Ready to have your musical mind blown? Just how many possible songs are there, anyway? Do all possible note combinations count as music? What is the relationship between the compressibility of data and our general threshold of enjoyment? VSauce nails it.
Listening to a Phillip Glass piece is more like studying a stained glass window than listening to music in the conventional sense – a passing glance would only tell part of the story, while the full picture is revealed by standing in deep meditation of its nuances. Originally purchased tickets for last night’s Zellerbach performance of Einstein on the Beach back in June, but didn’t realize until a few days ago that I had signed us up for a 4.5-hour performance (“not including opening tones”). Even though I’ve got a warm spot in my heart for Glass, and had always been curious to see Robert Wilson’s legendary 1975 “Opera in four parts,” started to worry I had signed us up for 4+ hours of “difficult listening hour.” It’s not that Glass’ music is “difficult” per se’, but that he works in such large arcs, often pushing the limits of what audiences are willing to sit through. That doesn’t mean his work isn’t gorgeous – it is – but that we have to reorient our expectations of how long a composition should last, how willing we are to slow the hell down and become absorbed in a slow progression of subtly shifting notes and chords.
The “opera” (Glass says he only considers it an opera when it’s performed in an opera house … otherwise, “it is what it is”) is a meditation on science and society, gender roles, habits, patterns of living, all slowly unfolding as semi-opaque vignettes. The scene pictured above, for example, took twenty minutes to unpack. It is not just frozen because it’s a photograph – it’s frozen by composition. Starting as an impeccably painted factory building with a sole figure in the top window, characters (stereotypes) slowly enter and freeze into position. So little happens, it was almost painful to watch (though gorgeous to hear). But the funny thing about these “knee plays” is that every time you feel like your patience has been stretched to its limit, you realize that you’re totally fascinated. Small details become important.
In another scene, a 30-foot-long bar of pure white light lays horizontally on the stage in the dark. As the music builds, one end of it slowly lifts up, moving so slowly it’s barely perceptible. A line is becoming an angle – that’s all – and over the course of 10 minutes, the bar finally reaches its vertical zenith. “Good,” you think, “Let’s move on.” Then the now-vertical bar starts to rise, and you realize it’s going to take another 10 minutes for it to ascend up behind the curtains. Part of you is asking “Are you kidding me? You’ve got to be kidding me.” while another part of you is totally absorbed in the movement of the simple light, thinking “So this is what the passage of time feels like.” You just have to let go of your rock and roll expectations and allow yourself to be swept into the pace of Glass – there is no other way.
Wilson’s stage production is austere, lightly symbolic, and sometimes funny, while the patience and endurance of the performers is stunning. It was the job of one dancer to “read” through much of the evening. Wearing gray slacks, suspenders, and a white Oxford, she held a stiff book full of blank pages. Her head shook rapidly from side to side, vibrating like a bobble-head doll, as if stuck in a permanent speed-reading trance. But reading what? That’s not important. It’s like she was the abstract, Platonic form of a reader, reading the abstract, Platonic form of a book. Nothing more, nothing less. How she maintained that head-wobbling for so long is beyond me – our necks ached in sympathy.
The performance peaks in a crescendo of light and movement dedicated to the atomic age (the Einstein connection). A scaffolding rig recreates the Hollywood Squares of performance art, with dancers gesticulating mathematically at dancing light displays, some squares shared with musicians. Lucite boxes containing floating, writhing humans traverse slowly from side to side. The victim of a nuclear blast dances with flashlights in the foreground. Two people crawl out of plastic domes, then slowly “duck and cover” to shield themselves from an atomic blast. An immense, gauzy scrim is lowered in front of it all – a massive enlargement of a 1950s explainer diagram on the mechanics of atomic detonation.
All the while, a violinist in an Einstein costume sites in a lonely chair in front of the stage, above the orchestra pit, playing his heart out just for you.
4.5 hours later we wandered outside into a warm October Berkeley evening, wondering where the time had gone.
Listening experience flow chart by Amy Kubes: Life Cycle of a Phillip Glass Piece
It’s been 26 years since I last watched Laurie Anderson perform (“Big Science”). I was much younger, and so was she. The audience at the time was composed mostly of new wave/punkers with a literary bent – young adults into Fripp and Eno and William S. Burroughs. I remember a raft of white violins descending from the ceiling – with tape heads installed where the bridges should have been – followed by a dozen or so white violin bows lowered into place, strung with reel-to-reel tape instead of horse hair. Each bow harnessed a different sound clip or spoken word recording, and she “played” each one back- and forwards, at any speed or in any staccato word rhythm.
Fast forward to 2012, Zellerbach Auditorium at UC Berkeley. Now 65, Anderson has dispensed with most of her avante-garde gimmicks and boiled it mostly down to pure storytelling , ensconced in more “traditional” violin playing backed by sequencers playing strange loops (a porch swing creaking, compressed air escaping in a repeating cycle with one timing mark off just enough to make you feel vaguely uncomfortable). The stage atmosphere a sea of votive candles peeking out through mellow fog machine vapors, a giant screen filled with solid colors, a smaller one reserved for displaying the paw-scratch “paintings” of her dog (and a few entertaining clips of same dog playing piano – who doesn’t love animals on keyboards?)
She still pulls out a few of the old tricks – her digital vocal octave dropper completely changes the tone of her amazing poem/stories (a technique she calls “audio drag”), and she did take time to pop a pillow speaker into her mouth and play a short wah-wah improv, the shape of her mouth and breath conditioning the sound source. But for the most part, her presence is more minimal, more grounded now. At one stretch, she just sat in a big black comfy chair and talked. But the maturation of the performance seemed completely tasteful, appropriate.
Langue d’Amour, from Mister Heartbreak (1984)
Her poem/stories are still bizarre, but in a more grounded way – she weaves political observations about Battleground America into meditations on why the coloration of the peacock’s tail drove Darwin batshit crazy. And throughout, little zen zingers like:
“Of all the things that ever could have happened… most of them didn’t.”
She has the ability to deliver lines like this with such matter-of-fact precision that you feel like she’s pierced the veil of evening fog into something deeper. She takes you beyond without even trying.
Perhaps you are made of glass /
Should a dog strive for Buddha Heart?
(I’m paraphrasing from memory here). In fact there were many Buddhist references peppered into the performance – she’s been practicing, and that practice is reflected in the relative minimalism of the vibe. Laurie is aging like a good cheese, not like Jagger.
Performance art, by definition, always has the immediate potential for pretentiousness. But Anderson avoids it like the plague, mostly by being funny. Not comedienne funny, but “Isn’t life weird?” funny.
Via Wikipedia: In “The Cultural Ambassador”, a piece on her album The Ugly One with the Jewels, Anderson explained some of her perspective on the character [“Bergamot” – with the lowered voice]: (Anderson:) I was carrying a lot of electronics so I had to keep unpacking everything and plugging it in and demonstrating how it all worked, and I guess I did seem a little fishy — a lot of this stuff wakes up displaying LED program readouts that have names like Atom Smasher, and so it took a while to convince them that they weren’t some kind of espionage system. So I’ve done quite a few of these sort of impromptu new music concerts for small groups of detectives and customs agents and I’d have to keep setting all this stuff up and they’d listen for a while and they’d say: So uh, what’s this? And I’d pull out something like (Bergamot:) this filter, and say, now this is what I like to think of as the voice of authority. And it would take me a while to tell them how I used it for songs that were, you know, about various forms of control, and they would say, now why would you want to talk like that? And I’d look around at the SWAT teams, and the undercover agents, and the dogs, and the radio in the corner, tuned to the Super Bowl coverage of the war. And I’d say, take a wild guess.
I keep waiting for news about some upcoming collaboration between Anderson and her husband Lou Reed (file under “The most unlikely pairing ever that makes perfect sense”) but it never happens.
Even during busy months, I try to absorb at least some new music. This May, I barely had time to keep up with obituaries, and will admit to getting all Righteous Brothers over the band possibilities in Rock and Roll Heaven. If they had ever played together, I’m convinced the combined talents of Doc Watson, Chuck Brown and Adam Yauch would have been…well, the most ill-conceived trio in the history of popular music, but don’t let that stop you from loving any of their music. Really, if any of you discover a deep bond among these three that doesn’t involve Doc Watson’s alleged involvement in the 1979 movie Disco Godfather, you’re trying too hard.
The first time I saw Doc Watson play live would have been pretty impressive for most guitarists, but I suspected something was missing. The second time I saw him, and sadly the last, was a solo show at a much smaller venue. I’d rank that one as the second or third-greatest showcase of guitar virtuosity I’ve ever witnessed (right after Andres Segovia, and in a virtual dead heat with Richard Thompson at the top of his game). Doc was meticulous as a flatpicker, storyteller, and singer. As a lifelong city guy, I got a great reminder that any sophistication and flair I could muster would likely seem backward in comparison to the pride of Deep Gap, North Carolina. Doc had a warmth and grace that made it easy to forget the skill it must have taken to pull off those dizzying runs on his guitar.
The range of material Doc liked to perform went well beyond the sort of old-timey traditional bluegrass that most probably associate with him. I think he cared much less about preserving “authenticity,” or defining his role in the musical world, than many of the folk music revivalists who helped bring his music to a worldwide audience. In an interesting biography of Doc Watson’s life and work, flatpicking scholar Dan Miller explains that in the early sixties, musicologist Ralph Rinzler had to persuade Doc to borrow an acoustic guitar for use in recording sessions, because Doc had been playing an electric model. Doc found inspiration in all kinds of places–old-timey or modern, black or white, city or country–using his fast fingers as a radar.
Doc’s only serious flatpicking competition may have come from his own son Merle, who broadened Doc’s range and deepened his love for the blues before his death in a 1985 tractor accident. Doc honored his son’s memory by starting the annual Merlefest. When he mentioned his son at the shows I saw, you could see the love and loss etched into the lines on his face.
Doc Watson, Blues Medley (“Deep River Blues,” “St.James Hospital,” “Nine Pound Hammer,” “Daniel Prayed,” “Mountain Dew”)
Doc Watson and Merle Watson, “Don’t Think Twice,” “Make Me a Pallet”
A few weeks ago, I started pulling together a bicycle-themed playlist. I’d hoped it would motivate me to train for a late-April metric century bike ride in Chico, California, which due to some feat of bike snobbery or hippie irony is known as the Mildflower.
The ride was terrific. Unfortunately, my playlist never got past a zippy little Yves Montand number called “Vel’ d’Hiv.” The song is named after a Parisian sports stadium, the Vélodrome d’Hiver, used for indoor bicycle track racing until its demolition in 1959. Just to prove they were really in Paris, the stadium’s final night featured Salvador Dali exploding a miniature Eiffel Tower.
“Vel’ d’Hiv,” while not as well-known as Montand’s “A Bicyclette,” is a fine little bike song. But my bicycle playlist ground to a halt when I found out Montand recorded the song in May 1948. That’s less than six years after the same bicycle stadium was the site of one of the most horrifying episodes in French history, the Vel’d’Hiv Roundup. On July 16 and 17, 1942, French police arrested more than 13,000 Jewish men, women and children. Most of those arrested were held in the Vélodrome d’Hiver. The victims remained there for five days with no open bathrooms and almost no food or water. Then it got much worse. Under orders of the Vichy government, the detainees were handed over to the Nazis, who sent them to their demise at Auschwitz and other concentration camps.
Long-hidden details of the roundup are featured in a recent novel and film, Sarah’s Key, and a moving documentary, La Rafle. The Vichy government’s secretary-general of the police, René Bousquet, personally refused to spare children from the roundup. He managed to avoid major legal consequences after the war, and later became a friend and financial supporter of a prominent French politician. Someone from the LePen family, perhaps? Surprise, it was actually Francois Mitterand.
Back to music: a fascinating site called Music and the Holocaust has an intriguing section on the “double life” of jazz during Vichy France. Performers often used “Frenchified” American titles and substituted French names for those of American composers (Louis Armstrong’s songs, for example, were attributed to Jean Sablon). This dubious makeover, which seemed to bring jazz closer to French nationalism, may also have helped keep the music alive and under the political radar during the war.
Others couldn’t conceal themselves so easily. It took a “miracle” for Gypsy innovator Django Reinhart to survive the war. He actually was captured, and escaped only because the commander happened to be a fan.
Yves Montand, “Vel’ d’Hiv”
To Be or Not to Be/ The Bee Gees
Jazz Hands/ Thea Gilmore
Shakespeare’s Sister/ The Smiths
Killer Queen/ Queen
(Just Like) Romeo And Juliet/ Scott Kempner
Wet Blanket/ Metric
Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide/ Marvin Gaye
Sleep to Dream/ Bettye LaVette
Paperback Writer/ The Beatles
The Modern World/ Jam
Where Is My Mind?/ Pixies
Rolling in the Deep/ Adele
The Motorcycle Song/ Arlo Guthrie
I Heard It Through The Grapevine/ Marvin Gaye
Seeing Hands/ Dengue Fever
30 Century Man/ Scott Walker
Evil Librarian/ Melvil Dewey
Head Rolls Off/ Frightened Rabbit
Dignified & Old/ The Modern Lovers
Pearle/ Trip Shakespeare
Omaha/ Moby Grape
Peel Me A Grape/ Anita O’Day
Brush Up Your Shakespeare/ Cole Porter (Kiss Me Kate)
Trap Door/ T Bone Burnett
Bee Gees, “To Be Or Not To Be”
Smiths, “Shakespeare’s Sister”
Moby Grape, “Omaha”
We end up around the mountain that I climb to lose you
I said, I said give me the business that business could work through,
I say, Ask me but all my wisdom departed
Tell me but all my wisdom departed
But help please at least answer me this,
Answer me, answer me
What’s the business, yeah
Don’t take my life away
Don’t take my life away
This’ll get your Maker nerd and guitar geek wheels cranking – ArcAttack performs a Tesla Coil version of Sabbath’s “Iron Man.” The guitar player is using an iron guitar while wearing a faraday suit, which causes half a million volts of electricity arc’ing from the Tesla coil to circle his body without harming the wearer.
The MIDI signal from the guitar is routed through a fiber optic cable to control the Tesla coils.
Creators of the original Singing Tesla Coils, the crew of ArcAttack uses their high tech wizardry to generate a truly ‘electrifying’ performance. Two custom engineered hand built Tesla Coils throw out electrical arcs up to twelve feet long, each one acting as an instrument with a sound reminiscent of the early days of the synthesizer. A robotic drum set accompanies the spectacle, it’s high power LED’s flashing bright colors with the stroke of each mechanically actuated stick, while ArcAttack’s six members churn out rhythmic instrumental melodies. Live instruments meet drum loops and samples to produce rock, electronica and indie with a splash of punk and a dash of metal served with a side of pop. During the show, the MC engages both the crowd and the Tesla Coils by walking through ½ Million Volt sparks wearing the relatively thin layer of his chain mail Faraday suit.
Years is a modified turntable created by artist Bartholomäus Traubeck, that uses light to play a slab of tree trunk rather than dragging a needle through vinyl, translating growth patterns into haunting piano music. Lovely concept – Brian Eno would be proud.
A tree’s year rings are analysed for their strength, thickness and rate of growth. This data serves as basis for a generative process that outputs piano music. It is mapped to a scale which is again defined by the overall appearance of the wood (ranging from dark to light and from strong texture to light texture). The foundation for the music is certainly found in the defined ruleset of programming and hardware setup, but the data acquired from every tree interprets this ruleset very differently.
Evelyn Glennie has been profoundly (not completely) deaf since the age of 12, but tours the world as a master percussionist, speaker, improviser, and living embodiment of the act of hearing – not with the ears, but with the whole body. Contending that deafness is largely misunderstood by the public, Glennie creates and absorbs vibration with a level of nuance that few hearing people can reach. And yet she communicates about the aura of sound so beautifully, so effectively, that no hearing person can come away from her presentations unchanged.