Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Anthony Braxton: Quartet (London) 1985

This remarkably original saxophonist's music has often been viewed as too difficult, obtuse, impenetrable, dense, cerebral and daunting and, to a great extent, it is not too hard to hear why.  Braxton's ideas about music, its place in the world (or, rather, universe), its possible structures and concepts and his way of explaining and expressing can be bewildering.  But, they can also be exhilarating, as the musicians on this London recording from Fall 1985, released on CD on Leo Records in 1990, demonstrate through their interplay and sensitivity in applying Braxton's ideas.

For this listener, however, a great deal of the excitement is in trying to understand and, at the same time, to feel what Braxton is trying to say in his amazing and widely varied body of work.  A few years ago, Graham Lock's Forces in Motion was avidly read, as Lock followed the quartet on its short English tour and had the opportunity to see the ensemble perform, discuss music with Braxton and his fellow musicians, and then attempt to explain some of the more esoteric notions of the evolving body of work of this true original.

As explained by Lock in the book and, in digest form in the liners, Braxton's music in the mid-1980s was grounded in what was called "pulse track structures."  Explained as an alternative to traditional vertical harmony, the idea was to have "a sequence of notated materials interspersed with brief, five to ten-second spaces for improvisation" by the rhythm section (here drummer Gerry Hemingway and bassist Mark Dresser), "while the remaining two players (in this case, Braxton on all manner of horns and the great Marilyn Crispell on piano) either improvise or execute other notated material.

In some cases, a Braxton piece has pulse tracks integrated into the work, while elsewhere, a song has independent pulse tracks added to it.  There are not only varying lengths in the pulse tracks, but there could be standard notation for musicians to play or abstract drawings, somewhat akin perhaps to the impressionistic song "titles" that identify most Braxton pieces, that can be reinterpreted.

Lock observed that there was a precursor called "sound attacks" dating to Composition 23G from 1975, "in which the bass and drums suddenly come together at widely-spaced, notated points."  From this, Braxton felt that "something was happening which could really be extended," and this led to the pulse track structure concept.

Another component was that earlier Braxton compositions could provide impetus for pulse tracks application, especially pre-existing duo pieces that could be worked into newer works as pulse tracks.  From this, there was the development of other concepts, the "collage form structure" and the "universe structure."  With these, the quartet could simultaneously perform two to four Braxton works, both in planned solos as well as at other points, such as the accompaniment to a soloist.  By introducing these varied structures into the quartet's repertoire, Braxton had another name: "multiple logic music."

He also had another interesting and cosmic analogy:  the pulse tracks operate as orbits around different planets as a "solar system music," while the universe built by the multiple logics of performing several pieces at once wind up being a "galaxy music," with the solar systems operating in one broad sound space.

There are other structures, as well, including "transitional collective improvisation," as the group moves from concept to concept; "extreme intervallic distances," or quiet spaces between intervals; "chromatic phase formings,"  having to do with accidental notes outside the pervading scale used in a piece; "a static time/space block structure," in which continuous music involves, in Braxton's words, "a constant rotation of events juxtaposed against each other, like a puzzle that can go together in any order," implying the reusing of musical material in whatever way makes logical sense; and "signature logics" for recurring notated elements that become signposts within the changing soundscape.  There's much more, but the idea is that Braxton has constructed fully-integrated and blindingly complex structures that have evolved over the course of his long career.

Lock also noted that Braxton's live work had lately been continuous and uninterrupted, with, however, identified pieces labeled as "primary territories," including two variations of Composition 40, which was a mainstay of the quartet album highlighted on this blog a couple of years ago.  These "primary territories," then were interwoven and interacting with snippets of other compositions that could come and go whenever needed.

What is truly amazing is how fully well-schooled Braxton's compatriots had to be in order to so quickly move through the "primary territories" and the bits and pieces of the other works and to choose when, where and how to use the varied material available to them.  Crispell, often viewed as a Cecil Taylor acolyte but who is far more than this, performs with great flexibility, agility and creativity.  Hemingway is listed as a percussionist, rather than a drummer, for very good reason, as his playing reflects a nuanced approach to a standard drum kit in terms of tone, color, and texture, as well as rhythm.  Dresser is simply remarkable--never looking to do anything but fully integrate with his fellow musicians, while providing a range of sound to accompany Braxton and Crispell and establish constantly shifting rhythms with Hemingway.

Braxton's preoccupation with reworking structure, developing new models for sound, and systematizing his complex ideas is rooted in his conception of music as a force enveloped in unrevealed mystical notions as well as philosophical and political ideas which he has expounded upon over the years.  As Lock noted, Braxton's publishing company is called Synthesis Music for a reason: the composer sincerely believes that his music is synthesized with his views of universal philosophical, political, and, evidently (as hidden) mystical beliefs.  As Braxton once stated, "what you hear and how you organize and unify, in terms of how you hear, is very important to how you are."

That last statement is, actually, quite clear, if not specific.  Lock wrote that the synthesis of music and philosophy (or religion) has been explored in many societies throughout the world.  Perhaps our post-Enlightenment world has blunted the linkage of music and spirit/soul/whatever?  Yet, Braxton's allegedly forbidding music has many of the same underpinnings of John Coltrane's late explorations that made direct allusions to space and mysticism, or Albert Ayler's ecstatic cries embodied in "music is the healing force of the universe," (which was an album title for the late altoist), or other similar identifications of music with mysticism.

Lock concludes his extremely helpful notes, however, by stating that, however a listener approaches the formal structures of Braxton's "difficult" music, "once the quartet hit[s] that first note you need only to listen to hear a music that challenges, inspires and is vibrantly alive in all the corners of its sonic cosmos."  To paraphrase the most helpful advice on listening to "difficult" music this blogger has encountered, courtesy of Donald Ayler, brother of the aforementioned Albert Ayler, "try to follow the sound, not the notes."  Even if Anthony Braxton has formulated a body of music that is dizzyingly complicated, listening to his work need not be confusing or difficult or forbidding.  With the masterful musicians working with the composer on this dual-disc live recording from thirty years ago, the approach to Braxton should not be so daunting.  Challenging, yes, but also highly rewarding in its order, beauty, variety and expressiveness.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Robert Fripp: Exposure

In July 1974, having finished the recording of the remarkable Red, Robert Fripp dissolved King Crimson, fully intending to never resurrect the band.  He made the amazing Evening Star with Brian Eno in 1975, but largely left music aside while attending to self-improvement.  This was during the period when rock was overwhelmed by the rising tide of punk, which, in turn, flamed out quickly.

Somehow, Fripp made the prescient decision to relocate to the Hell's Kitchen area of Manhattan in New York City, which was the ferment of a music scene that included Richard Hell and the Voidoids, Television, Talking Heads, Blondie and many others during those final years of the Seventies.  He states in the liners to Exposure that he fully intended to avoid music making because of frustration with industry greed, ego and other negative attributes.

In 1977, however, Eno and David Bowie called with a request for Fripp to travel to Berlin and record some guitar parts for a tune on a Bowie album.  On the title track of Heroes, Fripp recorded an amazing and distinctive guitar line that energized the song and his own career.

Part of the new trajectory was Fripp's emergence as a producer and he worked with Peter Gabriel on his second self-titled solo record, the Roches on their debut, and, surprisingly, white soul singer Darryl Hall on his first solo recording while on a break for the highly-successful Hall and Oates.  The original notes to Exposure indicate that Fripp's solo effort was the last of a trilogy including the Gabriel and Hall records and, sure enough, those two made significant contributions to the album.

So did Hell's Kitchen, New York City in general, and the music scene there.  Exposure is a stunning break from the environments in which Fripp worked from 1967 to 1974 and represent a bold leap into the future that was unlike anything his contemporaries had and have done (Robert Plant's more recent solo and collaborative work might be one of the few exceptions.)  It is also described by its creator as autobiographical as he attempted to find a new place for himself in a radically changing music world, but one, that for a brief period, in the post-punk world allowed for some self-development.  Or, as Fripp liked to call it--a drive to 1981 as a "small, mobile, intelligent unit."

Fripp's production work on Hall's Sacred Songs did not meet the approval of Hall's agent or label, which fretted about its lack of popular appeal and imposed stringent condition on its release and, as well, on Hall's contributions to Exposure.  The 1979 release of the latter, then, involved changes necessitated by those conditions.  A 1985 rerelease, based on a 1983 remix, restored Hall's vocals to three of the songs.  This allowed for a two-disc version on Fripp's own Discipline Global Mobile label in 2006.

The recording is a mixture of record conversations and snippets of speeches by a spiritual leader, J.G. Bennett, whom Fripp followed; ambient pieces of the form developed with Eno and dubbed Frippertronics by a then-girlfriend of the guitarist; short guitar-led instrumentals, and a wide variety of songs.  These latter include lovely ballads, such as "Mary," sung by Terry Roche, and the gorgeous "North Star" with vocals by Hall, more uptempo and hard rocking pieces like "You Burn Me Up, I'm a Cigarette," sung by Hall and "Disengage"; "Chicago," which were sung by Hall, but then by Van der Graaf Generator vocalist Peter Hamill, when Hall's versions were not authorized for release; and the duet between Hammill and Roche, "I May Not Have Enough of Me, But I've Had Enough of You."

The tracks that stood out most to this listener, in addition to "North Star" and "Disengage," are the disturbing, but compelling "NY3" and the stunning "Here Comes the Flood."  The former features recordings made by Fripp through the wall of his apartment of his neighbors fighting about a daughter's drug use and unwanted pregnancy and is a remarkably creative expression of music and found sound from someone coming out of the antiquated 1960s, but with both feet firmly planted in the future.  "Here Comes the Flood", on the other hand, is a picture perfect ballad, written with and sung by Gabriel, with Fripp and Eno providing minimal accompaniment.  More relevantly, the lyrics talk about the effects of environmental degredation--hardly the subject of much lyrically in rock, but, of course, of great timely import now.

In addition to the collaborators already mentioned, there is a bevy of talented performers including Phil Collins, then relatively unknown outside of hardcore Genesis fans, but soon to be a megastar with that group and as a solo performer; drummer Jerry Marotta, a sideman of longstanding; Micheal Narada Walden, another session stalwart on drums; XTC organist Barry Andrews, who would next collaborate with Fripp on the short-lived, but interesting and lively League of Gentlemen; steel and rhythm guitarist Sid McGinnis; and the great bassist Tony Levin, who'd been working and still does work with Gabriel, but became a member of the revived King Crimson and is still with that band today.

It is noteworthy that Fripp, who has made many solo recordings since, but all instrumental in the Frippertronics and then its successor, the digitally-made Soundscapes, modes, has not attempted anything like Exposure.  Not that this highly-creative artist should be expected to duplicate this record, but to go back to largely song-based structures with collaborators of the range and quality as those who appeared on it would be interesting to hear.  Almost forty years later, Exposure does not sound at all like an artifact of its time, but has a timeless and rovingly innovative quality that is a standout in the career of a remarkable artist.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Giaochino Rossini: La Donna del Lago

This 1970 broadcast recording issued on the budget Opera d"Oro label in 1999 is a beautiful one.  The state-owned radio and television company RAI's Turin-based orchestra conducted by Piero Bellugi performs wonderfully and with sensitivity behind the singers.

These are led by Montserrat Caballé, a Spanish soprano who was, evidently, at the peak of her powers at the time.  Her singing is, to this amateur's limited background, pure, emotive, and highly controlled.  The Italian tenor, Franco Bonisolli, has a very strong voice and an impressive range and presence.  Then there is Hungarian contralto Julia Hamari, who also performs with great flair and aplomb.  The revelation, however, for this unseasoned listener, is Caballé, whose emotional vocalizing and clarity are stunning.  The several choruses are also notable.

Rossini was better known for such operas as The Barber of Seville, William Tell, and La Cenerentola (Cinderella).  A prodigy who composed fine string sonatas as a preteen, the first of his amazing output of thirty-nine operas came when he was eighteen.  His staggering workload continued until he was thirty-seven, when he abruptly retired as a composer in 1829, when William Tell was finished.

Rossini was so skilled in composing gorgeous melodies and in developing fluid and pleasing themes that he was often compared to Mozart and La Donna del Lago, based on Sir Walter Scott's famed narrative poem, The Lady of the Lake, is filled to the brim with these.  The librettist was Andrea Leone Tottola and the opera premiered at Naples in September 1819.  Though it apparently was not well received, it did prove to have success in subsequent offerings, then went unperformed for over a century.  In the 1960s and afterward, however, La Donna del Lago, found a revival, including this acclaimed performance.

While the sources of some of the Opera d'Oro releases are of low quality in terms of fidelity, this recording is clear and clean and the sound is balanced.  For the price, this is a great bargain given the excellent sound and the tremendous performances, including Bonisolli and, especially, the astounding Caballé.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Sakura: A Musical Celebration of the Cherry Blossoms

This stellar compilation from the Smithsonian Folkways label offers a variety of traditional Japanese music pieces, with the underlying theme of tying the sounds in to the famed cherry blossoms that bloom in Washington, D.C., the home of the label and its parent museum, The Smithsonian Institution.

The ten tracks provide a nice capsule of sounds within classical Japanese musics over the centuries, starting with the famed folk piece, "Sakura", as performed on the koto, or zither.  Following is "Yasugi Bushi," a minyo, or folk song, that reflects, as the liner notes observe, the traditional saying that "folk song is the heart's home town."  Songs like this were historically for boatmen along the Japan Sea in the mid-nineteenth century and features a particularly emotive and mournful vocal.

"Asadoya Yunta" is another folk tune, but comes from the southern island of Okinawa and concerns the titular female character and her rejection of a wedding proposal from a functionary of the government.

Along with the koto, the instrument most identified with classical Japanese music is the shakuhachi, or the five-hole bamboo flute.  In "Hachigaeshi," Riley Kelly Lee, an American whose father was Japanese and who lives and works in Australia and who became the first non-Japanese to be designated a grand master of the instrument, performs with great facility and emotion on a piece from the 13th through 16th centuries which was performed as part of a Buddhist priest's playing for alms.

Another well-known instrument is the shamisen, and Umewaka Asano plays this three-stringed lute with great assurance and ability, while Sanae Yabumuki sings with great control and expressiveness in the festival piece, recorded at a 1986 Smithsonian festival.

From the northeastern part of Japan comes "The Song of Rice-Husking," featuring another beautiful and keening female vocal and an ensemble of stringed instruments and percussion, as well as some backing chants.  An interesting variation on the album is "Songs of the Stonemason," recorded on location and capturing male workers pounding stone as a percussive rhythm-keeping function for work and singing along.

"Soran Bushi" includes shakuhachi, koto, and a deeper female voice with backing accompaniment for this folk song from Hokkaido in Japan's northern reaches.  This piece is another work song for the retrieval of herring nets from the ocean.  The koto showcase, "Rokudan No Shirabe [Music of the Six Steps]," dates to the 17th-century and highlights the transformation of the instrument from an accompanying to a solo one.  Here, Shinichi Yuize, plays with clarity, delicacy and a sense of refinement that makes his song a highlight on the recording.

Finally, the lengthy eleven-minute epic taiko piece, "Yuudachi," closes this excellent album.  The percussion ensemble Soh Daiko works this 1984 composition by Sandy Ikeda into a vivid musical portrait of the passing of a summer storm and was recorded for the Smithsonian's sesquicentennial celebration on the National Mall at Washington in 1996.

Sakura is a nice capsule statement of the remarkable sounds that come from Japanese classical music and Smithsonian Folkways is to be congratulated for issuing this compelling and highly-enjoyable album.