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.