Thursday, March 3, 2016

A Winter's Journey: Montréal en Lumière

by Kurt Gottschalk

Montreal seems, at least to an outsider looking in, like a city where one could declare a festival any week of the month and find events to stitch together into a program. (That, in fact, is more or less what I did when I went there in November for the premiere of Opéra de Montréal production of Strauss’ Elektra.) It’s a busy little city, one that likes doing things and isn’t about to let something like uninhabitable temperatures get in its way.
Photo by Frédérique Ménard-Aubin

Nothing makes that point more plainly than the 18-day Montréal en Lumenaire festival, where the thick-blooded and tall-booted Québécois take to the streets to prove that, even in February, they can. And in the midst of it all is the overnight Nuit Blanche, where they demonstrate their mettle with ice sculptures and ice candy and defy the elements with an outdoor slide, zip line and Ferris wheel. It’s a healthy bit of willful madness but then nobody has ever accused Montreallers of being altogether sane. Within it all there’s plenty of room to carve one’s own itinerary, as I did over the four days leading up to Nuit Blanche, with concerts of Bach, Haydn, Messiaen and Shostakovich bookended by a pair of Schubert performances.

The first of those was an evening of chamber works Feb 24 under the name “Spotlight on Shubert.” The concert delivered all the flurries of emotion, highs and lows, that the composer’s own short life held, from the charming String Trio No. 1 to the beguiling String Quartet No. 9, full of confidence and broken-heartedness, and culminating in the lyrically tender yet almost heroic Piano Trio No. 1. Schubert’s expressiveness is rarely of a single course and the musicians, especially the London, Ontario-based violinist Scott St. John, followed quite wonderfully.

The following night I was back at the Montreal Museum of Fine Art’s Bourgie Hall (in a beautiful,renovated 1894 Neo-Romanesque church) for a concert of Shostakovich and Haydn entitled From Darkness Into Light: Power and Introspection. A chronological presentation would not have been advised as it would have sent the audience out into the cold Montreal night after the crushing experience of the 14th of Shostakovich’s 15 symphonies. Written in 1969, when the composer was 63 years old, the symphony’s 11 dark movements (in many ways it’s closer to a song cycle) are settings of texts by Lorca, Apollinaire, Rilke and Wilhelm Küchelbecker, all addressing issues of death. 
With a row of candles across the front of the stage, the ensemble I Music de Montréal went for the drama, the opening movement beautifully delivered by Stephan Klemm, morose but with no excess of emotion. But most of the weight was on Twyla Robinson, who moved gracefully between soaring and nearly spoken lines. Scored for a small chamber orchestra, it was gorgeously quiet at times, percussion and pizzicato strings coming off in some passages almost like a walking ghost. The cycle ended with Robinson giving almost as plaintive a delivery as the Klemm’s opening song, then both singing Rilke to the heavens, the percussion firing like a pistol.

Hayden’s “Farewell” symphony is a comparatively friendly one. Despite being composed in the dark and altogether uncommon key of F#m, it’s hardly the chill of Shostakovich’s goodbye. It’s more a parting of friends who have no reason to think they won’t see each other again. The farewell Haydn had in mind was something else entirely, but still not a final separation. The third movement ends mid-phrase (rather like his equally appealing “surprise” quartet), suggesting the break and making room for the rousing final section. Haydn, who no doubt would have orchestrated the board game Clue had he lived into his 240s, wrote the piece for the benefit of the members of
Prince Nikolaus Esterházy orchestra, long overdue for a break. In the final movement, the orchestra members slowly blew out the candles they used to read their scores and walked off, symbolically leaving the summer palace and returning home to their families. The battery-operated candles at Bourgie Hall didn’t quite fill the role and instead the stage lights were slowly lowered as the players left the stage in pairs. The gently shifting string sextet, quartet, trio and duo that ended the piece is masterfully scored and the ensemble negotiated it seamlessly.

Montreal’s Arte Musica Foundation has undertaken a mission to perform the complete Bach cantatas over 2015 and 2016 and brought BWV 22, 97 and 150 to Bourgie Hall for a February 27 matinee. In allen meinen Taten (97) was especially wonderful with its sequences of bassoon/organ and violin/cello/organ accompaniments and concluded with conductor Andrew McAnerney turning and leading the audience in a repetition of the final section. 
Afterwards, it was a quick, 10-block walk to Cathédral Christ to hear two of Christianity’s greatest proponent composers, Olivier Messiaen and, well, more Bach. The Messiaen was served buffet-style, with works for piano, organ and voice (and why isn’t Messiaen heard more often in churches?) (besides the fact that it’s just crazy music). The highlight was the striking mezzo-soprano singing his Poèms pour Mi, accompanied by the young and more than capable Rahsaan Allwood, who also played the solo keyboard works.

Cathédral Christ kept its doors open late into the Nuit Blanche with sing-a-longs and hot cider, but immediately following the Messiaen program was a short recital of Bach’s solo organ music by the church's organist, Robert Hamilton. One of the many wonders of Bach’s organ work is that he seemed to find the greatest riches in the simplest of keys. Hamilton gave the wonderful Prelude and Fugue in C Major, BWV 547 a brisk reading followed by a nicely measured take on O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde groß, BWV 622 from his Little Organ Book.

Photo by Fred Poulin
My journey ended with Schubert's Die Winterreise, performed in French by Quebec City rocker Keith Kouna, formerly of the Quebec City band Ghouls. In a staged version of Kouna's 2014 record Voyage l'hiver, Kouna presented the song cycle as a Serge Gainsbourg bedroom drama with a small orchestra of piano, electric keyboards, electric guitar and bass guitar, strings, horns and accordion. Kouna occupied the center of the stage at the Place des Arts Cinquième Salle for three nights, residing in a sort of woodland bedroom with a mattress, a small writing desk and a haunted refrigerator on the forest floor. Kouna often played off a dancer who seemed sometimes to be his feminine ideal but other times dressed as him, either a reflection or a drunken hallucination. More often, however, he was alone on stage, not daring to wish (in his gravelly voice) for anything better than his sorry lot. 
It was a far cry from Schubert’s original but hardly suffered for the conceptual wear and tear. It was, in fact, a fairly fantastic updating, Schubert’s sick bed repositioned for an antagonist not dying but, perhaps, dead drunk. It was also the concert that provides a bridge into the festival at large, the bad movie screenings and the strip club cabaret that dominated the late night programming. Walking out into the chill of the night after the concert, I was faced with streets filled carousers, many perhaps ready to pass out in an outdoor bedroom not altogether unlike the one Kouna's protagonist called home.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Günter Baby Sommer's Intensities

Ulrich Gumpert / Günter Baby Sommer

Jesper Lødval / Günter Baby Sommer
Jesper Lødval / Günter Baby Sommer

Günter Baby Sommer / Savina Yannatou / Florian Floridis / Evgenios Voulgaris / Spilios Kastanis
Songs for Kommeno

It could be argued that to play free jazz well one must have – perhaps more than anything else – an intensity of focus, and that if one has that it can be applied to playing anything. In that respect, it’s not the freedom that makes (some) free jazz so exciting but the focus, so free, or jazz, may not even be what we’re concerned with when we talk about such masters of the form as Günter Baby Sommer.

As is the case with others who have successfully worked the supposed dichotomy between song and improvisation (not to mention the trichotomies and quadrichotomies) – members of the AACM and the ICP, for example – Sommer’s playing is not in the what but in the how, which allows him to play standards and dance syncopations without irony or revisionism and without not being himself. And that is what makes a record like Paloma an absolute joy.

Paloma finds Sommer paired with pianist Ulrich Gumpert for their second record of duets (following Das donnernde Leben from 2009). The two have also played together in Zentralquartett (with Conrad Bauer and Ernst-Ludwig Petrowsky) and other configurations over four decades. They are intuitive enough that it almost doesn’t matter what they play because it’ll be played with commitment. While most of the songs are original, they approach marching songs and hymns, hinting at Monk and Guraldi, solidly playing themes that in less certain hands could come off as corny. This in a sense is a challenge to the listener as well. The whole set builds toward the title track, an achingly familiar Spanish tune which they play with ease and deliberation. Firmly grounded in their own technique, they challenge the listener to accept simplicity and sing-song melodies. Giving them the benefit of the doubt will only lead to rewards.

That intensity of focus is what raises a sax/drum improv duo like Sommer’s self-titled pairing with Jesper Lødval (some 25 years Baby’s junior) above the bar. The post-Trane flurries which might be expected are present, but there are many discoveries going on here. A jaw harp / flute duet starts is initially amusing but quickly settles into a sort of trance. A piece entitled “Flight of the Flutes” seems filled with slide whistles and cowbells. And jazz classicism is given a nod with a sweet and slow ballad given the title “Billy Strayhorn.” There may not be much of new ground covered, but – again – the spirit is what sells it.

All of this in a sense (and at the risk of burying the lead) is just stage setting for Songs for Kommeno, which surely stands as one of Sommer’s finest achievements. The drummer assembled a quintet with four Greek musicians for this set of songs dedicated to the people of the Greek village of Kommeno and to the 317 people who died there under German occupation during World War II.

The disc comes with a 150-page book (in Greek, German and English) including a letter from the mayor of the village, an interview with Sommer and lengthy articles on the tragic history. Sommer recounts being invited to play a festival in the town and, upon learning the story, deciding he had to “take on this challenge.” He played the festival again the following year, all the while meeting officials and locals and absorbing the feel and background of the place.

The band he eventually put together to play for the project was an extension of his longstanding quartet with saxophonist Floros Floridis and bassist Spilios Kastanis. Added to that core is the dramatic vocalist Savina Yannatou (who has recorded for ECM and did a remarkable disc of duets with bassist Barry Guy on his Maya label) and Evgenios Voulgaris on tamburica and oud. The eight tracks are beautifully mournful, centered around Sommer’s 18-minute “Marias Miroloi,” which layers multiple melody lines over a marching drum cadence and folds in ghostlike speaking voices and frenetic passages of free jazz.

Sommer wrote five of the eight pieces, with two more from Voulgaris and one from Floridis. Voulgaris’s “Tears” opens the set with a plaintive saxophone melody dramatically underscored by a sort of rolling drone. His “Lullaby” maintains a somber spirit while providing an innocent respite, with Yannatou’s childlike interjections and a single bell giving a moment of calm. It’s followed by Sommer’s “Children Song,” with a repeated wordless couplet showcasing the precision of Yannatou’s voice. Floridis’s “Lost Ring” opens with a cinematic percussion solo before introducing another of the album’s memorable, quiet dirges, this time coupled on bass and soprano sax. The album ends on an upbeat note, with Sommer’s midtempo and fairly bopping “Kommeno Today.” The tune provides a hopeful resolution, but saying so shouldn’t imply that the album is so dire. It’s a beautiful piece of work, showing again the great products of Sommer’s intense focus.

- Kurt Gottschalk

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Roscoe Mitchell Across Five Decades

Roscoe Mitchell: Before There Was Sound (Nessa)

Art Ensemble: Early Combinations (Nessa)

Roscoe Mitchell: Numbers (RogueArt)

The story of the coming of age of the Art Ensemble of Chicago is one of the great tales of avant garde jazz, if not 20th Century American music. In a nutshell, Muhal Richard Abrams formed his Experimental Band on the south side of Chicago 50 years ago, which led to the development of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. Roscoe Mitchell was the first member of that organization to release a record, Sound, in 1966, and within a few years his band, the Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble, led a small pilgrimage from Chicago to Paris which also included Anthony Braxton, Leroy Jenkins and Leo Smith. During their two years in Paris, Mitchell and his ensemble met American drummer Famadou Don Moye and a promoter billed the band as the Art Ensemble of Chicago, putting a stamp on what would become one of the biggest and most successful experiments in jazz in the 1970s.

During that brief time in Paris, the Art Ensemble also recorded like mad and found labels willing to commit their work to wax. As a result, most of our aural knowledge of band’s early years comes from that prolific period in Paris. But while they weren’t yet “of Chicago” while they were still in Chicago, there were precursors. A year before the recording of Sound, Mitchell got together with trumpeter Fred Berry, drummer Alvin Fiedler and future Art Ensemble bassist Malachi Favors to record the eight tracks that see their first release on Before There Was Sound.

Mitchell hadn’t entirely come into his own by the 1965 session – there’s a strong Ornette Colemen influence heard here not just due to the instrumentation. No doubt part of what Mitchell saw in Coleman was the determined spirit of forging one’s own path, and the path Mitchell was to set out on is apparent on the album. The shifting, near-unison horns of Coleman’s quartet would of course become a feature of the Art Ensemble, played out in more dramatic and sometimes even comical ways. The titles here are mostly Mitchell’s (including two takes of “Carefree,” which would also be recorded by the Art Ensemble more than once, and “Jo Jar,” which would be recorded 25 years later by Mitchell’s 3x4 Eye Ensemble) but there’s a lovely, loping ballad by Barry and a rare composition by Favors. It’s also worth noting that if Mitchell hadn’t entirely come into his own at 25, he was still supremely capable of leading a strong session of distinctive music. Before There Was Sound may be a prelude, but it’s stands on its own merits.

By 1967, the Art Ensemble was starting to come together. Mitchell and Favors were playing with Lester Bowie and “Jo Jar” dedicatee Joseph Jarman, both of whom would be members of the longstanding quintet that came back from Paris. In September of that year, they recorded two demos (with Thurman Barker and Charles Clark supplying a second bass on one) to send out to European festivals. Those two tracks saw light as part of the 5 disc set Art Ensemble: 1967-68 (released by Nessa in 1993) and are available now on a single disc. The first of the two cuts, “A to Ericka,” shows the group already establishing its working methods, playing in distinct isolation and snapping together on tight themes, using shouts and song fragments, whistles and handheld percussion to broaden the scope of their sound and creating a feeling that anything might happen. It’s actually two pieces, the 22 minutes resolving in Jarman’s “Ericka,” another track that the classic AECO lineup would revisit more than once.

The second half of the disc is a piece of Jarman’s entitled simply “Quintet.” It opens with a strained solo by Bowie which resonates with the trademark AECO sound. A full eight minutes of horn-and-drum meditation is allowed before saxophones step up and Favors’ solid and soft-spoken bass slides underneath. A free blow is allowed to last only a few minutes before they shift down to another contemplation. It can be seen as foreshadowing much of Jarman’s career (which he has referred to as being the music of a peaceful and chaotic universe) ending in horn harmonies that reveal their free-reigning groupthink.

If the early members of the AACM were prescient in bringing new approaches for composition to the jazz idiom, Mitchell has been on the fore (along with Anthony Braxton, Henry Threadgill and a select few others) of continuing to push such strategies in the ensuing decades, even entering into the territory often called “classical.” Numbers collects a baker’s dozen small pieces, solos and duos for piano, strings, percussion and bass. Mitchell is only heard on one track, a beautiful duet with William Winant on percussion. Winant also frames the disc with the three part “Bells for New Orleans,” which nicely opens, closes and marks the midpoint of the record. Elsewhere the masterful pianist Joseph Kubera plays a wonderful duet with violinist Vartan Manoogian and accompanies baritone Thomas Buckner on three settings of e.e. comings verses, revisiting territory they had explored together before: Mitchell scored cummings texts for himself, Buckner, Kubera and Manoogian on his 1994 album Pilgrimage. Mitchell has a particular sensitivity for cummings, and for that matter seems to have a good touch in writing for Buckner, so it’s a welcome pleasure to hear more of that combination of forces.

Mitchell’s journey from “jazz” to “new music” has been a remarkable one, and one that can be witnessed this month when he presents a new solo saxophone piece, sharing space on a program with John Cage and Petr Kotik and the stage with Kubera as a part of the Beyond Cage festival. Perhaps the border-crossers are finally getting some land of their own.

- Kurt Gottschalk

A shorter version of this review appeared in the Nov. 2012 issue of the New York City Jazz Record.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Clockwatching: A Few Hours With Christian Marclay's Masterpiece

I had thought I'd write something about Christian Marclay's The Clock when it screened during the Lincoln Center Out of Doors Festival. I typed up the notes I scribbled in the dark and thought I'd get back to see more of it, but that didn't happen. With the announcement of December showings at the Museum of Modern Art, I decided just to post my notes, and add to them when I get to see more of the 24-hour collage. In a way, this seems more appropriate. The work is so subliminally cerebral, so disjointed and rejointed again, that immediate reactions seem just as relevant as polished prose. Or maybe in December I'll figure out what it was I was trying to say.

The Clock Diary


It’s a fascinating example of nonlinear storytelling in that b) it is not a story at all, although it both suggests and relies completely upon stories; and a) it is perhaps the most linear thing imaginable.

Time seems to stretch and contracts even while its passage is continuously being displayed. A five minute segment can feel like 10 while the next 20 fly by. We are made to be both acutely aware of and disconnected from the passage of time.

The tops of hours become magical, celebratory.

While there’s no storyline, it’s possible to get lost in the suggestion of story and for a scene of 5 or 10 or 20 seconds to pass only to realize you seem to have missed the only necessary condition (ie, of course, the clock).

Other scenes seem lost in the mix. Marclay at times cuts just before or after an edit in the original, leaving a seemingly orphaned clip that can’t always be placed.


I know some of the actors. I rarely know a movie. It would be such a different experience if I did. People laugh with recognition. I don’t want that recognition. I want this strange story where nothing ever stays the same, where I don’t have to try to understand because there is no understanding to be had, where I can just experience, float along, counting the minutes.

Funny thing: on the way in tonight I looked at my phone to note what time I was beginning this round. As if…

I would like to see all 24 hours, but I’m not kidding myself that I will.

I am aware of looking forward to midnight – that must be the most exciting moment of the work. But I wonder – what is the least exciting? Marclay said that 5-5:30 am was the hardest time to fill: The half hour that’s neither night nor day, before the first alarm clocks start going off. But does that mean that what does happen at 5-5:30 is boring? It’s not often the intention of directors to make boring movies. I wonder if anyone has just filmed a clock. Michael Snow, maybe, or Yoko Ono or Andy Warhol.

It seems as if with each passing hour things go from light to dark. :00 to :30 tends to be people enjoying themselves, doing frivolous things, comedies and romances. Things are fresh, new, in the process of becoming. :30 to :00 is about problems, finality, time is running out, the clock is ticking, you’re late, perhaps too late.

I try to think of times in movies that mean something to me. Certainly the radio alarm clock in Groundhog Day. I believe the opening Drew Barrymore scene in Scream. There must be some great “school’s out” scenes. And Metropolis, of course. Oh, and American Grafitti. I suppose it’s revealing something to say what heavily time-dependent movies I’m able to recall.

Ah, King of Hearts with Geneviève Bujold! I’d forgotten about that movie.

Midnight is great, of course. The top of each hour seems to be another turn for Marclay’s sound collaging. The whole 24 hours is, of course. But the tops of the hours are the rewards. It almost seemed like he downplayed midnight a bit though, went counterintuitive. Noon seemed a much bigger ordeal.

The amount of emotional import an actor like Shelley Winters can deliver becomes deeply apparent in a 20-second scene without context.

Oh, of course there’s After Hours. Dog Day Afternoon, Nightmare on Elm Street maybe.


I like the ways the cuts make people laugh. Not the laughter of recognition so much but the laughter of having continuity and incongruity mixed, of something being dropped in one scene leading to a body prone on the floor in the next, suggesting a causality that makes no sense.

Nice to see a bit of Basquiat, a touchstone in a sense for Marclay’s own work.

It also works as an homage to the timepiece itself, of course, probably one of the most wonderfully and variously designed of functional objects. I am, however, yet to see a Swatch or a sundial.

- Kurt Gottschalk

Friday, June 22, 2012

Eno in the Repertory

Icebreaker with BJ Cole

Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks was a lovely and easily overlooked oddity in the run of ambient music recordings Brian Eno released during the 1970s and '80s. Coming eight years after his first full album of ethereal, instrumental music, 1975's Discreet Music (he also experimented with the form in individual tracks on his pop album Another Green World that year), and featuring the same alien landscape cover art as the previous ambient releases, it was easy to assume Apollo was more of the dreamily beautiful same. And in fact, it was more or less more of the same. It's only with hindsight that we get to see the arcs and contexts into which albums fall.

Eno wasn't, of course, entirely divorced from pop music at the time. He'd been producing Devo and Talking Heads, among others, and was about to embark on a career changing job behind the board for U2. So despite all the atmospherics, he had still been hanging out around guitars. And the guitar was what made Apollo stand out in the ambient catalog. When he was asked to supply music for a film compiling NASA Apollo footage (which must have been a bit of a vindication, having already released an album of hypothetical film soundtracks), Eno made the kind of abstract association that is the root of his work's psychic character: He related space missions to the sounds of country music that he would hear through the static from distant radio stations as a youth in England. Like the Apollo rocket, those steel guitars floated through the air, defying gravity. In the end Eno's score wasn't used, but the slide guitar of Daniel Lanois figured prominently on the album.

The British new music chamber ensemble Icebreaker has revisited the album, taking something of the same approach the Bang on a Can All-Stars did with Eno's Music for Airports, that is to say taking music that was largely produced by electronic instruments and looped magnetic tape and arranging it for traditional instruments. But the similarities stop there. Bang on a Can's effort sho wed the muscle of their work. The four sections were arranged (each by a different composer from the collective) as if to exhibit the unplugged nature of the proceedings – there was no missing the point. With 12 members and amplified guitars, strings and keyboards in the lineup, they can come closer to the original. And without meaning to cast Eno as a Pinnochio they – like Bang on a Can's Airports – they have the warmth of a real band. Guest BJ Cole (who has played with T. Rex, Elton John, REM and the Moody Blues, among many others) takes the pedal steel parts on five of the thirteen tracks and plays them with a soft delicacy.

It's a fine record on its own accord, but it's also interesting to see Bang on a Can furthering their efforts to position Eno as a repertory composer by releasing Icebreaker's album on their own Cantaloupe Music label.

- Kurt Gottschalk

The physical release date is June 26, but you can stream the whole album below.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Mick Barr Gets All Fancy

The cross-breeding of classical and heavy metal is attempted far more often than it is successfully achieved, and all too often with brows arched instead of furrowed. The demands of technical proficiency make the marriage a natural one, but with rare exception the pairing results in one or both of the lineages being reduced to a shadow of a trope used to add a bit of class or irony to the other (see The Great Kat, Metallica's S&M, Ralph Macchio in Crossroads). The results are rarely stronger than the weaker element. Guitarist Mick Barr may be the man to bring the hybrid to a higher high. The two edges of his sword can be seen in the light of his being named one Guitar World's “50 Fastest Guitarists” in 2008 and receiving an unrestricted grant from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts in 2009. And with a commission from the Kronos Quartet and recent performances of his compositions by the ACME and Wet Ink ensembles, he is in any event poised to prove it or die trying. Barr's music doesn't fall squarely into the Headbangers Ball tradition, but he is a master shredder within the New Wave of Experimental Heavy Metal. As a member of the bone-crushing Krallice and the extreme minimalist duo Orthelm and in his solo projects Ocrilim and Octis, Barr has used his astonishing speed and precision to create some decidedly cerebral and fairly unprecedented metallic music. If there is a precursor to his work, it's the enigmatic Buckethead, the masked marvel who appeared in the 1990s to take metal's applied technique out of the rock-song format and perform it solo or with a drum machine. Barr too has laid down brain-melting solos without verse-chorus structure and alone or with a drum machine. But while Buckethead has crafted a nightmare fantasia of chickens, orphans and amusement park mortality, Barr's high-volume, high-tempo world is presented without irony or attitude. It is simply 5,000 notes right in your face right now.

Appearing with the contemporary chamber ensemble ACME at the Kitchen on May 12, Barr was interpreter, soloist and composer. The concert began with ACME and Barr playing Frederic Rzewski's 1969 composition Les Moutons de Panurge. The short score calls for “any number of musicians playing melody instruments and any number of nonmusicians playing anything” with individual notes in a 65-note line being removed upon each repetition. They gave the piece a tight and strictly metered read (even though Rzewski allows for imprecision in the score, noting that “if you get lost, stay lost.”). Barr played in a quick tremolo rather than relying on amplified sustain with an exactitude that has become a hallmark of his style.

His tremolo tremors continued through an unaccompanied solo improvisation that separated the Rzewski and his own scored piece, Acmed. For that piece, Barr employed a string trio and a similar language of quick syncopation on single notes and unison shredding interspersed with midtempo melody lines which were surprisingly romantic at times. It was exhilarating, even if a little much like a guitar solo, making scant use of the sorts of counterpoint of which the violin, viola and cello are capable. Close harmonies were built for moments at a time, slow legatos from one instrument would underscore the vibrations of the other two, but for the most part it was a fuselage of 16th notes. If Barr's intent was merely to abandon traditional string music for a more rockist attack (where rock music is so often about unison or near unison playing) then he succeeded while generating a high level of excitement.

Ten days later, Barr was up front at Roulette for the second night of the Wet Ink Festival of New American Music videoing a performance of his Landlore for saxophone, violin and piano on his phone. It was, perhaps unsurprisingly, another dense, single movement piece delivered in about a quarter of an hour, but this time working more with counterpoint and dynamic. It still had a shredder's repetitions but oftentimes the runs were passed between the violin and the saxophone with the piano sometimes playing single-chord interjections, other times playing passages which were downright conventional and quite lovely nevertheless. The repeating phrases modulated between keys almost as if something was bumping into them, growing bolder and slower all the while.

The greater disparity in instrumental voices seemed to serve Barr well, but there's an assumption implicit in that statement. If it's even fair (or not entirely meaningless, for that matter) to say that Barr is composing classical music, are there any rules or responsibilities that come with that task? It's a foolish question, a dishonest one even, because it's asked only in order to be shot down. But the question is out there nevertheless and gets asked of any “classical” crossover. Both of Barr's pieces were stimulating and well-received, and more importantly were true to the voice Barr has established over the years, without irony or attitude. It will be interesting to see how his Kronos commission – which will no doubt be of higher profile – is received. It will be more interesting to hear the music Barr comes up with.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Vagaries of Anonymity: On the New False Personal History of the Residents

After all these years – more than four decades, in fact – what kind of names would befit the most famously shrouded band in rock? Could they be Penn, Teller, Siegfried and Roy? Are they really the Beatles, a notion they flirted with in their early days, or are they Bingo, Bango, Bongo and Irving? What could possibly satisfy fans of the band who have long wondered about the real identities of San Francisco's weirdest denizens.

The band opened its 2010-2011 Talking Light tour (which came on the heels of their fantastic Bunny Boy project, during which someone who sounded like the one called the Singing Resident certainly seemed to show his face shrouded only by a thick beard and shop glasses) with a grinding dirge of a take on “Smelly Tongues” from their first record (1974's Meet the Residents) after which the frontman introduced himself, lacking neither pride nor drawl, as “Randy, lead singer for the Residents!” And he introduced the rest of the band! Keyboardist Bob and guitarist Chuck! At last the truth was … was what?

The Residents haven't just hidden their identities over the course of a long and rich career, they've played with the very idea of identity. After their early toying with the Beatles, they continued perpetuating the notion of a foursome, wearing four sets of the famous tuxedo and eyeball costumes or other matching and face-concealing get-ups even when there were up to six people on stage. In a surprising spoken passage during the 2002 Demons Dance Alone tour, however, they gave the veil a surprise piercing, with the Singing Resident announcing a desire for a manager who could get them back on MTV and in the process admitting to being a band – or this band, anyway – for the first time.

But last time out there were only three Residents onstage. At the outset of the show (which can also be seen on the new Talking Light: Bimbo's DVD from MVDvisual), there were only three. Carlos, Randy explained, had quit the band and gone home to Mexico. However much truth there might be in the names and band politics, Carlos's departure is probably best seen as setting them up for another round of storytelling, or story-within-a-story telling perhaps on a scale worthy of MacBeth.

This is exciting for true believers because the Residents are master storytellers. Despite the image they project, it's not all that helpful to think of them as a band. They are a storytelling troupe the likes of which has never been seen before. The Bunny Boy story was told through YouTube videos, live appearances and CDs, and the protagonist (a possibly fratricidal recluse) was even available for direct interaction through email and instant messaging. The Carlos story is just beginning to unfold, and true enough may never come to pass (leaving projects unfinished seems to be a part of the Resident aesthetic). But the liner notes to a CD available in limited numbers on the last tour added a little to the tale. The mostly instrumental (and fairly invigorating) record, which bears the mouthful title The Residents' Talking Light Presents Dolor Generar – Una Noche Lost en Van Horn, Texas: Pre-Show Music for the Talking Light Tour, contained a brief story in the notes. After Carlos quit the band, Chuck (or Charles, as he calls himself there) had apparently followed him to Texas where they met up at a bar. Carlos put something in Chuck's drink to pick him up after the long drive, and then a waitress gave Carlos a small box with rocks inside. He doesn't remember much else. He ends the short note by saying that he never figured out why Carlos quit the band.

If there is a plot, it thickens with the new release The Residents Present Sonidos de la Noche: Coochie Brake. The album concerns the kids who grew up to become the Residents exploring the backwaters of their native Louisiana, and is sung almost entirely in Spanish. But more surprising than the language is the fact that it isn't the Singing Resident doing the singing. Vocal credits go to drummer Carlos this time with Chuck on keybords and Bob on guitar. Songwriting and performance credits go to “The Residents / Sonidos de la Noche” and Randy is thanked, making this perhaps the first album where Singing Resident Randy doesn't appear. It also may not be. He doesn't play an instrument on stage, and there have been a number of instrumental Residents records, but this is one of the the first times they've given individual performer credits (they never had names before the last couple years) and the first time they've pointed out that the band was something other than the foursome.

Meanwhile, somewhere perhaps just south of reality, Randy Rose was concerning himself with the story of a friend named Sam. While Bob, Chuck and Carlos were recording songs about their youth in Louisiana, and while Chuck was chasing Carlos through Texas, Randy was workshopping a new production called Sam's Enchanted Evening, first in San Francisco and then over four nights in New York. On March 24 at Abrons Arts Center in Manhattan's Lower East Side, Randy – with the help of a pianist and an actress in the role of a nonverbal cocktail waitress – put on a revue of a couple dozen pop hits stitched together to tell the story of an alcoholic Vietnam vet who stumbles into a bar to celebrate his birthday by exorcising his demons. It's essentially a one-man show – the pianist and the waitress contribute to the action but don't have lines – for the Singing, or perhaps the Acting, Resident. Sam is not a warm character. He's a racist and his homophobia seems to run through a strong current of denial. Over the course of the 90-minute show, presented without intermission, Sam didn't become any more likable, but he did become a sympathetic figure. And while the only music was the piano and an occasional banged cooking pot, the songs (including “Ode to Billy Joe,” “Sixteen Tons,” “Windmills of Your Mind” and “Livin' la Vida Loca”) came off as pure Residents. Through the strength of the Singing Resident's powerful rasp and assured stage presence, Sam's Enchanted Evening was, if not a rock show, still a Residents show.

All of this recent activity comes as the band is poised to mount another tour. The band that only toured three times in its first 25 years has come in recent years to do so almost annually, and to use the practice of touring as a tool in cross-platform storytelling. As of this writing the band is preparing for its 40th Anniversary tour and seems to have several stories underway. Is the story of Carlos's departure setting the stage? The band has only done two “greatest hits” tours; the rest have all been stageplays, operas of sorts. And there must be a reason for them to have decided to use individual names for the first time in 40 years, names which don't seem to be real. As pointed out on the Residents Lovers forum (, Chuck has been credited with the last name Bobuck, giving him the one name you can't use in the children's song “The Name Game.” But there's a reason they're using names now. And there's a reason they're introducing band politics to the storyline. And whatever that reason is, it's not about revealing their identities.

Despite their newfound naming, Demons Dance Alone remains their most revelatory and direct work. If it's not their strongest musically, it does have an infectious, repeating theme. The double disc version released by Mute furthers the revelations, more intimately so than their current tactics. “The first thing one needs to know about about THE RESIDENTS is that there are no RESIDENTS,” according to the unsigned liner notes to the release. “'It all started in 1972 when four people with little direction and less talent decided to start band.' Now the lies begin … or do they? […] The band not only had no faces, genders, or names, THE RESIDENTS had no personalities. […] If no one claims to be a RESIDENT, doesn't that mean everyone is a potential RESIDENT? Don't we all get their mail?”

As their play within a play within a play reaches its 40th anniversary, we can all revel with them. For there are, indeed, no Residents. Neither Randy nor Chuck nor Carlos nor Bob. And we, we are all Residents.

Text and cell phone photo by Kurt Gottschalk

Here's a rough video from one of the San Francisco shows. It looks like there was more staging in New York, at least from this glimpse.