Monday, May 22, 2017

More Fun, Please: Paal Nilssen-Love at Oslo's Only Connect festival

Paal Nilssen-Love Extra Large Unit 
“more fun, please”
Only Connect Festival, Oslo
May 20, 2017

Anne Hilde Neset, the artistic director of the 5-year-old Only Connect Festival in Oslo, Norway, introduced Paal Nilssen-Love’s Extra Large Unit by saying that for years she’d been trying to get the drummer to “write more stuff down. For the final set of her final year with the festival, she got her wish. Nilssen-Love supplemented his 12-piece Large Unit with 20 students from the Norwegian Academy of Music to present a 30-minute suite of groove, humor and historical referencing. 

The players were spread across the floor of the Marmorsalen theater in the Sentralen – a posh, newly opened arts center in an old bank building near the city center – with scattered audience seating just beyond them, so that that players and spectators were very nearly sitting together. 

The piece, “more fun please,”  seemed an endless succession of cues and causation. It started after an extended silence with a trombone blast and a piano smash and then a quick scattering of isolated events until a vague arabesque emitted from a standing violinist. The blasts continued including from electronicist Tommi Keränen , Nilssen-Love’s secret weapon in the group. The violin dance seemed to soothe the beast – first one of the three pianos joined in and in short order everyone had followed into a quiet rumble.

There then followed a remarkable meditation for flute and two accordions (one in drone, the other seeming to pop reeds, if that’s possible) before Nilssen-Love began cuing unison blasts, which seemed to kickstart a vibraphone, playing something quicker but rather in keeping with the flute song. One of the student pianists started playing in opposition to the vibes but quIckly 180’d, then two drummers and four bassists pushing into free jazz territory. A cadre of horns stormed in and the Very Large Unit began to resemble (in sound, not size) the Cecil Taylor Unit that preceded it. 

Before one could ask the stale question about composition vs improvisation, they headed into a bit of circus music. Was Nilssen-Love teasing the question? Was he intentionally messing with the idea of composition in jazz by moving from a Taylor mode through a moment of Nino Rota and headlong into a Mingus-inspired subsection? Was he raising the hackneyed notion of live improvisation vs sterile documentation by having electronics and trumpet players cue separate halves of the band with vinyl records onto which written cues were taped: PAC-MAN; TEQUILA; BEAUTY; VOFF!; 8, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6; an arrow pointing upward, a cartoon of a ghost, or FUCK TRUMP (the last one being promptly smashed)?

There was, in any event, a score on a stand in front of each of the musicians, with pages combining traditional and graphic notation, and the players certainly referred to them at least some of the time, and do so there was something actually written down on paper. And from the faces of the students and Unit members after the piece concluded, there was fun to be had, and no doubt a wish for more.

- Kurt Gottschalk (text and photos)  

My report on the rest of the Only Connect festival can be read at I Care If You Listen.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

The Kentucky Derby is (Still) Decadent and Depraved

The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved
The Town Hall
May 5, 2017

Producer Hal Willner was a pilgrim in the field of the tribute album. His star-studded and slightly left of center dedications to Thelonious Monk, Kurt Weill and Disney movie soundtracks set the bar for curated compilation discs. But now and again, an effort of his has fallen through the cracks.

One such overlooked project is the 2012 record The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved, a sort of radio play based on an early Hunter S. Thompson article with actor Tim Robbins in the role of the drug-addled protagonist and music by Bill Frisell.

The record isn’t exactly lost treasure; as a narrative piece it doesn’t necessarily invite repeat listens like his albums built around musical bodies of work. But with a protagonists-narrator occupying the bulk of the spoken parts, it isn’t exactly a radio play, either.

The musico-gonzo journo fable found life onstage, however, on the night before the actual Derby in a production directed by Chloe Webb with Robbins returning get in the lead role and Willner, Frisell and band all onstage for the action.

After a screening of a Sherman and Mr. Peabody cartoon (from The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show) about the first Kentucky Derby and a newsreel about Seabiscuit, the players entered then, oddly enough, to Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky” over the sound system. 

The sprightly sextet of horns was pushed by drummer Gerald Cleaver through the overture, featuring each of the instrumentalists in quick succession. They then evoked the recognizable strains of “My Old Kentucky Home,” to which Robbins took the stage, towering over everything around him. Intoning Hunter S. Thompson quite admirably, he delivered Thompson’s essay with Willner, Webb and actor Brad Hall voicing incidental characters, the latter also fulfilling the role of illustrator/enabler Ralph Steadman. 

“We didn’t give a damn about the horses on the track,”  Robbins bellowed, Steadman’s illustrations for the original 1970 Scanlon’s Monthly story projected behind him. “We had come there to watch the real beasts perform.” The tone was set for their descent into the drunken derby, looking down their own drug-filled noses. Robbins stood easily against the other Thompson portrayers, Johnny Depp and Bill Murray, acing that insistent voice, like David Brinkley on the verge of a coronary. 

The action was compelling even if not altogether acted out, while Frisell’s music was a bit too full to call “incidental.” His themes were so familiar that even without his trademark guitar tone, the music (albeit played by longtime associates) was imminently recognizable as his. It was very present but not so much as to get in the way and all of the actors – Robbins certainly but even Wilner – gave powerful enough deliveries that they could rise above the jaunty soundtrack. At times, Doug WIeselman’s bass clarinet (revising the main theme without accompaniment at Steadman and Thompson’s first meeting, for example) pulled the scenes together where they might have lacked without stage set or costume. 

An instrumental section gave the band a chance to fly a little higher while Webb, in a grotesque pantomime horse head, traipsed down the center aisle and did a quick dance with Robbins. She returned in horsehead at the end, as Thompson (himself a Louisville native) dismissed his artist associate, seeming in his stupor to choose the derby-goers over the man who would become his closest working associate. “We can do without your kind in Kentucky,” he hollered, and then had a dance with the horse as if he were at last freed of the assignment.

When Frisell and WIlner’s record of the production first came out, it fell a bit flat, an interesting novelty but far from either of their strongest work. On Derby Eve at Town Hall, however, it was a winner. 

- Kurt Gottschalk (photos by Iain Toft)

Thursday, March 3, 2016

A Winter's Journey: Montréal en Lumière

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.

- Kurt Gottschalk

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.