July 31, 2005
bang on a what?
I headed out to the Berkshires - North Adams specifically - yesterday. I love it out there because it is an amazing combination of natural beauty and cultural beauty. MASS MoCA is one of my favorite museums, and Mt. Greylock and surrounding areas are gorgeous, especially on a beautiful day like the one we had yesterday.
My trip was designed to give me plenty of these offerings. First I went on a mountain bike ride up and down Mt. Greylock. I climbed on the road (8% grade for 6.5 miles!) and descended via an assortment of trails. This ride was consistent with every other time I have biked or hiked out there in that I got lost. I had a map and everything, but I kept on wanting to explore and kept on getting myself further and further from anything that even thought about being on said map. Clearly I did find myself eventually, but not after 3 hours or hard pedaling, which, after my 'shower' in the river, made me about half an hour late for the concert at MASS MoCA that I was attending.
You might be thinking this is terrible, but thankfully the concert was a unique one in that it was a classical 'new' music show that lasted for 6 hours and the participants were encouraged to come and go as they pleased. So yes, I missed a few pieces at the beginning, but still had 5.5 hours of music to enjoy.
The concert was the annual Bang On A Can Marathon (a name that does absolutely no good at all trying to convince anyone under 40 that classical music isn't totally dorky). BOAC is a new music collective based in New York and every year they convene their faculty of eleven incredible musicians with an assortment of music students from all over the world for a month or so out in North Adams and, well, see what happens. It sounds like it would be a pretty remarkable experience. This year, Steve Reich was the composer in residence, and therein lies the main reason I attended this show. More on him in a second, but first, the performance.
The format, as I mentioned, was pretty casual with an emcee and the ability to come and go as you please without feeling like you are interrupting some fragile and dainty situation. More classical concerts should be like this.
There were three Steve Reich pieces performed. I was unimpressed by the performance of Drumming, Part 3, but Eight Lines and Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ were great. My favorite new piece by far was David Lang's Sweet Air which was simply incredibly beautiful; I could have listened to it for twice as long. Marc Mellits' 5 Machines was very interesting, but the piece that took the prize for most experimental and intellectually fascinating was Critical Band by James Tenney. It had six woodwinds, a french horn and electronics slowly deviating more and less from an A producing the craziest rhythmic phasing in and out of tones I've ever heard from live instruments. There was nothing but long tones played by the musicians, yet their interplay and purposeful detuning created some insanely rhythmic aural artifacts. I imagine that piece is different every time it is played. I wonder what the score looks like.
The most exciting part about the evening was accomplishing something I had wanted to for some time, and that was to introduce myself to Mr. Reich himself and give him my cd. He was so gracious and unpretentious. I can't even imagine walking up to any minorly well-known rock musician of the moment and having such a simple and easy conversation as I did with Mr. Reich. The crazy thing is that this guy is an absolute god in terms of modern music. He has been accused of being America's greatest living composer, among other things, and I wouldn't disagree. He's the classical equivalent of U2 in terms of fame. I'm serious. This tells you something about the difference between the popular music scene and the 'new' music scene.
In any case, he now has my cd and indicated he would listen and perhaps respond via email. I have been tremendously influenced by him and it feels really good that he now can listen to what I have done. I wouldn't say that my music sounds like his, but I'm sure he'll hear the influence with the voices and the marimba patterns. Let's hope for the best.
July 28, 2005
one plus one equals zero
Sometimes alone is better than together. This is what I learned at the Elvis Costello show I went to over the weekend. I am not a huge Elvis fan by any means, but, having seen him once before, I did know what an incredible musician he is and how professional and entertaining his performances are, so I was psyched to go check him out at the Bank of America Pavilion last Saturday. And what I thought would make it more interesting and better, he was to perform with Emmylou Harris. You see, I like Emmylou and saw her at the Boston Folk Festival a few years back and enjoyed the performance, so I figured this combination would only provide for an even better show.
I was wrong.
It was actually really strange to watch these two great musicians, backed by the ever-talented Imposters deflate the entire vibe that Elvis had created on his own. I literally thought the tent was going to collapse a few times given the lack of inspiration below. Elvis opened the show on his own and was rocking out like he does to new and old tunes. I was feeling it and having a good time until the blonde and waifish Emmylou stepped on stage. Everything slowed down, the intensity vanished and we were left with molasses country. It was almost like how Dave Navarro ruined the Chili Peppers. Well, almost.
At times I felt as though this was due to them simply not having practiced together much, but other times it just seemed like their worlds refused to mesh. Perhaps as they play more dates together they will figure out a way to make it work better. Or perhaps they felt it worked fine. But for me, I would have much rather seen Emmylou play an opening set and then get out of the way for Elvis.
July 01, 2005
I saw the Eels for the third time this past Wednesday and it proved to be quite a different show than prior performances. There is no doubt that Mark Everett has a very distinctive style of rock and roll and virtually every Eels song is instantly recognizable after a few notes. Some might say that they all sound the same, and they wouldn't be entirely mistaken. But I enjoy his style and will gladly listen to his continued variations album after album.
What was great about this particular performance was that things sounded different. There was a string quartet complementing Mr. Everett on guitar and keyboards, Big Al on upright bass and The Chet on virtually everything else imaginable (including the godforsaken saw). The other outings I saw were more of a standard rock quartet situation, so this arrangement really changed up the entire sound. At the end of the day, I actually prefer them when they rock out more with electric instruments and drum kit, but I appreciated the branching out as it was quite bold.
The other very cool thing that they did was to replace the opening band with an opening film. I loved that the show started with a 15 minute Russian claymation short about the importance of inter-species friendship and other such charmingly silly topics. I plan to rip this idea off as soon as I start performing.
June 02, 2005
to gimmick or not to gimmick
I went to the final BMOP concert of the season last Friday. It was a Takemitsu tribute and included pieces by the man himself as well as ones influenced by him. The latter were a premiere from a local Boston composer, Ken Ueno, and Tan Dun's Water Concerto. As always, the concert was very well done and I enjoyed each of the pieces for different reasons, but the Water Concerto in particular got me to thinking.
I found the piece fascinating throughout, but let me explain a bit first. What on earth is a water concerto anyway? I wondered the same thing until I entered the hall and saw some of the equipment that was setup. I guess I should call them instruments, though they resembled equipment more in their non-traditionality. There were huge glass bowls of water lighted from underneath, long tubular devices, various gongs, wooden bowls, and a slew of un-nameable objects that proved to all make some sort of weird sound when hit or dunked. The coolest thing was that there were plastic tarps covering all the standard recording equipment. This does not happen often at a classical music performance. So this water concerto was exactly what it sounds like: a concerto for water. Truthfully, it is a concerto for percussion, which, in this case, consisted exclusively of percussion that involved water in one way or another. I think that percussion is somehow the default instrument classification for anything really weird - just make the percussionist play it!
I ended up liking the piece because of it's rhythmic inventiveness and for the amazing variety of sounds that were conjured up by Robert Schulz, the solo percussionist.
But what really got me thinking was that in certain ways, the piece was a total gimmick. I mean, how silly is it to write a full-on 30 minute piece of music for some dude splashing water all over the place and generally flailing around like a kid during his first swim of the season? So yes, this was a gimmick, and usually gimmicks annoy me because usually they do not have any depth to keep one's interest past the initial WOW factor. But this piece was different for me. I think I would have liked it even if traditional instruments were substituted for the water. In some ways, I had to get past the splashing to enjoy it. Tan Dun composed a lovely piece of music and it was performed well.
I often think that I have a music gimmick too. And it worries me sometimes. I'm the weirdo who sets up this crazy plywood booth and convinces people to go inside it and record themselves speaking and then turns the results into 'music'. This is a gimmick, for sure. But for me, it's all about the end result, not the process. I do enjoy the process tremendously, but if the music sucked and I wasn't proud of it, who the hell cares how I got there? I guess my point is that gimmicks aren't inherently good or bad. Sometimes they can attract positive attention to lots of solid creativity that might otherwise go unnoticed, and other times they can distract listeners from an unfortunate lack of creativity. There's nothing wrong with the former. Enough defending me and Mr. Dun.
Well, I've been on a boat for the past three days, and now I'm stuck in a parking lot highway due to some fugitive shootout that occurred half a mile ahead of me in southern Maine. It sucks to be stuck for hours, but it would be much worse to have been involved, so I am thankful.
May 26, 2005
military and maritime
I saw the Decemberists last night at Avalon and though I was encouraged to scream as if I was being eaten by a malevolent whale, I came away feeling much happier than that scenario would have left me.
I'm not going to say the these guys did anything overly ground-breaking (other than the whale, of course), but they put on a tight and entertaining show. Colin Meloy is a talented songwriter and despite ostensibly being from Portland, Oregon, has a bizarre Michael Stipe-ish singing 'accent' and opens his mouth wider than anyone I have ever seen. Sort of like the whale. Thankfully what comes out of that gaping hole is quite pleasant and clever at times.
I'm trying to extend the whale analogy even further past the over-use I have already put it through, but it would be mean to, say, compare the opening act, Rebecca Gates, to a whale. She was not, though during her set was when I felt most like I would prefer to be eaten alive. Yeah, it wasn't very good musically, and on top of that, it took me and my two concert-going compatriots a good ten minutes to firmly determine that she was, in fact, a she. So much for not being mean...
I am looking forward to hearing the Decemberists studio work as this show was well worth attending. Nothing wrong with a little sea-shanty rock to get you through a rainy rainy rain-ishly rainy week.
May 15, 2005
"I hope you enjoyed the show; even though I am old"
This is how Ben Folds ended his show at Avalon last night. He should have added "I hope you liked the show; even though I am a total dork". Yes, it turns out Ben is indeed an unabashed, old dork, but you gotta love him anyway for the way he plays the piano and the fun he has with his audience.
Ben played a number of songs from his new release, Songs for Silverman, as well as a slew of the old favorites we continue to love. The thing about Ben Folds is that he does only one thing but he does that thing very, very well. When I listened to Songs for Silverman for the first time, I felt like I had heard it before because it was classic Ben Folds percussive piano and lyric story-telling with a few signature harmonic shifts and catchy vocal melodies thrown in. He isn't breaking any new ground, but if you are already a fan, you won't be disappointed.
I had never seen him play live before, though I had heard live recordings. It turns out he is a very funny and engaging guy, in a - you guessed it - dorky way. Everything from loving the disco ball to improvising around a feedback issue (at 72KHz), to jumping up on top of his Baldwin baby grand (not an easy instrument to tour with) to conduct the audience through some ridiculous musical whims. I laughed a lot both with him and at him, and that felt good.
And speaking of laughing, I nearly fell down when the opening act, Corn Mo, launched into an admittedly 'totally retarded' sing-along-with-your-album death metal version of hava negila (which involved a MONSTER and a crap load of screaming). I don't think he was Jewish.
Mainly I liked the show because it made me feel like perhaps I am not too old or too much of a dork to ever be a rock star. What do you think?
May 14, 2005
rockin' in groton
Two evenings ago, I was the lucky participant in something that doesn't happen too often in lovely Groton, Massachusetts: people staying up after 9 PM. I can't say that the craziness extended much beyond an occasional whoop, enthusiastic clap alongs and a few momentary head- bops, but given the context, it was pretty impressive.
This was all in response to the inaugural concert in a series of folk performances presented by Wind Chime Productions held at the beautiful barn at the Gibbet Hill Grill(e).
The headliners were Eddie From Ohio with Gideon Freudmann as the opening act. Gideon was a bit over-dependent on his looper and delay pedals, but was a super-talented cellist and was really impressive how he took the cello to places it doesn't normally go. Eddie From Ohio was mainly entertaining for their between songs banter. As I have mentioned before in this blog, though I like seeing folk music, it's generally not as much for the music as it is for seeing professional musicians work together on stage and provide entertainment not only with their instruments but with their personalities as well. Michael Clem has got to be one of the stranger and oddly humorous people I have seen on stage. And it didn't for one second seem like he was putting it on. I felt myself continually wanting them to rock out a bit more and break out of their standard issue "hard" folk fare, but the truth of the matter is that they are great musicians, play extremely well with each other and genuinely have a good time at it. I'm just a snob for breaking new ground.
All joking aside, it is really cool to see a sleepy New England town pull together resources and excitement to bring some great music to the home-front. I hope that this series is a success and continues for many years to come.
And most importantly, thanks to mle and family for including me (and treating me).
April 04, 2005
math can be beautiful
I have been way into Steve Reich lately. I admire the uncanny way he is able to combine incredibly interesting concepts with remarkably listenable and engaging music. Often it seems like when art is conceptual or based on something that is more of an idea than an emotion, it becomes stale and lifeless or sometimes even plain old ugly. Mr. Reich does not have this problem.
I went to the Gardner Museum two weekends ago to see So Percussion perform several Reich pieces, including his incredible 1971 masterpiece 'Drumming'. This piece is so hard to play and so freaking cool that it turned a bunch of pudgy, super dorked-out 20-somethings into gods for the evening. I could go on and on about what it is that makes the piece so interesting, but I really want to get this posted soon!
The piece is over an hour long and there is only one thing that happens the entire time. There is one rhythmic motive that repeats literally for the entire duration. It is played by up to a dozen musicians in and out of phase with each other, and the tonal qualities are shifted throughout by moving from tuned bongos to marimbas to glockenspiels, but nonetheless, there is only one thing going on. I'm serious; there are essentially no melodies, and no harmonic shifts. Sounds boring, eh? I challenge you to listen and come away saying that.
I have found that when you go to concerts by yourself, there are hidden benefits, such as not having to worry if your companion is having a good time and more importantly, having the ability to sit in those single seats that pop up in good locations. It is safe to say that I wasn't early to this concert, though with a little effort and aimless wandering through the general admission setup at the Gardner, I managed to secure myself a seat in the front row. As in NOTHING in front of me but for the musicians, ten feet away. I am pretty familiar with 'Drumming', but seeing it played so expertly right in front of my eyes was another experience entirely. I could actually see the phasing of the instruments with each other as well as hear it. The blur of sticks and mallets added a new dimension that the cd does not provide. And it was remarkable that the performers didn't get inextricably tangled up with each other as they piled multiple players on a set of bongos and a singular marimba.
It was really refreshing to be at such an incredible performance surrounded by teenagers and octogenarians alike. It was loud and raucous and fun and simple and complex and difficult and all around the expression a genius.
February 28, 2005
I did something really crazy last night. I went to see a band instead of watching the Oscars. And on top of that, I almost stayed up until midnight.
It wouldn't have taken much to be worth it as I am not a fan of awards shows of any sort, but even if I was, the performance Rachel's put on last night would have been worthwhile. I was quite skeptical of seeing Rachel's at the Middle East downstairs because the sound is usually so crappy down there. Rachel's plays music that is practically classical; it is quite dynamic and gets soft and beautiful often so the pounding bass of the inevitable band playing upstairs would surely be a problem. This did turn out to be somewhat of a problem, but the band was able to transcend all the other issues I imagined they might have and put on a truly wonderful performance.
What struck me most about the show last night was how incredibly well Rachel's was able to combine a whole bunch of disparate instruments and styles into something that didn't sound at all forced or unnatural. I had been impressed with their studio recordings for this very reason as well, and was curious to see how they were going to pull it off live. And to be honest, I figured they wouldn't really be able to do it. I figured they would give it a valiant effort though ultimately succumb to certain realities of transferring music from the studio to the stage. They did rearrange their music somewhat, but not due to restrictions and inabilities, but rather in order to optimize it for the live performance.
They used a bunch of standard 'rock' instruments as well as classical instruments and then threw in some electronics just for fun. I got the impression that they have been doing this for a while, are very cognizant of exactly what they sound like, and have discerning ears. Everything was thought about. Even the drummer (and we all know how stupid drummers are!?) used a concert bass drum for his kick, tuned his snare loosely for an open feel and played predominantly with timpani mallets. Whenever he started playing it felt like a completely natural appendage was added to the music, not some pathetic attempt to get classical musicians to rock out. In this way, I was reminded of seeing Sigur Ros a few years back. They figured out this delicate balance as well, though in an entirely different fashion. I think the fact that they brought their own sound guy helped a lot as well. Don't know how he did it.
This performance gave me hope for the popular music scene. The opening act was a string quartet called Invert who played fairly upbeat original music, and then there was the oddity that was Rachel's. At the Middle East, of all places. Yes, there was thundering bass from the upstairs band bleeding into our ears, but there was something so refreshing about seeing such original acts in a place so often dominated by the common and banal.
February 26, 2005
Music, Marketing, and Word of mouth
I can't quite figure out what the deal is with Medeski, Martin and Wood. Their talent, both individual and as a group, is undisputable, though they seem to occupy this strange space somewhere between a jazz trio and a jam band. As far as I can tell they actually are and jazz trio - experimental for sure, but jazz nonetheless - though their audience seems to think otherwise. I can't imagine seeing anyone who was at Avalon on Thursday at Regatta Bar or any dark underground jazz bar in New York. They would have been at the Phish show instead. Or maybe Widespread Panic. Was this some sort of calculated marketing brilliance or did it just sort of happen this way for them? Clearly playing for this demographic is much more profitable than the typical jazz crowd. Somehow, sometime way back when, MMW was deemed to be super cool for the young, pot smoking, concert-taping masses and this reputation has stuck. They seem to be doing pretty well for themselves playing for kids who probably have no idea who Miles Davis and John Coltrane are, let alone Elvin Jones, Charles Mingus, and Thelonius Monk.
I think it is fantastic how MMW broke through the barrier between jazz and rock because, well, I just love seeing barriers broken. I wish I knew how it happened and whether it was by design or by happenstance.
February 19, 2005
I don't know why they call it minimalist music. I guess perhaps it's perceived simplicity is what led to this label, but it sure doesn't feel minimal to me. I went to see BMOP's Minimalism concert last night and this was the best concert I have ever seen them give. The performance was excellent, in my humble estimation, but the real reason it was so good was because of the program. It started with some John Adams, moved into Philip Glass, ended with Steve Reich and also included a piece written by the BMOP composer in residence, Elena Ruehr. Adams, Glass and Reich are for sure the stalwarts, inventors, if you will, of minimal music, so it is no shock to see them on this program, but is had been a while since I had heard any of their music live.
What I like about this music is that in some ways it makes so much sense, yet in other ways, you can't believe what your ears are hearing. Much of it is very mathematical; simple motives repeated over and over in common tones and scales. Nothing totally crazy until the layering happens. One line upon the next over and over until this mass of pulsating sound is just oozing throughout the concert hall. You begin to hear rhythms that aren't actually there, it seems. At least no one single musician or group of musicians is playing the rhythm necessarily. It is the interaction between the layers and parts that becomes so exciting. I guess the cliche of the whole being better than the sum of the parts holds true here.
I could hear everything so clearly and seeing the musicians moving to the music was an added benefit. There were layers of long sustained strings countering syncopated clapping. There were vocal and instrumental layers; loud and soft ones. One time I nearly fell out of my chair at the shock of an additional bass part. The music was so full that I had forgotten, or maybe didn't even realize, that there was a whole range beneath what was being played that was silent. And then when it entered, the bottom dropped out and a monumental shift had happened. I can still feel it in my chest, re-living the moment in my memory. It was a deviously wonderful trick to play on us listeners.
But through all this, the pulse just kept on going. The pulse was where the music lived. It came out to show itself, but the roots were in the never-ending, steady pulse of life being attended to collaboratively by each and every musician on that stage.
It must be so fun to play this music. You have your own little part of the whole, diligently counting like mad and repeating repeating repeating while the entire world, it seems, flows around you and over you in a mollasses landscape of geologic shifts. Things change without you even knowing how, though the why seems perfectly clear: because it sounds good; because it *is* good. And here you are, doing your part. I wonder if any of the musicians ever feel like they are just along for the ride.
I left the show with reinvigorated interest in these three composers and have scoured my own collection for a few cds. They are not enough, though, so I have re-discovered how great our public library system is, and have ordered a few more cds to be delivered next week. I am incredibly excited for the ten cd set of Steve Reich's complete works. My god, this is going to be fun. Listening to his music at night in the rain in your car is the best way to listen, I think. I don't know why.
December 13, 2004
Josh Ritter is a happy guy. Or perhaps Josh Ritter simply smokes a lot of pot. Like I said, he's a happy guy. As soon as he came out on the stage at Paradise on Saturday night, it was impossible not to feel his excitement, energy and sheer gratitude for having the opportunity to perform for us. I found myself not even caring if it was all an act. He was super-smiley and it seemed 100% genuine and I was happy to give in to it.
Josh Ritter isn't breaking any new ground musically; he isn't blowing anyone away with his technique; he isn't even doing anything that is all that different from many other folk rockers. So perhaps it is some magic combination of song-writing talent and natural exuberance that makes him such a joy to see.
He has written some really beautiful songs and his voice is truly perfect for his brand of folkiness. He performed with a backing band of drums, bass and keys, though perhaps the most powerful song was played with no amplification on voice or guitar. The band was fine, but I wasn't too impressed with anyone other than the bassist, Zack Hickman, who had such a grasp and understanding of the music that his lines and sound felt like they were born at the same time as the songs themselves. He did some very tasteful backup vocals as well.
Though I am extremely jealous that this mid-to-late twenty-year-old (conflicting internet information) has three albums under his belt and is rising fast, I will gladly admit that he deserves every bit of fame. And it is great to see that a semi-major label (V2) would support this kind of music.
I'd be happy too...
December 06, 2004
Of Human Ingenuity (or Frankie B. and Jimmy L. do what they do best)
For those of you not in the know, I am talking about Frank Black and James Levine. I had the pleasure of seeing both of these fine musicians practically one right after the other last week. The Pixies did not open for the BSO, but somehow I found myself as a lucky audience member at these two very different yet somehow oddly related performances. I couldn't help but marvel at how wonderful and various and long lasting and powerful music of all sorts can be. And how lucky I am to be able to see and hear all this practically in my back yard.
I don't think that I can come up with many direct comparisons between these two shows other than both were led by individuals with long and impressive careers who had a bit more heft and a bit less hair than the early days of their fame. But don't let this indicate anything about their music. They know what they are doing, and they know how to perform in front of hundreds of people.
Seeing these in quick succession made me realize how amazing we human beings are. Well, at least some of us are, and we, as a race, are certainly capable of creating amazing things. I'm not sure if this sort of race self-assessment is fair, but I am continually blown away by this world we live in and the moments of beauty, both natural and anthropogenic, that exist all around us every day. Berlioz could not be more different from the Pixies in so many ways, but in the end both are music, both are well thought out, both are creative and ingenious, both are pushing certain limits and playing firmly within others, and really the most important thing: both are fun to listen to. Don't let these sorts of opportunities pass you by, my friends! Go, listen, enjoy and support it so it doesn't stop.
At the end of the day, despite the unfortunate wheezing of the heavy breather seated next to me (no, not my companion), I enjoyed the BSO show more. Yeah, I know this is stodgy, but there was something so beautifu