, this listener is amazed at the commitment, depth of thought, and remarkable presentation that he was able to generate in highly challenging circumstances through many decades of working virtually "underground."  Even if it not understood conceptually, the adage of the Aylers to "follow the sound" rather than the notes, or, in Partch's case, the 43 monophonic ratios, has opened up new ways of hearing music, dissonant, consonant, or neither.