Live Review: Nonesuch 50th Anniversary at BAM (a.k.a. my dream 48 hours)

•September 13, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Nonesuch Records 50th Anniversary Celebrationnonesuch

September 9, 2014:

Steve Reich – Music For 18 Musicians

September 11, 2014:

Elliott Carter – Sonata for Flute, Oboe, Cello, and Harpsichord; Charles Ives – Songs and “The Alcotts” from Piano Sonata No. 2; George Crumb – Ancient Voices of Children

Basically, you couldn’t ask me to come up with a better 48 hours of music perfectly suited to my tastes. Although I could’ve done without the Carter…

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“I’ll take your ticket stubs if you didn’t like minimalism!” I yelled outside the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House Tuesday night during intermission. I was being serious—I knew that there were probably a few people who perhaps had read a preview in the Times or the New Yorker or (if they fancy themselves hip) the Village Voice about this landmark performance, and decided to go just because the tastemakers (rightly) said they should go.

Steve Reich. Philip Glass. Onstage together for the first time in nearly 40 years. Some ancient dispute had kept them estranged for all those years, and now they were going to be onstage, together, playing their music with their respective ensembles and also playing each other’s music. Someone read about this and bought tickets blindly, without doing any research (not even a simple YouTube viewing), maybe just because they wanted to say they went. But they had no idea what the music would sound like. And they did not like it.

I saw my target. A couple in their 50s, dressed not at all conservatively, looking very much like the Brooklynite type that would enjoy this sort of momentous performance, yet their faces seemed disappointed, let down, even angered or frustrated. “If you’re not going back in I’ll take your ticket stubs” I offered. The man looked at me, and with a motion of disgust like he had just tasted something bitter, whipped the ticket stubs out of his breast pocket, gave them to me without a word, and quickly crossed the street. The folks happily smoking cigarettes next to me laughed. “I guess they didn’t like minimalism,” I joked.

glass-reich

For this year’s Next Wave Festival, which is basically a celebration of all things amazing in modern music, dance, film, and theater every fall at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, they’re doing a celebration of the 50th anniversary of Nonesuch Records, who made a name for themselves by releasing some of the best recordings of contemporary music in the late 60s and 70s, and then basically trumping the new music world in the 80s with recordings of Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Kronos Quartet, Meredith Monk, Laurie Anderson, and other mainstays of the downtown scene. Oh and they released Wilco’s first few albums and the Black Keys’ albums, too. They’re a pretty big deal. And their album covers rock.

Kicking it off with three concerts featuring some of the most significant pieces of both Steve Reich’s and Philip Glass’s career seems only fitting, then, since so much of what we know of these two canonical figures of the late 20th century is because Nonesuch had the balls to record and release their music when others didn’t. For me, the choice of which concert to attend was clear: Tuesday night, featuring Reich’s seminal Music For 18 Musicians, a piece whose resplendent beauty, driving rhythms, and poignant melodies make it my favorite composition of this genre.

Thanks to Mr. and Mrs. Grumpypants, I took my free seats on the mezzanine level, a few rows behind the giant afro of Reggie Watts who was taking it all in from a box stage left (all the Brooklyn cognoscenti were out for this one). This was my second time seeing the piece live, but my first time seeing Steve Reich and Musicians perform it. Both Reich and Glass had to create and participate in their own ensembles in the 70s because no one else would play their music. This group, whose average age looked to be over 50 (Reich himself is 75), breathes this music. They’ve been playing it for over 30 years, and it means more to them than just notes on the page. It is a living part of their musical identity. And you could hear it in their playing, dedicated Tuesday night to their late, longtime vibraphonist for this piece, James Preiss.

reich

BFF

Music For 18 starts with a pulse played on the marimba in straight eighth notes, setting the rhythmic tableau for the entire work. Additive rhythms grow and layer on top, melodic fragments enter the texture, and tremolo chords swell in the strings, bass clarinets, and singers. It’s a sound that is something of a signature of Reich’s instrumental music of the period, finding its most complete and mature expression in this piece. The work is divided into discrete sections with their own particular combination of instruments and register that creates differing overall timbres in each. I’m always shocked how, after the first three or four sections, the bass suddenly seems to fall out as the clarinets and strings all concentrate on higher registers, or how the affect changes dramatically when a shaker is added to the percussive drive about 2/3 of the way through.

Towards the end I realized how this performance clearly stood out from others I’ve heard and seen. In the final pulse section, a single chord rises deep in the bass clarinets, resonating as they play a slow, even tremolo on a single note, moving their bells towards and then away from the microphones. It’s a sound that they’ve played in many sections of the piece. It’s then taken up by the strings, and then the voices, but the group somehow managed to trade the sound so seamlessly and perfectly from each instrument group to the next. It was as if it was one giant swell, starting in the bass clarinets, morphing into the strings, then transforming and fading out in the voices. Like one instrument, swaying in color and sound. The piece got four curtain calls, deservedly so.

crumbOne of Nonesuch’s biggest recordings of its early years was George Crumb’s masterful Ancient Voices of Children, a virtuosic piece tailored to the unique vocal abilities of Jan DeGaetani. What better way to honor the late singer than to have another of Nonesuch’s amazing talents, soprano Dawn Upshaw, perform the piece alongside the original pianist, Gilbert Kalish? It was, after all, this recording that inspired Upshaw to pursue contemporary music styles, and she later became DeGaetani’s student. And just for good measure and to make sure I was extra, extra happy, they performed nine of my absolute favorite Ives songs, along with the tranquil and elegant third movement of Ives’s Concord Sonata. I didn’t even mind sitting through some mid-century serialism to get to that program.

The serialism is question was Elliott Carter’s Sonata for Flute, Oboe, Cello, and Harpsichord, a combo that sounds as odd as it reads. Written in 1952 and only a few years after his breakthrough First String Quartet, this three-movement work features all of the cold dissonance of the postwar avant-garde without the expressivity of ultramodern, 1920s dissonance, and Carter is beginning to hint at the metrical complexity that will eventually define his sound. I found the first movement uninteresting, but the slower second movement was more intriguing, beginning with a unison and then each instrument adding one pitch as they build up the basic row, and later an impressive cadenza-like passage for the harpsichord. The third movement stayed with me the most, as the four instruments explored varying meters, creating a rhythmic polyphony that manages to remain controlled.

After that, Upshaw’s cool, unadorned tone was the perfect salve. Beginning with the relatively Victorian “Songs My Mother Taught Me,” Upshaw leaned into the piano crook, adding just the right amount of emotion so that it could be heard in her voice but wouldn’t come off as theatrical. This, I’ve found, is the toughest thing for singers to master, as too much in either direction can lead to a stiff performance, or a saccharine, melodramatic one. Upshaw found the perfect balance, her intonation as pure and clean as ever. She managed to change her tone and articulation for each of the various styles crammed into the miniature song “Ann Street,” even taking on a nasal quality as she sang “Narrow, yes, Ann Street.” And she used just the right amount of nostalgic melancholy in the war lament “Tom Sails Away,” making it sound as though she truly was remembering hazy, tear-filled “scenes of her childhood floating before her eyes.”

upshaw

The brilliant juxtaposition of this melancholy with the uplifting hymn quotations of Ives’s “Alcotts” movement was an inspired choice. Kalish, whose Ives interpretations are exquisite, seemed to realize this need for a quasi-religious healing after the tumult of “Tom Sails Away,” and he played the movement with all the passion and just the right amount of rubato to bring out all of the beautiful nuances of simple music making represented in this movement. Whether he tried to or not, he also brought out the strong motivic connections between this movement and the vocal melody to “The Housatonic at Stockbridge,” which came later.

Upshaw’s finest and most revelatory performance was the funereal “Like a Sick Eagle.” Ives made an instrumental version of this song (as he did with many) and it features a violin sliding slowly and heavily between notes, truly giving the impression of a sickly bird. I’ve heard this sung on recordings, but I’ve never heard it sung the way Upshaw did. Her sliding tones were impeccable, sounding the most like the violin versions of any vocal rendition I know of. She knew exactly how long to stretch out the microtones between each pitch, each slide a calculated scale, not the haphazard scoops and quick glissandos of some singers. Equally astounding was Kalish’s performance on “The Cage,” playing the opening chordal vamp with a stronger sense of articulation, not just an even and lifeless presentation of six chords, and with a perfect final rolled chord, rather than the broken chord I’ve often heard.

Finally the evening’s centerpiece, Crumb’s Ancient Voices of Children, was every bit as magnificent as I’d hoped a live performance of this piece would be. The star of the piece happens at the very outset: the singer wails a wordless vocalise into the open strings of an amplified piano. Upshaw and the sound team created this effect masterfully, as her voice reverberated through the wood and around the strings, activating all sorts of eerie ghost pitches and overtones. It was truly breathtaking to hear. Crumb’s music features many eerie effects, none of which ever became gimmicky or overdone. Wisps of sound seem to emanate from all over the stage in a psychedelic melange of tone color and dark mysticism, as many of the musical events in this piece suggest echoes, disembodied voices, the supernatural, and the archaic.

The rest of the piece was equally impressive, from Kalish’s playing inside the piano and bending notes with a chisel, to the percussion trio who handled such a wide variety of timbres and styles with aplomb. Oboist Stephen Hammer’s solo lines, tinged with exotica that seems almost lifted from Aida (and is actually lifted from Mahler), were the perfect combination of klezmatic wailing and exacting precision, and the boy soprano part, sung by Benjamin Wenzelberg, never got drowned out, and impressively matched Upshaw’s abilities on the closing reprise of the piano interior vocalise.

I’m gonna miss this city when I eventually leave. I’ll never realize how good I had it.

Relistening to 7/13/14 Chalklightweezer: Preliminary Thoughts

•August 8, 2014 • 2 Comments

2014-07-13 20.45.00Now that the dust has settled on what was, by most accounts, a stellar summer tour that continued the glory of 2013′s Fall Tour and New Year’s runs, we can begin to take assessments on all the shows from a slightly more objective standpoint. There’s no possibility that the next show will contain “the jam of the summer” (not counting the Labor Day weekend at Dick’s, which is really sort of its own mini-run). Taking the month of shows as a whole, to me the jam of the summer is, without a doubt, the “Chalkdust”>”Light”>”Tweezer” from the last night of Randall’s Island, 7/13/14.

Granted, there is a bounty of standout jams throughout the summer: the “Fuego”s from SPAC, Philly, and Portsmouth, the “Limb by Limb” from SPAC, the Philly “Chalksuit,” the Randall’s “Gin,” the Chicago “Wombat,” the surprise “Wedge,” the Chicago “Ghost,” the Portsmouth “Meatstick,” and practically every “Hood.” And of course there’s the second set of MPP2, 7/27/14, which in my opinion falls into that “unratable” category that Charlie Dirksen used to use for certain “YEM”s because there’s just no way to compare it to anything else (and there really isn’t, it creates its own category).

But for a single jam without all the setlist calisthenics of 7/27/14 II, and only taking into consideration the inventiveness, creativity, profundity, variety, form, and arc of the improvisation, I don’t think it gets any better than the “Chalkdust”>”Light”>”Tweezer.” Feel free to disagree with me, the beauty of our fanbase is that we all have our own opinions and no one has to think the same way.

Here’s three thoughts that occurred to me as I was re-listening Tuesday on a long solo drive:

1) This is one, long “piece” of music

Bear with me on this one.

Yes, it’s three different songs, in three distinct keys, with three distinct tempos. But when I consider the overall arc of the 55 minutes that span from the slower-than-usual opening riff of “Chalkdust” to the tongue-in-cheek botched ending of “Tweezer,” I perceive it as a series of episodes, each one with their own rhythmic character, key, melodic material, timbre, and “feel,” that esoteric affective category that is impossible to put into words. Some of these episodes are what I call “jam segments,” a short 3-5 minute span of music united by key, groove, timbre, and melodic ideas. Some of these episodes are the composed “song” portions of “Light” and “Tweezer” with lyrics. However, taken as a whole, the composed sections of “Light” and “Tweezer” with lyrics are just two other episodic stopping points on the long road from “Chalkdust” jam to “Tweezer” end.

2014-07-13 20.47.17Part of this is because there is no peak in “Chalkdust.” I’ll say that again because it’s worth realizing how crazy this is: in roughly 24 minutes of improvisation, Phish never once builds to a peak of register, rhythm, and dynamics. This is significant in and of itself, not because all great Phish jams peak (as we learned in the summer of 1995 and re-learned in 1997), but because the gradual build to an ecstatic release is such a stock part of Phish’s improvisational vocabulary. It’s the process for practically every pre-1993 version of “Hood,” “Mike’s Song,” “Slave,” “Stash,” “Bowie,” “Antelope,” and “YEM” – the songs during which improvisation was most likely to occur prior to 1993. And it remains the process for most versions of these songs even today. In fact, of the “big” jamming songs, only “Tweezer” doesn’t have a peak built into its structure, and even so, many versions of the song do just that, including most before 1994.

However, the 4-chord descending jam in the Randall’s “Light,” and then later the 2-chord plagal jam in “Tweezer” provide the entire 55-minute passage with two grand peaks, ones that follow the established patterns of cathartic release and simultaneous exultation that we associate with tunes like “Bowie” or “Antelope.” In fact, the circular riffs that Trey plays during the “Light” peak are reminiscent of the climactic “Bowie” riff.

Alone, the “Chalkdust” jam is amazing, for certain. As are the “Light” and “Tweezer” jams, although I think less interesting than “Chalkdust.” Yet, each of these three songs mutually reinforces and augments the other. The ecstasy of release that eludes in the “Chalkdust” jam is realized in each of the subsequent songs, while the shorter “Light” and “Tweezer” jams are bolstered by their appearance after such a monumentally shapeshifting piece of improvisation in the “Chalkdust.” How many times has Phish given us a standout piece of improv at the beginning of set 2, only to then follow it with a series of excellent but not improvisationally-fascinating songs? (I’m lookin at you, CMAC and Mann1). The “Light” and “Tweezer” are that much better because they came after that “Chalkdust.” Ontology plays a big part, here.

Because each song segues into the next (not particularly spectacularly, but the music never stops), there was never an opportunity to take stock of what’s been happening. When “Tweezer” finally ends, you can hear the audience let out a collective, awestruck exhale, because that single piece of music, the “Chalklightweezer” if you will, finally ended and we could applaud, high-five, and generally look around with that sense of “can you believe that just happened!?!?!”

We needed that “Velvet Sea.” We needed to take stock of what had just happened. Listen to the AUDs – there’s practically no one talking during this ballad. That’s because we’re speechless.

2) Fishman maintains the tempo the entire way through “Chalkdust”

Again, this bears repeating: for 24 minutes of wildly varied improvisation, the tempo DOES NOT CHANGE. This is especially exciting because Fishman is known as a drummer who generally does not play the same beat two measures in a row. He’s an acolyte of Zappa’s drummers (read his fantastic liner notes essay on his edition of the Zappa Picks series), who are equally unable to repeat a measure identically. In many of my favorite Phish jams—e.g. the 7/13/03 “Seven Below,” the Went “Gin,” the 12/14/95 “Halley’s”>”NICU”>”Slave” (another single “piece” of music, FWIW),” the 4/3/98 “Roses”—important jam segments are differentiated by varying tempos, which is all Fish’s doing. Even when someone else in the band changes their rhythm, unless Fishman speeds up or slows down, the tempo remains the same because it is the drums against which we base our perception of meter. Any other variations, especially from Trey or Page but also from Mike, are subdivisions or metric dissonance.

For a great example of this, during the “Tweezer,” it is Fish who decides, suddenly, to just immediately cut to about quarter-speed during the jam. The rest of the band keeps playing, and who sounds like they are “out of tempo”? The rest of the band!

2014-07-13 22.26.11During the “Chalkdust” jam, Fishman manages to vary the rhythm from one jam segment to the next by trying new subdivisions of the beat and styles of offbeat playing, all while keeping the basic pulse steady. He switches from a straight rock beat at the outset to playing more fills between beats on the snare. During the highly dissonant section after the major key “Mike’s Song” fakeout (which occurs around 15:00 on the LivePhish recording), he adds in more toms and gets rid of the steady bass drum, but still the same tempo. And when the jam finally enters its final, quietest section, he’s riding on the cymbals with light tom strokes, but again, same tempo. This only reinforces my theory that we should consider “Chalklightweezer” as one piece of music, because the desired tempo variants only come with the new songs.

And the tempo is fast! So many of the great jams in Phish history take place at a relatively moderate tempo because the songs they came from have moderate tempos: “Stash,” “Bathtub Gin,” “Mike’s Song,” “Tweezer” (which sometimes has a lethargic tempo!), “Bowie” (the beginning of the jam), “Carini,” “Ghost,” “Waves,” “Seven Below,” “Reba.” But “Chalkdust,” even though this version is slower than usual, is fast rock and roll.

3) Trey seems to be thinking more about the form and structure of his melodic phrasing during jams

Trey was teasing the Sonny Rollins tune “St. Thomas” a bunch this summer, and it comes out during the Randall’s “Light” jam in the quiet section before the big descending 4-chord jam. But he doesn’t just tease the theme. He plays the entire main phrase, an 8-measure melody broken into 4 shorter phrases. These phrases follow one of the stock melodic archetypes of American popular music as it became defined in the 1920s Tin Pan Alley songs (which later became the backbone of swing jazz in the 1930s and bebop in the 40s): SRDC, or statement, restatement, departure, conclusion (e.g. the verse to the Beatles’ “Please Please Me” or “Eight Days a Week”). This itself is related to the idea of a melodic period which was popular during the 18th and 19th centuries, from composers like Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert.

Why does Trey insert something with so much structure into something that is melodically structure-less? My hunch is that Trey is thinking about the formal phrasing of his improvisational melodies in a slightly more structured way, and the full “St. Thomas” melody is a pre-existing idea that fits with his current style of playing. It lacks the pure freedom of his jamming in the eruptive, Coltrane-esque style, and so in some ways it doesn’t quite feel as “improvisational.” This isn’t new, Trey has been doing this for his entire career (listen to ANY version of “Hood” from 1991, but especially 11/30/91 for a great example), but in a way he’s being more restrained and controlled with his use of it, creating even larger architectures of form within the improvisational space.

Listen to Trey during the third main jam segment of “Chalkdust,” starting around 12:20, excerpted below. He latches onto a rhythmic strumming idea, playing an anacrusis of two IV chords on the last two eighths notes of each measure falling to a I chord on the ensuing first beat of the next measure. He does this for about 8 measures, which establishes the hypermetric parameters – essentially, he’s thinking about 8 measure units. Remember that, because Trey already has. At 12:43 (0:21 on above excerpt), he crafts a beautiful 2-bar melody with a distinctive beginning, middle, and end (statement). He then pauses for a beat, allowing the phrase to settle, and then repeats the idea (restatement). But it’s not just rote repetition. He then goes to another contrasting idea (departure) still based on the shape and pattern of the basic idea or Grundgestalt, and finally returns to a slight variant of the original (conclusion), spicing it up with added syncopation. Total length of melody: 8 measures. Each phrase is the same length, about 2 measures, and there’s a rest at the end of each phrase.

In this way, Trey tricks our minds into hearing his improvisation as a pre-determined melody, because it has the structure and form of a composed melody. He then returns to the IV-IV-I chording exactly as he introduced the melody, again, for 8 measures. Like vamping between verses while Page offers swirling organ melodies. And then the pièce-de-resistance: he repeats the entire SRDC melody AGAIN, almost exactly but with slight differences, and significantly, with a slightly different set of effects which gives it a new timbre. Second verse. When this is over, he continues with another new idea that will eventually lead to the “Mike’s Song”-style fakeout around 15:00.

Why is this important? With Fishman not varying the tempo, and with no peak, we need melodic variety to give each of the jam segments of “Chalkdust” its own unique character. Not only does Trey play different melodies, but he is playing different melodic styles. The way I hear it, there are parts of this jam which are kind of a fast country-rock modal jamming, then there’s the strumming chordal-leads, then this aforementioned formal periodic structure, then a gnarly dissonant and repetitive part, and then finally a minimalistic section.

These are just some thoughts that occurred to me driving over the Green Mountains and listening to this 55 minutes of ecstasy for the umpteenth time. More to come later…

Crowdsourcing Dissertation Motivation

•August 4, 2014 • 1 Comment

Ask any professional writer, and they will tell you, the only way to become a good writer is to write. Write every day. Write a ton of crap whose ultimate destination will be your computer’s trash can. When you have nothing to write about, write. When you are sick of your writing, write some more.

Every writer knows this (or should, since we get told it all the time). As a musicologist, I am a professional writer. True, my productivity is slightly different (read: much lower) than a journalist, essayist, poet, maybe even some novelists. Still, I’m a writer. And it is very difficult to make the epistemological and ontological jump from grad student to professional writer when pretty much nothing has changed. I don’t have a new job, I don’t have hard deadlines from a supervisor, I’m not getting paid any differently, I haven’t moved, and my approach hasn’t changed. Still, sometime in the last five years, I segued smoothly from student to professional.

The biggest problem there is that no one tells you “OK, now you’re a professional and here’s how you have to act.” Because nothing has changed in your occupation, you don’t have a new, clear set of goals. You basically take what you’ve learned – “this is how I write an academic paper” – and turn it into “now write a dissertation.” You have to impose deadlines on yourself (I suck at that), and you have to hold yourself to those deadlines (I suck even more at that). Most importantly, you have to wake up every day and GO TO WORK instead of GO TO SCHOOL. Horrifyingly, in the everyday, lived reality of a Ph.D. candidate, those two activities are identical.

I’ve read all the tricks: turn off your internet, find a quiet space and just allot 2 hours a day to writing, Pomodoro technique, go for a run, and tons more. For me, what it really boils down to is accountability. Who am I accountable to? (just me). Who will hold me accountable? (again, me). And I am not good at that. But I’m trying to get better. This dissertation needs to get written, because I’m not a student anymore. I’m a professional. And I need a job.

So here’s what I’ve decided to do:

I’m gonna Tweet my progress, every day, once a day, at @JakesDiss. In 140 characters, I will say what I did that day that enabled me to get closer to calling myself Dr. Cohen. Reading does not count – I have to do actual WRITING. I will give myself 2 days off a week (usually the weekend but not always). And if I don’t write, I have to own up to it. I still have to tweet every day.

And you, dear friends and stranger twitterers, MUST SHAME ME FOR NOT WRITING!

No, but seriously, help me hold myself accountable. Words of encouragement, words of motivation, and when I don’t write anything, words of disappointment (“c’mon dude, you shouldn’t have watched all those early 90s Reba vids!”). Help me help…me. My hope is that if I ever see multiple tweets in a row that read “no writing today,” I will whip my own ass into gear. But I also know myself: for example, I came up with this idea IN NOVEMBER and established this account. 9 months, 0 tweets. Yeah, that’s #procrastination. Something I’m damn good at.

I’m happy to discuss my diss. topic on my “normal” human twitter account, @smoothatonalsnd, and perhaps a blog entry here from time to time. But I will try to keep @JakesDiss to a once a day progress report, with lots of favoriting and maybe an occasional retweet. So please, , and help me get one step closer to being an unemployed doctor!

On Tweezermania and Not Being There

•July 29, 2014 • 1 Comment
beenaround

Photo by Dave Vann, @Phish_FTR

If you’re a Phish fan (and I assume you probably are if you’re reading this), you don’t need me to tell you about what happened on Sunday night, July 27, 2014, at Merriweather Post Pavilion. In fact, no one can really tell you what happened. You need to hear/see it yourself to fully understand the majesty of the segue-filled Tweezerfest, or the absurdity of the “Jennifer Dances” “bustout,” or the strutting-in-a-line of “I Been Around.”

But what I can tell you about is how remarkable I felt hearing this show, listening to the crowd erupt in recognition and disbelief at every reemergence of the “Tweezer” riff or at the sudden jump from A major to F major to facilitate a perfect segue into “Simple.” I can tell you about the texts and twitter conversations that just kept piling up on my phone as friend after friend shared their own sense of awe and wonderment. I can tell you about how I woke up the next morning singing the frankly awful chorus lyrics to “Jennifer Dances.”

And what is perhaps most odd is that I wasn’t at the show. Nor were any of the 30 or 40 people with whom I shared my exuberance on Twitter. Nor were the authors of the two best paeans I’ve read recapping the show on Online Phish Tour or phish.net. I was in a log cabin in rural Vermont, ironically about 10 miles from the town of Plainfield where Goddard College used to be.

And this is what is hardest to explain to non-phans. Why was I so ecstatic about a show that I listened to over the internet, a show that I didn’t attend? Why did my wife and I both feel that all-too-familiar post-show high despite being 600 miles from Columbia, MD?

Sure couchtour is great. We get to listen to the show live even if we can’t go because of financial concerns, job commitments, or prior obligations. I’ve watched maybe a dozen official webcasts and listened to dozens more unofficial streamers, including a few real barn burners like the Dick’s “S” show in 2011 and the 9/2/12 Dick’s show. But even for those, I can’t say that I truly felt like this. So what was it about 7/27/14 that made it such a communal exulatation for so many who weren’t there? Why were we sharing in this particular groove more than, for example, that “S” show which, like 7/27/14, saw both a series of incredible bust-outs and an old-school Phishy gimmick?

I think it’s the renewed sense of ownership and pride that we’ve been cultivating since Dick’s 2012, which really does seem more and more like a turning point in the 3.0 history of the band with each passing show. This is our band. We stuck it out, through all the trials and travails of both our lives and the band’s life.

Photo by Dave Vann, @Phish_FTR

Photo by Dave Vann, @Phish_FTR

Like a proud parent, we celebrate Phish’s triumphs even from afar, when we can’t be there, because they are our band and they make us proud to be Phish phans. Maybe part of it is the sense that I no longer think “I can’t believe I missed that show!” (as I did on 8/14/09), but rather, “I’m so glad they are playing shows like that!” It’s what I say to myself every time I miss a “Tela” (as I did on 7/20/14), my favorite song that I’ve never heard live. But I think a big part of it, for me at least, was the ability to share the feeling with the online community. We create a virtual show space in the Twittersphere – what we lose from not being there is partially made up by the fact that we get to experience the show unadulterated, without annoying talkers, without security hassling us, with our own food, beverages, and comfiest chairs. We get to virtually hang out with like-minded obsessive phans who shared in their disbelief, we commiserate with others who feel exactly as we do. Had I been listening to the show in a vacuum without the online community to virtually high-five constantly, I don’t know that the experience would have been the same.

7/27/14 is, without a doubt, in the same category as legendary nights such as 2/20/93, 5/7/94, 6/17/94, 6/22/94, 7/13/94, where Phish wove in and out of their catalog with terrific aplomb. It’s partially the fact that none of those dates are less than 20 years ago that makes 7/27/14 so special. We’ve seen interesting setlist acrobatics and games since — the ’96 “M” set, the “Moby Dick” show from Summer 2000, all three Friday night shows from Dick’s in 2011-2013, even the “old school” set 2 of 12/31/13 — but nothing like the combination of segues, self-referential hilarity, and genuinely stellar improvisation from 7/27/14.

And we all got to share in each other’s elation. We got to see that not only did this show fill our souls with joy and delight, but it did so for many friends, some of whom we’ve never met in real life. In short, we still got the best parts of the communal experience of a Phish show, just without the actual best parts of a Phish show, which is, of course, being there.

Northerly Island, Chicago, 7/18/14: Had to Have That

•July 19, 2014 • Leave a Comment

The most excellent pholks at phish.net asked me if I’d be interested in writing a review of the Friday night Chicago show. Naturally, I strapped in for #couchtour and gave a pretty detailed blow-by-blow of the evening’s affairs. For your reading pleasure, linked here.

Collected Stories: Memoirs – John Cage and David Lang at Carnegie Hall

•April 30, 2014 • Leave a Comment

When I started this blog, the idea was to subsume all of my informal musicological endeavors under one online umbrella: thoughts about cultural and musicological issues, conference writeups, reviews and thoughts on contemporary classical music, and my love of Phish and the Grateful Dead. At a certain point, a number of those enterprises found other recourses, I got distracted by comprehensive exams and dissertation writing, I got lazy, and I started re-obsessing over Phish. Smooth Atonal Sound followed its namesake and became a Phish blog for a couple years. But there’s a reason I chose that particular Phish lyric as my online presence — it is one of the only Phish lyrics to use a word directly from my academic field (“atonal”) and represents my scholarly passion, post-tonal music of the 20th and 21st century. To continue with another quote from the same song, “this isn’t who it would be, if it wasn’t who it is.” And this IS me, musically speaking.

Returning then to my roots, and just to be writing more often, I’m going back to reviewing classical concerts, writing thoughts on music popular and classical, and all sorts of other non-Phishy things. And Phishy things still. Let me know if you hate it. Without further ado…a concert review of aleatory music. With free drinks.


 

_john_david_tudor_cage-indeterminacy_new_aspect_of_form.. Certain aspects of John Cage’s music have gotten played out, for lack of a better term. Cage was something of a raconteur in the 20th century, bringing performance art into the realm of concert music, and creating a space where literally anything could become a musical performance. Literally, anything: his piece 0’00″, designed as a sequel to his most infamous piece 4’33″ and dedicated to fellow Fluxus composer Yoko Ono (who also, you may have heard, dated a Beatle), merely required that the performer perform a distinct act. I’ve done performances of the piece where I’ve written an email to my students.

Yet all those things that were so radical, so difficult, and so completely challenging to the way we think of art, performance, audience, and most essentially, music, have been dulled by our own shock culture over the past few decades. We are no longer bothered by a piece composed entirely of silence, and we have come to expect that the performer/audience dynamic may be inverted at any point, the fourth wall of the musical stage to be broken. A performance of 4’33″ almost becomes routine at this point, a novelty item on a concert program. Nothing could make this more clear than the BBC broadcast of a full orchestral performance of 4’33″ by the LSO, complete with the overeager, hagiographic introduction and commentary.

My point is this: the shock value of Cage’s music is dead, as is the novelty factor. All we are left with is the music itself, the sounds arranged in space and time. And although there are potentially some cool moments where the audience becomes the piece, 4’33″ just isn’t that great. In that BBC video, the commentator’s reaction, the shots of the audience looking intently pensive, the rote and obligatory applause, it just highlights the farcical and self-serving nature of this sort of performance.

This is why Tuesday’s performance at Carnegie Hall of Cage’s Indeterminacy, with a simultaneous rendering of his Fontana Mix on lights and 27’10.554″ for a Percussionist, was so successful. It worked as a musical performance. Without being shocking, without being wildly innovative (these pieces are nearly 60 years old!), and even without drawing too obvious attention to its own chance operations, the evening was a wild success based on what we heard and saw alone.

Indeterminacy is a collection of short stories, each one told over the course of one minute, read from notecards. The order of the stories is randomly determined. The topics of these stories range from the metaphysical to the literal, but all seem to celebrate their namesake philosophical principle, that of chance, randomness, happy accidents, and happenstance. Some reinforce the meta-narrative of indeterminacy, others play out like little zen miniatures (appropriate since many of them concern Buddhist monks or figures like D.T. Suzuki), and still others are vignettes that offer a glimpse into the playful mind of their creator.

_SuzukiCageDoubling down on the aleatory concept, Cage dictated that another piece of his, or another media of art altogether, could be superimposed with Indeterminacy, so as to create even more of the chance alignments and dissonances, both musical and cognitive.

What struck me most, and what played out as such a beautiful aesthetic, was how little I was conscious of the indeterminacy as I was watching and listening to this piece. Certainly the lights, percussion, and readings never seemed to be intentionally in sync, but they still seemed to go together in some inexplicable way. Even the random ordering of Cage’s stories seemed to happily effect a narrative or some continuity, occasionally, as when a story about taking one of Schoenberg’s classes in L.A. preceded a story which began “Another time, Schoenberg…”

When the lights, percussion, and readings did happily find themselves in alignment, the overall effect was glorious. Percussionist Steve Schick’s scrapes, rolls, and hits, a virtuosic performance in and of itself, often seemed to fill the spaces in the stories. There was a notable moment when actor Paul Lazar, whose voice lacked the gentle yet focused lilt of Cage’s but who instilled the same intensity and deliberateness into the words, spoke about water to the accompaniment of Schick’s brushed metal, like the sound of a stream, while lighting director Eric Southern illuminated bright blue LED floor lights.

The stories were funnier than I was expecting. I laughed out loud a number of times; some folks around me even more. I suppose I was expecting mostly philosophical ponderings on the nature of randomness, or the randomness of nature, but many of the stories ended with a sardonic twist (especially, surprisingly, the ones about monks)._cage

Perhaps my favorite moment was hearing the story from Indeterminacy that I know best, because it’s featured in the Peter Greenaway film that I use when I teach Cage. Although I never realized until hearing it in the context of a complete performance, I had my own meta moment of happy accident because this story, about Cage’s trip to an isolation chamber at Harvard, includes the line “anybody who knows me knows this story, I am constantly telling it.” Here I was, listening to a performance of Indeterminacy, and realizing that I knew this story, because I know Cage, and he is constantly telling it. That’s the real beauty of a performance of this sort. I became part of the narrative of indeterminate nature that the piece reveals is part of all life. It’s entirely random that I show that particular clip of the Greenaway film, and of all the stories from Indeterminacy that he could have chose, the director uses this particular one, which is a comment on how many people know this story. It was like hearing that one familiar riff in a long improvisation, or somehow recognizing a song during a random band’s performance. It made me exceedingly happy.

Despite my harping on about the wonderful musical content, one other personal highlight was an aspect of the performance that was, in some way, more philosophical than musical. With the house lights up and stage lights down, and the audience still milling about in their pre-concert drone of conversation, Schick walked on stage and began to play. Because 27’10.554″ is a collection of singular hits, scrapes, and other weird percussive noises, it seemed as though he was warming up, or soundchecking. But in fact he was beginning the piece. And just like that, Cage managed to prove provocateur again. The audience, without their realizing it, became part of the performance. I realized this within about a minute, and sat with a grin as I listened to the piece: a combination of carefully conjured percussion noises intermingling with the melody and percussion of the audience, their voices, footsteps, tappings, and seat adjustings. The man next to me started shushing people, itself becoming part of the soundscape. Eventually but very gradually, the crowd realized what was happening and became silent, by which point the piece had been going for over 5 minutes. It was glorious.

The other half of Tuesday’s performance was a world premiere of virtuosic violin pieces by David Lang, called Mystery Sonatas and based on the mystically captivating pieces of the same name by Baroque composer Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber. Thematically connected to the Cage works by the evening’s theme of “Memoir,” the music was a stark juxtaposition in genre, timbre, and style to the Cage, but a welcome one. Violinist Augustin Hadelich played his face off, too, pouring his emotion into both the music and his facial expressions. All seven movements featured the post-tonal diatonicism and repetitions of melody that are hallmarks of Lang’s style, I guess they call it “post-minimalist,” or whatever.

“Joy” opened the piece with delicate harmonics, establishing the higher register of the instrument as the primary one for most of the work. This slow and reflective movement gave way to a fiery display of tremolo bowing in “After Joy,” Lang outlining chords as Hadelich moved up and down the neck with precise breakneck speed. The three middle movements, “Before Sorrow,” “Sorrow,” and “After Sorrow,” all used a similar motive, with slow but steady arpeggios and a vaguely Jewish melodic character, like the minor key chanting of a cantor. Especially impressive was Hadelich’s ability to continuously bow a triple stop while changing notes all at the same time. It provided an eerie, droning pedal-point effect that was wonderful and virtuosic without the ostentation of “After Joy.”

“Before Glory” returned to the speed and precision of its inverse pair in the set, this time with scotch snap rhythmic figures rather than tremolo, while “Glory” provided a sort of major key, blissful meditation that complemented both the melancholic “Sorrow” and the ethereal, other-worldly “Joy.” Lang has created a masterful work for solo violin, still, Hadelich’s emotional display of talent was the star of this piece.

Oh, and they gave out free drinks. The “Langonade,” with bourbon, triple sec, lemon, and sprite, was delicious.

Putting Our Wingsuits On

•December 28, 2013 • Leave a Comment

Starting around November 3rd, I spent a lot of time listening to the second set of 10/31/13. A lot more than I thought I would. In attendance at the show, I was, like many, initially a little disappointed to find out that we wouldn’t be getting one of the most cherished of Phish traditions, a Halloween cover set. But within a few minutes my disappointment turned into eager optimism and excitement.

I loved the jam in “Fuego,” I thought “Monica” was amazing. “Wombat,” obviously, was one of the more memorable Phish moments I’ve seen, just for the sheer absurdity of the event. Other than that, I remember enjoying it all (except Mike’s out of tune singing on “Snow”) but realizing that I’d need to listen more. Really, the most immediately striking thing about 10/31/13 for me was the monstrous “Ghost”>”Carini” in set 3. If there’s anything I’ve learned from my few years as a music journalist, or my many more as a musicologist, it’s that you need to listen to a piece of music multiple times before you can make any judgments on it. So listen multiple times I did.

Nearly two months later, I’ve internalized the entirety of Wingsuit (I still skip “Snow” most times. Sorry Mike, you’ve got to take that down a few steps). I know every lyric, I know all the changes, I’ve memorized certain solos. And I love it. I love all of it. I love the ethereal psychedelia of the title track, the blistering “Birds”-esque jam in “Fuego,” the catchy 60s pop of “Monica,” the floating otherworldliness of “Waiting All Night,” the Little Feat-cum-80s Dead New Orleans groove of “You Never Know,” Trey’s Neutral Milk Hotel wannabe “Amidst the Peals of Laughter,” and the dark funkiness of “555.” And as we prepare for yet another beautiful Phish tradition, the New Year’s Run, what I’m most excited for and grateful for in this incredible 30th anniversary year (other than the Tahoe Tweezer) is to hear what will happen to the Wingsuit songs over the next four nights, and then into the future.

See, the only way I know Wingsuit, the only way any of us know it, is in the barest bones version of each song. We know the basics of every tune, but we don’t know how the band will integrate the songs into the normal curvature of a Phish show. Placement means everything: “Seven Below” had potential when we heard it on Round Room, but we had no idea it would turn into a behemoth second set jam, as it did on 7/13/03 or 11/28/09. And of course, we don’t know which songs that were 5 minutes long on 10/31/13 might become 14 minutes on 12/30/13.

So here’s how I hope it goes down over the next four nights. By the time you read this, we’ll have probably already heard a few of the new tunes, and we’ll have plenty more to talk about.

wingsuit

“Wingsuit” was awkward as a set opener. With that melty, gooey quality to its opening chords,  it’s far too mellow to open a set. But it’ll truly shine as a landing pad following a oversized set 2 opener. Like “No Quarter,” “20 Years Later,” or the many ballads that have filled the role over the years, “Wingsuit” will excel as the re-entry into our planetary orbit after the cosmic excursion of  a “Tweezer,” “Carini,”  or “Disease” set 2 opener. “Wingsuit” retains just enough of that psychedelic tinge to provide a perfect transition from deep space exploration to terrestrial endeavors. As a counter example, think of how inappropriate it felt to hear “Number Line” after the landmark 12/30/12 “Carini.” The conventional song form and peppy lyrics were an odd juxtaposition, to say the least. But throw “Wingsuit” after something like that “Carini,” and you’ve got a seamless thread between the unknown and the known worlds. Or how about a “Mike’s”>”Wingsuit”>”Weekapaug”?

“Fuego” could go anywhere in a show, I think, from set 1 closer to show opener, to mid-second set. More importantly, what will happen to the jam? On Halloween it was a lean 80 bars of fast 4/4, just 20 4-measure phrases, barely 2 minutes. The intense two-chord jam–one of the only instances of a Phish jam embedded, dare I say, like a Bisco jam into the middle of a sectional song–is almost like a cross between “Piper” and “Birds,” but if they are willing to stretch it out, it could truly be the fire of its name.

I have no idea what will happen to “The Line.” It’s probably in my lower tier of tunes from the album, even though I know many of you out there LOVE it. I think it’ll find its way comfortably into the middle of first sets, sandwiched between a “Divided” and a “Funky Bitch,” perhaps. And I don’t think it’ll really jam much more than it already has. But I’d love to be proven wrong.

“Monica,” on the other hand, is a song that I hope Phish, and Trey specifically, have big plans for. While I loved the day-glo bubblegum effect of the acoustic ensemble on Halloween, I think this song will rock when played with electric instruments. And I think Trey needs to grab it by the balls and shred over the changes following the little vocal breakdown. I hope that dear “Monica” doesn’t end up the next “Bouncin” or “Silent,” ending with a glorious bit of vocal polyphony but identical in every version. I hope she puts her fuckin wingsuit on and flies.

“Waiting All Night” will turn into a huge jam, I hope. I’d love to hear it grow some legs mid-first set, or even mid-second. Like “Wingsuit,” “Waiting All Night” could be a nice transitional tune after a huge set two opener. But its effervescent modal qualities will bode well for some further exploration.

“Wombat” is clearly going to wind up like many excellent funk vehicles, such as “Moma,” “Tube,” or “GBOTT,” placed in a first set somewhere. But like “Moma” and “Tube” occasionally used to do, and like “Wolfman’s” still does, I’d love to hear this expand in a second set placement. We didn’t hear a single melodic line from Trey during the Abe Vigoda dance section, or the follow-up exit music, on Halloween. Imagine what will happen if he starts laying down short melodic fragments on top of that chugging, off-kilter groove. Cuddly, but muscular!

“Snow” needs to change keys. Mike cannot sing it in its current range. This is what happens as you near 50. But if Mike sang it in his natural voice instead of falsetto, I could be very happy catching this about as often as I get a “Sleep,” “Driver,” or “Swept Away.”

“Devotion to a Dream” is the only bonafide set 1 opener on the album, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we see it assume that role on the finished studio product. Sounding sort of like an outtake from Hands on a Hardbody, the song has affinities to “Sample” and “Number Line,” but with a slightly Phishier feel to it. We’ll definitely be jamming out with big smiles to this one, often, in the future.

On the other hand, I think that “555″ has some serious set 2 jamming potential. They already proved this when they took it into a quasi-industrial noise jam that followed the same rising chord progression as “Tweezer Reprise” or every version of “Walk Away” since 6/17/10. And it was the only song that seemed to leap out of its structural bounds, the only one to go type II, before it landed comfortably in the gentle sway of the “Winterqueen.” I’m a huge fan of “Winterqueen,” and I think that like “Wingsuit,” and as it did on Halloween, “Winterqueen” will be another great late second set cooler, sort of like what “Thunderhead” did in 2003 (remember that song?), or what “Strange Design,” “Roggae,” and “Bug” often do. A nice fourth quarter rest before the set closing “YEM” or “Bowie” or “Hood” or “Slave.” But like “Bug” or “Roggae,” its jam isn’t just a throwaway. It carries its own weight.

“Amidst the Peals of Laughter” is one of those songs that I know Trey, and especially Tom, is really proud of. But I have no idea where it will go. It’s a song I imagine we’ll rarely hear, something in the vein of “Dog-Faced Boy” frequency. Finally, “You Never Know” doesn’t seem to offer a lot via jam potential, but that doesn’t mean that it has nowhere to go. Another first set tune, I could imagine hearing it as a closer following a big “Bowie” or “Antelope,” the post-closer closer. But I can imagine its groovy bounce opening a balmy summer show, too.

Like I said, by the time you read this, some of these will likely be proven totally wrong, and maybe I’ll have gotten a few right. Either way, as this 30th year of Phish draws to a close, we’re pushed up to the edge. It’s time to put our wingsuits on. ‘Cause it feels good.

 
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