Friday, April 21, 2017

Discovering Palace Music's Viva Last Blues 22 Years After It Came Out

When I think of the music that is at the tippy-top of my all time favorite albums it is mostly comprised of music that I was exposed to from the mid-90's through the mid 2000's.  Ween's The Mollusk, Dr. Dog's Easy Beat, The Flaming Lips' Yoshimi, The Sadies' Favourite Colours, Phish's The Story of the Ghost, Medeski Martin and Wood's Shackman, Tortoise's TNT.

That was a long time ago, and even though my tastes are constantly evolving and being pushed in different directions, it is rare for something newly discovered to really break into that ultra exclusive "favorite album" club.  Mary Halvorson's Meltframe comes to mind as a recording that has gained solid entry, although that came out in 2015 and I was primed and ready for its arrival.

Because of resources like Spotify and YouTube it's easy for a curious music lover to do lots of research into artists of the past, and you occasionally come across something incredibly awesome like Money Jungle, but that came out in 1963 - over a decade before I was born.  I couldn't experience that in real time.  
My very own copy
I recently discovered something that should have been in the crosshairs of my purview 20+ years ago but had somehow overlooked until now.  That is Viva Last Blues by Palace Music.  It came out in 1995.  Listening to it in 2017 is like opening a time capsule.  (Palace Music is a pseudonym for Bonnie "Prince" Billy, which is a pseudonym for singer-songwriter Will Oldham.) 

OK, at this very moment in my life I know very, very little about Bonnie "Prince" Billy, or whatever name is most appropriate for this artist.  I have yet to listen to any of his other music.  I accidentally heard a track from Viva Last Blues on YouTube about two weeks ago and had an instant reaction to it, causing me to seek out the entire album, and as of this week I now have it on vinyl.


I can only think of comparisons.  The voice reminds me of Magnolia Electric Company, early Meat Puppets, and O'Death.  The music and production is reminiscent of Gillian Welch's Soul Journey or Neil Young's Tonight's The Night.  The songwriting is a druggy-Appalachian blend - trippy and sexual - again like Meat Puppets or maybe even Conor Oberst, but from more of a farmboy first experiencing culture perspective.

Since I am convinced that this would have been an all-time favorite album of mine had I actually heard it in the 1990's, I am hereby elevating it to classic status as if I had a couple decades worth of listening to it under my belt.  The fact that it's only been two weeks matters not.  I can listen to it now.


Saturday, April 15, 2017

What Sound Does A Painting Make?

Where do artforms overlap?  Where does music (a sound art) meet up with visual art?  To me, a Jackson Pollock drip painting sounds like Ornette Coleman's The Shape of Jazz to Come, and vice versa.  On the contrary, the spectral, gliding paintings of Mark Rothko evoke the slow-build ambient works of Brian Eno, like his Music for Airports.
Other things come to mind.  The Bill Frisell album Richter 858 - featuring Eyvind Kang, Jenny Scheinman and Hank Roberts - was composed of music inspired by the paintings of German artist Gerhard Richter.  That came out sounding like modern chamber music. Frisell also famously wrote music to accompany the black and white photographs of Mike Disfarmer - an obscure, eccentric  portrait photographer in Heber Springs, Arkansas who died in 1959.  For the Disfarmer themes Frisell was in an Americana mindset.

I used to go see hippie bands like Sound Tribe Sector 9 who often had a visual artist on stage with them creating paintings in the moment inspired by the music unfolding in front of the audience.  This bleeds into a lot of related areas.  Poster art.  Album cover art.  Soundtracks to films.  Phan art. John Cage's music looked like his art.  His art sounded like his music.  What about Mark Tobey?  Or Janet Sobel?
What sound does this Mark Tobey painting make?
Free jazz, as it is called, requires lots of discipline.  It's not just random notes.  Not always at least.  Same with abstract art.  I recently asked a painter of landscapes if he ever works in an abstract style and he said "no, it's too scary, too difficult".  Some say the best abstract art is more than just splattering a canvas.  Of course, it doesn't have to be.  Abstract art is my favorite kind of art, but I don't limit my appreciation to just human made pieces.  I'm also a fan of elephants, pigs and chimpanzees who work in that medium.  Nature works in this medium as well.  Look down at the street you're standing on, or zoom way in on a dog.  It can be completely random.  That's what I happen to love about it.
One of Michael Hamad's "Phish Maps"
People say stuff like "I'm tone deaf, I could never be a musician".  To those people I say go bang out some notes on the piano.  Right now.  Right, now.  Very good, now you are a musician.  Or at least a soundician.  Keep doing it every day.  More sounds will come out.  Monkeys will type.  Maybe make a painting that sounded like the music you just made.  
Anthony Braxton's written music.
Kids make good artists because they have fewer internal barriers preventing the muse from whispering.  Who's to say that a child's scribbling is any less artsy than something hanging in a gallery?  Sign the Mona Lisa with a spray can, call it art.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Anthony Braxton's Compositions Are Interconnected

It may be easier to appreciate his ideas than than the actual music it stimulates, but I remembered reading or hearing that the works of composer/creative musician Anthony Braxton are all somehow inter-related, so I just now (couldn't sleep) looked into that for clarification and found this manifesto: http://www.restructures.net/texts/Braxton-IntroCatalogWorks.htm
Anthony Braxton 

After quickly reading this, I understand the core of Braxton's musical philosophy to be:
  • His compositions connect together.  Shorter pieces can be merged with larger compositions and segments from one work can be mixed and matched or embedded into other works.  Individual sections can be isolated and multiplied (used repeatedly) by itself or with other structures.
  • The music can be played by any instrument or instruments.  Solo parts can be interpreted by orchestras, and vice versa.  Compositions can be disrupted and re-sequenced or re-envisioned to suit any combination of musicians.
  • Tempos, pacing and volume dynamics are relative. The way something might have been written or recorded is not intended to be the only option.  It can be fast/slow, loud/quiet...every option is open to each performer's interpretation.
  • This music can be played too correctly (AKA "wrongly"), as opposed to incorrectly (which is actually "correctly").  This freedom is meant to enhance creativity, not suppress it.  Mistakes are meant to be made with the materials.
  • A loose understanding of the materials or structure may be better than lots of rehearsals or advanced preparation.

This is all very interesting.  I've had similar thoughts and inclinations, which is why I've been shifting farther and farther away from music that feels like it requires strict rules by definition.  You certainly couldn't impose Braxton's approach onto traditional Irish music where tunes are typically played at relatively standardized speeds, with specific rhythms, and a common understanding of how many times through they should be played.  A jig is a jig, a hornpipe is a hornpipe, a reel is a reel, on down the line.  That music serves a different purpose, which is fine.

And you really couldn't do it with, say, the music of Phish or the Grateful Dead and still be doing that type of music justice.  As an amateur musician with unexceptional abilities, I can learn certain basic bits like the vocal melody line to Phish's Guyute, but it'll always feel incomplete if interpreted as a bare bones solo piece minus all the intricate sections that go along with it.  For me, I need music that is open to the freedom that a philosophy like Braxton's allows for; music that - with good conscience - can be removed from stylistic barriers without anybody getting too butt hurt about it.

It kind of reminds me of Leaves of Grass, in a way.  In an attempt to continually express his outlook on life, didn't Walt Whitman view Leaves of Grass as an ongoing, life-long work that united all of his poetry into one constantly evolving whole? Now, I don't know if you can chop up the poems in Leaves of Grass and reassemble them in a William S. Burroughs sort of way, but maybe you can.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

The Joys of Limitation

Fredrik Sjöberg's book The Fly Trap is partially about limitations.  The limitations of living on a small Swedish island.  The limitations of studying hoverflies on this island, as opposed to in a larger geographical area or researching a species with more variation, such as beetles.  In Sjöberg's view, the art of limitation is a method of exercising slowness that promotes concentration and bliss.

I've been thinking of limitation a lot myself recently, as it applies to music and other aspects of life.  Limitation may be why I have chosen the tenor banjo for a musical instrument.  Limitation may be why I view the tenor banjo as a melodic instrument rather than a rhythm or chordal instrument.  Limitation could be why I don't currently play much music commonly associated with tenor banjo, such as New Orleans Jazz, Irish trad, Klezmer or Jamaican Mento. 

It could be limitation that has led me to focusing primarily on melodies of Caribbean origin (Haiti, Trinidad, Martinique, Cuba, the Virgin Islands, Venezuela, et cetera), even though these types of melodies have little or no connection to the tenor banjo.

Limitation could be why - despite listening a wide assortment of music that is increasingly abstract - it still gets filtered back through the interpretation of the music that I like to play, which is those Caribbean tunes.  Limitation is why - despite the unique compositional elements that give each tune its unique identity - it all seems improvisationally interconnected back to the major scale or the 12 notes in the chromatic scale.

I try to limit my active repertoire to about 40 "tunes".  That way I can limit my playing to 1 or 2 hours a day (working on 5 or 6 tunes a night) and still get through most of that active repertoire in the course of a week.  I have a limited amount of time that I can devote to playing anyway.  The time spent typing this is not time that was spent playing music.

Painters and poets seem to limit their work to a certain style, even if that style can't be easily defined.  
I had never previously ever made a meal from a cook book, but over the last two months I've gotten into cooking and even though I'm not vegetarian or vegan I've restricted myself to only making dishes out of the Happy Herbivore series of cookbooks by Lindsay S. Nixon, which are vegan.  I've made about a dozen recipes out of those books so far and every single one of them has been great!  That's more of a testament to the inventiveness and ease of the recipes, rather than any skill I'm bringing to it.  But it's another example of blissful limitation!