Wednesday, September 26, 2012

On Trust in Contemporary Music

I’m giving a spin right now to the new Talibam! record, Puff Up The Volume, just released on the British label Critical Heights. It’s the fruit of several years of work and a trajectory that has run from noisy improvised music to electro-influenced absurdist rap. Go figure. Readers of Ni Kantu might be surprised that I’m giving something like this its tenth (or so) spin, considering that sounds of such a persuasion aren’t really the purview of jazz/creative improvisation-driven critical discourse. But because I’ve followed Talibam’s work for several years and had a number of interesting conversations with drummer/vocalist Kevin Shea and keyboardist/vocalist Matt Mottel, it’s gotten to the point where I trust their intentions, and I can always learn something from those whose aesthetics and ethics I appreciate. On a personal level they are good people, inquisitive, hardworking and creative. And they’ve taken those qualities and recorded a fun and memorable “party record.”

Being able to trust participants to have certain intent and conviction behind their work is one of the main things I look for in music. It sometimes dovetails with a level of acquaintance with the artists, too, and that can make criticism fuzzy (I think I’ve waxed on this before, so do forgive me. I think about it a lot). Because it’s impossible not to develop some sort of friendly relationship with those whose work one supports*, it’s easy to come off looking like one is merely shilling for friends or that one is playing social politics with the music. I hope I would be honest if I couldn’t write about a colleague’s work if I felt the music wasn’t up to par. But it’s tough because it’s hard to make a judgment call when one generally trusts the artist (given that any such call is subject to the flexibility of time and experience anyway).

What brings this to mind is that I was just reading some disparaging YouTube comments on the video for Talibam’s “It’s a Tough Day, Hard Day.” Of course, they don’t really need any defending – it’s either something one likes or one doesn’t – and while I did not, I felt like responding. Jumping into the fray on some YouTube thread is absurd and a waste of time, but part of me was like “hey – these guys work hard and are pretty remarkable musicians, so give them a break.” Nobody needs to play “den mother” to the creators of weird music. And maybe at the end of the day it’s just a goofy song. 

Related to this is how my interest in an artist’s work tends to increase as a result of interviews and conversations. The more I know about the process, the more intrigued I become about subsequent iterations, and the more connected I feel to the work. Again, that blurs the line between objective reporter and unabashed fan, but in the communities that surround creative and underground music, dedicated support is part of the scene. For example, I always really liked saxophonist Ted Brown’s playing, but it wasn’t until I interviewed him that I frequently found myself gushing about his music. When one gains insight into the person behind the work, it just becomes that much more interesting and fleshed out. Curiously, I’ve interviewed musicians whose work I didn’t know very well and, as a result, become intrigued enough to follow what they do pretty intently. This happened recently with a series of interviews in conjunction with the Thrill Jockey label’s Twentieth Anniversary performances in New York. The result is that I’m looking forward to following what some of these musicians produce in the coming years.

I don’t know that being objective is the right way to approach thinking about contemporary music, ultimately. Knowing or at least communicating with people helps me to think about how they put their music together, and what they mean by doing it – at least to some extent. It’s up to critics and thinkers to put an experiential spin on it, of course, and that’s a very important part of the process. And for the record, the music I find interesting is not made so purely on a social level – a large percentage of what I enjoy (&/or write about) is made by individuals and groups I have no literal connection to, other than liking the work. But being able to understand its humanity and have trust in the artists’ “realness” is one of the keys to ensuring the artform’s longevity. It’s probably one of the reasons why those rare examples of John Coltrane speaking are so treasured. After all, music is a basic form of interpersonal communication, so all of this seems curiously appropriate.


*There is, of course, the valid notion that writers just want to be “one of the cats,” something they’ll never be. There’s no way I can, as a writer, have the same level of conversation about the work with, say, drummer Tomas Fujiwara that any of his bandmates could. And why would I? Being a musician of a certain caliber is a special thing that not everyone can or should be able to do (or want to do). One has to let musicians be musicians, too.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Anthony Braxton - Freeing the Music (but not without responsibility)

At age 67 and with hundreds of recordings (as well as his Tri-Axiom compositional literature) documented, it’s pretty clear that composer-reedman Anthony Braxton is well beyond the point of being an established figure in creative music. And with certain “stature” (if I may use such a term) comes a great amount of responsibility to the music as a whole. Though I have not studied with him in the sense that many musicians who have worked with him at Wesleyan, Mills, and elsewhere have, it’s become obvious to me that one of the key principles in Braxton’s music and his person is a sense of generative-ness. Going beyond generosity (and he is generous), Braxton’s music gives to others so that they may do something with it.

As he said in an as-yet-unpublished interview (hopefully it will be available in early 2013), “the subject of students whom I work with is dynamic; it’s not so much the subject of my students (indeed, I’m lucky to know these people), but rather the subject is who are the people in the next time cycle that is coming up. If they’re talking about Braxton at 64, that means that Braxton isn’t the one – and I say that with love, a sense of humor, and a sense of urgency to complete my work.” In a sense it’s no longer about Braxton as a figure but contemporary travelers such as Mary Halvorson, Ingrid Laubrock, Katherine Young, Taylor Ho Bynum, Kyoko Kitamura, Anne Rhodes, and Josh Sinton. That’s not to say that Braxton isn’t a major shaper/contributor, but the focus is (or should be) on these young musicians and improvising composers who will be taking the music forward. Braxton may have opened the door, but he is not defining how the door looks or how musicians will proceed through it (or even what’s on the other side, to coin a favorite phrase of Steve Lacy’s).

Photo courtesy Chris Jonas

This fact was patently obvious on September 13 when the Tri-Centric Foundation and the Brooklyn performance space Roulette celebrated one year of working together with a night of Braxton’s music. Curiously, the opening set was dedicated to a format we haven’t heard Braxton utilizing in a while (at least to my recollection), a piano-less quartet. The group recalled Braxton’s 1970s/1980s groups with trombonist George Lewis in terms of its layout, though the music was quite different on a number of levels. Braxton was joined here by bassist Ken Filiano and a young Philadelphia pair, trombonist Daniel Blacksberg and drummer Mike Szekely, who are not yet well known in creative music circles (though that’s only a matter of time). Szekely is a light, swinging and fluid percussionist and Blacksberg is an effusively slick player, both garrulous and economical. As with any young-leaning group, there was a bit of hesitancy at times and one did get the feeling that there was a bit of natural deference to the ‘master,’ but this was primarily a music of giving – Braxton patiently encouraging the next generation(s) of players to take the music and see what happens with it.

The pieces (including some of Braxton’s lush Falling River Music) were rooted in contrasts and colors rather than outright propulsion, Blacksberg’s bass trombone holding down the lower end while Braxton’s sopranino saxophone eked out breathy and shrill statements. In some particularly rousing passages, higher-register trombone played off the comically gruff, low-register contrabass saxophone, leading into a delightfully comic vocal (what, you thought it was all serious?) exchange of low reeds and Blacksberg’s brass. There were also some beautiful, classic Braxtonian alto lines, slowly unfolding and Konitz-like, with echoes of chestnuts like “You Go To My Head” peeking out from the shadows. But aside from comically rousing exchanges on the contrabass saxophone, the reedman was not the center of attention over the course of the first hour – instead, it was a spare jovial collectivity where most of the work was in passing the baton to improvisers who would put their own stamp on the music in years to come. Even if it didn’t come off seamlessly (Filiano spent a lot of time goofing around with electronics and pedals rather than his generally more intriguing bass improvising), the music proudly stated its open-ended and generative themes.

Photo courtesy Chris Jonas

The second half of the concert was dedicated to the Diamond Curtain Wall music, employing the SuperCollider algorithmic composition program, along with a choir performing texts from the E section of Braxton’s Trillium operatic cycle. The composer’s role here was as conductor; the instrumentalists included reedman Josh Sinton, brass multi-instrumentalist Taylor Ho Bynum, harpist Maura Valenti and trumpeter Chris DiMeglio (also a chorus member). The choir consisted of Anne Rhodes, Kyoko Kitamura, Amy Crawford, and Michael Douglas Jones, who have been working with the choral and operatic music for some time. It’s a little bit harder to find words to discuss the text-based music because it’s so wrapped up in Braxton’s cosmology/philosophy. A lot of it has to do with concepts of space and how we interact with one another given different types of experiential loci – how we bond, how we make choices, and how events are understood in different iterations of space and time. Some of the things that I wrote down (ascertained from the choral parts) might give one an idea of the themes undertaken:
  • Paths
  • Speed limits
  • Stations
  • Directions
  • Strategies
  • Exits
  • Regulation
  • Navigation
  • Images
  • Policies
  • Local aspirations
  • Gates
  • Territories
  • Divides
  • Structures
  • Countries
  • Geography
  • Topography
  • Interference
  • Statements
  • Orders
  • Requests
  • Officials
  • Menus
If all this seems rarefied when divorced from the actual hearing/living of the work, well, that’s a natural response – it’s best experienced live. And in that sense the work came off beautifully – Braxton’s conducting of the ensemble cast the piece’s first bars into an auditory hall of mirrors, introductory long tones bent into a hyperbolic aural picture as he literally shaped the sound on stage. I can’t say I’ve ever heard or seen anything quite like it in the flesh (and I don’t have the speaker setup at home to truly hear things like Gruppen or some of Xenakis’ choral/orchestral works correctly). Instrumentally there were shades of Stockhausen and Berio, with Sinton’s flute bouncing off Valenti’s spiky and muted harp and the refractive electronic tones generated by SuperCollider. While the concepts borne out from the Trillium texts are themselves interesting and of importance, in practice they often blended together into a chattering polyphony that either reflected the complexities of the Tri-Axial system or subsumed the bearing of words and associated constructs to the overall sonic experience. To be sure, the composer’s hand was still quite evident in the work’s production, but there remained the feeling of warm-hearted unity that will see this music into the next time cycle.

It will be interesting to see how the Tri-Centric Foundation and Roulette continue to collaborate; even without the stamp of Braxton’s name, the space regularly presents diverse music by young improvisers and composers who are shaping our contemporary musical landscape. And while Braxton is certainly present in the scope of this broader enterprise, that is not to say there’s some sort of overarching “other figure” looming behind what someone like Halvorson or Bynum produces. Clearly it’s their own work, even as it might follow in the footsteps of those improvising composers and conceptualists who’ve come before. That’s what this music is built on, after all – but it’s fascinating to see the real time process of transference as it happens.

Tri-Centric Foundation (website) (facebook)