Friday, April 27, 2007

Five (Easy) Pieces part 3

John Cage: Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano

These pieces for "prepared piano" contrast starkly with his one work for "unprepared piano," in which the piano's just sitting there peacefully in a room until the performer lunges in from behind and dropkicks it. People who have only a casual acquaintance with John Cage couldn't really be blamed for believing that last sentence. Prepared piano refers augmenting, dampening, or otherwise messing with the strings inside to produce different timbres and attacks. I think the best un-theoretical way to describe it is that Cage builds his own alternate piano universe, possessing a rare and strange cosmos of sounds, melody, harmony, and rhythm. Not at all to be listened to on the regular, but not to be of those records that is sometimes the only thing. I usually put it on when I need to hear something but I can't stand the thought of all the emotional and theoretical baggage that comes with, say, TV on the Radio or Orchestra Baobab. I like (but don't own) this version. I do own this version, also very satisfying. Okay, "satisfying" might not be the word. What's that thing where after you experience something you feel kind of hollow and young and slightly hopeless? It's like that. People forget that music (and art) don't always have to make you feel good, or better, or sad, or guilty. That's like always drinking water, milk, or soda. There's more stuff out there to experience, some of it pretty complex.

Monday, April 16, 2007

ribot = badass

New York's remarkable experimental music venue, Tonic, closed its doors on Friday. Just the most recent in a long, sad list of music venues that don't book Fall Out Boy or charge $50/ticket to close due to skyrocketing rent. Everyone's not going to go to Avery Fisher to hear exciting new performers, and every exciting new performer isn't going to play there. So when the Tonics and CBGBs of the world get squeezed out by condo towers, and when the music itself is improvised/collaborated on/composed specifically for events at the venue, that music quite literally disappears.

Marc Ribot kept playing till the cops shut the place down, and got arrested because he is, in addition to being a truly gifted and bizarre guitarist, a straight badass motherfucker.

Hmm? What's that? What did I do for the world of music today?

Oh. While I was riding the BART to work, I composed a song called "Get Me A Donut," which, as should be patently obvious, has no verses.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Five (Easy) Pieces part 2

(Sorry for the retroactive title edit -- took me a while to land on the correct title)

Osvaldo Golijov -- Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind: There's like an unwritten rule for composers that states: If you're going to write a clarinet quintet, you have to write it such that any prospective reviewer cannot avoid using the word "lyrical." So this piece, for clarinet and string quartet, fits the mold pretty well. It's actually for B-flat, A, C, and Bass Clarinet with string quartet, so there's all kinds of weeping, keening, shrieking, and squawking from the different sizes of black wooden tube. It makes a great fit for the subject matter, a meditation on the writings and the mystical posture of Isaac the Blind, a 12th-century French Kabbalist rabbi who was, among other things, blind and batshit insane. The piece draws on Jewish prayer melodies, klezmer tunes, and cantorial vocal style. It completely mesmerizes, even on recording. Kronos Quartet recorded it with my idol David Krakauer, and the St. Lawrence String Quartet also recorded it with Todd Palmer -- also a fantastic recording.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Five (Easy) Pieces

aka "Five Pieces of New Music You Might Actually Like and Listen To Voluntarily."

Modern music doesn't suck. Contemporary composers are actually trying very hard to connect with an audience that has in large part abandoned the "classical" arena for popular forms. In some cases, all that's required is the same flexibility and open ears you need to appreciate TV on the Radio or Mogwai or whoever. You get my point, maybe. In that spirit, here goes:

Frederick Rzewski--Coming Together/Attica: These two pieces function together as Rzewski's commentary on Attica prison riots and their aftermath. I first heard Coming Together in high school, and it knocked me out of my chair. Rzewski sets an excerpt from a letter by Attica prisoner Sam Melville, who died during the riots. The poetic force comes mainly from Rzewski's "squaring" process, which gradually aggregates the text sentence by sentence, starting from the beginning, culminating with the full text, then "washing away" the words sentence by sentence from the start. The internal, circular connections between the different sentiments, and the ways that different ideas and emotions ground various sections of the piece, make it anything but repetitive. Attica, meanwhile, offers the other side of the coin, with a single sentence from released inmate Richard X Clark. When asked how it felt to put Attica behind him, he simply said "Attica is in front of me." Surprisingly, Rzewski's sets this fairly bleak pronouncement against a surging, cautiously hopeful melodic sequence that sort of devastates with its beauty and ultimate lack of hope. That's not a very lucid description. Here's an excellent early recording of both pieces, with some other stuff as well. Here's the Eighth Blackbird take on Coming Together.