August 20, 2011

Playlist Week of 8-20-11

Anthony Braxton - Quartet (Mestre) 2008

* Telemann: The Complete Tafelmusik (d.1-2) (Freiburgurger Barockorchester) (Harmonia Mundi 4CD)
* Mussorgsky, et al.: Pictures At An Exhibition, etc. (Chicago Symphony/Reiner) (RCA-Victor/Sony SACD)
* Cage: Sonatas & Interludes (Tilbury): Sala Verdi, Milan Conservatory 10-21-07 (FM CDR)
* John Coltrane: Interplay (d.1-3) (Prestige 5CD)
* Andrew Hill Sextet: Haus der Berliner Festspiel, Berlin 10-31-02 (FM CDR)
* Andrew Hill Sextet: Lausanne, Switzerland 11-01-02 (FM CDR)
* Anthony Braxton: Quartet (Moscow) 2008 (Leo CD)
* Anthony Braxton: Quartet (Mestre) 2008 (Caligola CD)
* Anthony Braxton Diamond Curtain Wall Quartet: Opera Théâtre de Besançon 6-27-08 (AUD CDR)
* Anthony Braxton Diamond Curtain Wall Trio: Chiostro di Villa d’Este, Tivoli 7-02-08 (AUD CDR)
* Derek Bailey: Pieces For Guitar (Tzadik CD)
* Chick Corea & Return To Forever: Light As A Feather (Polydor LP)
* Weather Report: Mysterious Traveler (Columbia LP)
* Weather Report: Black Market (Columbia LP)
* Weather Report: Heavy Weather (Columbia/Legacy SACD)
* Weather Report: Mr. Gone (Columbia LP)
* Weather Report: Night Passage (Columbia/ARC LP)
* Pat Metheny Group: Still Life (Talking) (Geffen CD)†/‡
* Pat Metheny Group: Letter From Home (Geffen CD)†/‡
* Steve Tibbetts: Safe Journey (ECM LP)
* Parliament/Funkadelic: Convention Center, Dallas, TX 11-05-76 (SBD CDR)
* Grateful Dead: Betty Nelson’s Organic Raspberry Farm, Sultan, WA 9-02-68 (SBD CDR)
* Grateful Dead: Avalon Ballroom, San Francisco, CA 10-12-68 (SBD CDR)
* Grateful Dead: Avalon Ballroom, San Francisco, CA 10-13-68 (SBD CDR)
* Grateful Dead: Municipal Auditorium, Austin, YX 11-22-72 (d.1) (SBD 3CDR)
* Grateful Dead: Winterland Arena, San Francisco, CA 2-23-74 (SBD 4CDR)
* Grateful Dead: Knickerbocker Arena, Albany, NY 3-28-93 (SBD 2CDR)‡
* Joni Mitchell: Shadows And Light (Asylum 2CD)
* Genesis: Genesis (Atlantic LP)
* Fushitsusha: Withdrawe, this sable Disclosure ere devot’d (Victo CD)
* R.E.M.: Murmur (I.R.S. LP)
* Yo La Tengo: I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass (Matador CD)†/‡
* Beck: The Information (Geffen CD)
* Beck: Modern Guilt (Geffen CD)(‡)
* Boston Spaceships: Let It Beard (GBV, Inc. 2LP)
* Circus Devils: Mother Skinny (Happy Jack Rock Records LP)
* Tortoise: Beacons Of Ancestorship (Thrill Jockey LP)
* Broken Bells: Broken Bells (Columbia LP)



Way back in December of 2008, I raved about Leo’s rush-release of Quartet (Moscow) 2008, a live recording of Anthony Braxton’s Diamond Curtain Wall Quartet featuring guitarist Mary Halvorson, brass player Taylor Ho Bynum, bassoonist Katherine Young and Braxton on reeds and laptop. It is an extraordinary document of one of Braxton’s most viscerally exciting ensembles and one of my favorite records of all time. Now, three years later, the tiny Italian label, Caligola, has released another recording from this tour, Quartet (Mestre) 2008, and it might be even better! The sound quality, anyway, is significantly improved. The Leo disc disc sounds OK, if a little distant, but this multi-track recording has been meticulously mixed-down for optimum fidelity. Each instrument is crystal clear, occupying a precisely defined space in the soundstage and the wide-spectrum dynamics are vividly lifelike—truly an audiophile-quality representation of this band. And what a band! The performance is, as usual, spectacular and it is interesting to compare it to the Moscow concert (and other verité recordings from this tour) to appreciate the sheer inventiveness of the musicians and their uncanny, telepathic interplay.

It’s an unconventional ensemble, for sure, with no percussion to hold things together (or weigh them down) and the bracing squall of the Supercollider computer software adds an electro-futuristic dimension unique to Braxton’s hyper-expansive oeuvre. Moreover, the Diamond Curtain Wall compositions are abstract in the extreme: a score consists of splashes of colored paint supplemented with lines, numbers and other hieroglyphic symbols developed out of Braxton’s complex, peculiarly idiosyncratic notational systems. An example (via The Tri-Centric Foundation) from Composition 366c looks like this:

In his liner notes to Quartet (Mestre) 2008 (which contains a performance of Composition 367c), Stefano Zenni refers to the music as “improvisations” and, to some degree, the term is appropriate. After all, the musicians are not constrained by prescribed pitches, schematic harmonies or rationalized rhythms but, instead, must “interpret” the seemingly obscure symbolism on the page, decode an image far removed from conventional notation. But I do believe Braxton’s markings contain practical meaning to the musicians (who are long-time Braxton’s initiates) and while it may appear to be pure improvisation, it is not, really; the score is obviously integral to the music’s process of becoming. It is a Braxton composition, even if it doesn’t sound like any other. Unlike Braxton’s other recent activity, the Diamond Curtain Wall Music does not rely upon the hypnotic, pulse-driven Ghost Trance material or the collagist layering of various existing compositions, which has been the usual modus operandi of his working ensembles since the 1980s (and now taken to an extreme with the Echo Echo Mirror House Music, where every musician also plays an iPod loaded with Braxton’s complete catalog of recorded works). The screeching electronics and (sometimes) rockish guitar only partially defines the uniqueness of the Diamond Curtain Wall Music: the cryptic yet visually delightful score, in these hands, produces something akin to magic. But how?

Recently, composer Pat Muchmore wrote a fascinating online column in The New York Times about what he calls “ergodic notation,” the various sorts of creatively unconventional methods of notating music dating back to the 15th Century. His term is derived from Espen J. Aarspeth, a game and literary theorist who coined the phrase, “ergodic literature,” to describe “writings that require some amount of effort to read beyond simply moving one’s eyes and flipping pages” (e.g. Mark Z. Danielewski’s 2000 novel, House of Leaves). But Muchmore goes on to distinguish between elements which are purely graphical and those that are musically functional while defending what has been too often dismissed as Augenmusik—“eye music”—scores which are perhaps interesting to look at but (supposedly) impossible to play and worthless to listen to. The article is generously illustrated with pages from such luminaries of the field as George Crumb, Peter Maxwell Davies and, of course (everybody’s favorite), John Cage. Muchmore makes several cogent arguments in favor of the technique and demonstrates his own use of a circular notational scheme in his own work. Whether the term “ergodic music” will catch on or his vigorous defense of “eye music” prevails remains doubtful (the comments section is typically contentious). Nevertheless, for the “musically fluent” know-it-alls, Muchmore offers an intriguing observation regarding the elegantly rendered manuscript of “Belle, bonne, sage” by the Renaissance-era composer, Baude Codier (c.1380-c.1440):

Take another close look at the heart-shaped ars subtilior example above. Unless you’re quite familiar with European Renaissance notation, it’s probably difficult to imagine precisely what sounds have been encoded here, and it would remain so even if the score weren’t graphically altered. It should be familiar — after all this is a direct evolutionary antecedent of modern Western notation — but the specifics remain tantalizingly out of reach without further study. The note shapes are just that: shapes. It’s a potent reminder that ALL notation is entirely graphical, even though it’s as hard to see standard modern notation purely visually as it is to look at a sign in your native language and appreciate solely the contours of the familiar characters without their usual meaning.

What we think of as “standard notation” was at one time a radical creative leap and it evolved and developed—and ossified—over time. The “classical music” establishment fetishizes the score—the notes on the page—while using it as a cudgel to stifle the supposed evils of Modernism and the anarchic indeterminacy of improvisation. “Ergodic notation” loosens the shackles of received wisdom and the entrained habits of “professional” musicians and makes possible something conventional notation cannot, having reduced mystical abstractions to an inviolable standardization.

It’s corny, but I guess that’s why I love both creating and reading these scores; it’s ever so slightly magical. Even for those who can’t particularly read music, I think it can add to the appreciation of a composition to see such scores while listening to the music and know that, somehow, when the former is put in front of the right eyes it becomes the latter. Even if the music alone does relatively little for you, surely it’s at least fun to know that it was generated by splashes of color, a spiral or a baroquely-detailed heart.

Braxton may come across to the uninitiated as forbiddingly austere but there is this sort of magic-making happening with the Diamond Curtain Wall music—and it is seriously fun to listen to! As Muchmore so aptly puts it, “the creative process of devising such a piece utterly fuses the visual and the musical” and the highly unconventional score causes something to happen that is more than just free improvisation. I may not be capable of deciphering Braxton’s marks on the page—much less correlating them to what I’m hearing—but the efficacy of “ergodic notation” is, nevertheless, obvious. Quartet (Mestre) 2008 is some of the most compelling—and enjoyable—music of his long career. Most highly recommended!


Sam said...

Nice meditation on ergodic notation, Rodger! I'll go check out that NYT article.

Here are my lists for last week, and all I can say is, thank you Charlie Miller!(and thank you, Rodger!), and how could I have ever gotten this far without hearing the Red Crayola?

Playlist 2011-08-22

*Anthology of Noise and Electronic Music vol. 4: Fourth a-chronology 1937-2005 (disc 2)
*Luciano Berio: A Portrait, Part II (CDR) disc 3
*Sylvie Courvoisier/Mary Halvorson/Ikue Mori: 2010-07-24 Whitney Museum of Modern Art (CDR)
*Mary Halvorson Trio: Dragon's Head
*Andrew Hill: 2001-08-14 Saaldelden, Austria (CDR)
*New Loft: 2011-07-13 "She Said Not to Move" (wav)
*New Loft: 2011-07-27 "Settled In" (wav)
*New Loft: 2011-08-03 "Effort and Surface" (wav)
*New Loft: 2011-08-10 "The Only One to Forget" (wav)
*Positive Catastrophe: 2010-05-09 Le Mans, France (CDR)
*Bablicon: The Orange Tapered Moon
*Beach Boys: Good Vibrations box set (disc 3)
*Big Star: Keep an Eye on the Sky (disc 1)
*Buckethead: Bermuda Triangle
*Circulatory System: Inside Views
*E: A Man Called E
*Family: The Family
*Grateful Dead: 1971-10-21 Chicago (CDR)
*Grateful Dead: "Dark Star" 1969-1971 (CDR compilation)
*Jimi Hendrix Experience: An Evening with the Jimi Hendrix Experience (1969-02-24 Royal Albert Hall, London) disc 1
*Jimi Hendrix: West Coast Seattle Boy (discs 1-4)
*High Llamas: Talahomi Way
*Minutemen: 3-Way Tie (For Last)
*The Negro Problem: Joys and Concerns
*OOIOO: Feather Float
*Elvis Presley: The Complete '68 Comeback Special (discs 1, 2)
*Red Crayola: The Parable Of Arable Land
*Red Crayola: God Bless The Red Krayola And All Who Sail With It
*Tad Thaddock: Three Titles
*Tad Thaddock: Tad Thaddock (cassette release)

Reading List 2011-08-15:

*Wallace, David Foster. The Pale King (started)
*Amis, Martin. The Information (finished)
*Gifford, Don, and Robert J. Seldman. Ulysses Annotated, rev. and expanded ed. (finished)
*Arabian Nights: Tales of 1001 Nights (transl. Malcolm C. Lyons) Vol. 2 (in progress)
*Joyce, James. Ulysses (reread/in progress)
*Sim, Dave. Cerebus, Vol. 1 (in progress)

Anonymous said...

i am always blown away by how much GD you listen to. i am a deadhead from way back, and i don't listen to that much GD. :-)


Rodger Coleman said...

@Sam: Heh, Charlie Miller attacks my harddrive sometimes! Red Crayoloa: awesome, right?

@Anonymous: See above. What can I say? It's not like that's ALL I listen to! :)

Sam said...

Yeah, awesome is a good word for them! Interesting, too, that the drummer is Donald Barthelme's brother, and a writer in his own right. He studied with John Barth! I read his (Frederick's) "Moon Deluxe" ages ago.

Rodger Coleman said...

Sam -- "awesome" is a word that gets thrown around a lot, but, yes, it applies to the Crayola, esp. those first two records. So did you listen to the recent remasters or the old needle drops? The remasters are REALLY good. I think made a mention of Barthelme's subsequent literary fame in my original post. I did not know he studied with Barth. Interesting. There's an author I need to read. Any suggestions?

Sam said...

I listened to the Red Crayola stuff on Spotify, so I presume they're the remasters.

As far as John bath recommendations: hmm. At this point, I have to say Barth's an acquired taste, especially with his work of the last 20 years. Since I've been reading him since the '70s, I feel like I have got a higher tolerance for some of his eccentricities than some newcomers might. You might enjoy starting with "Chimera," which covers a lot of his obsessions with narrative and wordplay without getting too cutesy. For sheer fun, try "The Sot-Weed Factor" (more fun if you're familiar with picaresque 18th-century stuff like "Tom Jones"). For more straightforward prose (if there is such a place with him), try "Sabbatical." I also really love "Tidewater Tales" and "The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor," but I wouldn't necessarily recommend starting with them. "Lost in the Funhouse" is one of his more experimental books, but often at the sacrifice of narrative coherence (but if you're not looking for that or require it, then hey, it's fun...and the title piece was a major inspiration for a novella by David Foster Wallace). Avoid, like the plague, "Coming Soon!!!"--Barth at his most cutesy and disjointed. Probably more info than you wanted.