Tag Archives: music from Los Angeles (California – USA)

An American summer/fall tour for The Collection and Lowland Hum

20 Aug
the Collection tune up...

the Collection tune up…

Today the Collection begin a two-month American tour. Veering mostly around the South, the Midwest, the West Coast and the Pacific North-Western states, it takes in (bar a mid-tour rendezvous with the Viper Room in Los Angeles) the kind of intimate, audience-engaging venues I’d love to discover on an American road trip of my own – assorted music bars, small theatres, coffee shops. This is in keeping with the band’s stated ethos – based in Greensboro, North Carolina, the Collection describe themselves less as a band and more of “a community of artists, nurses, farmers, students, and everyone in between doing life together.” According to bandleader David Wimbish, “we don’t want fans, we want family. It’s incredible to us that people would even listen to our music, and it’s so much more important for us to connect with those people than to figure out how to get fans.”

The second Collection album, ‘Ars Moriendi’, was released last summer but only crossed my ears recently via a brief and now-expired Noisetrade offer (you can still go there and pick up a free sampler if you want to). I love discovering inspiring records by accident, and ‘Ars Moriendi’ is one of the more emotionally commanding works I’ve heard for a good while. Swelling up from a core of seven people to as many as twenty-five on record, the Collection dip into rock, folk, gospel, barndance, bluegrass, soul and mariachi. Adding banjo, brass, strings, reeds, autoharps, and didgeridoos to the usual pianos, guitar and drums results in a heady grand-medicine-show of a sound.

This in itself isn’t new. There are plenty of expansive Americana folk-rock ensembles peppered with diverse instrumentation; and (either by coincidence, intent or just common feeling) the Collection echo strains of music which we’ve already heard via The Polyphonic Spree, Arcade Fire, Sufjan Stevens and Guillemots; not to mention The Band and Mercury Rev, or the reedy, distracted, keening tones David shares with Damien Rice. What gives them the Collection their particular edge is the driving verve and commitment with which they play. Despite their hollering utopian tendencies of their singalongs they’re unconcerned with party robes or cute, culty psychedelic trappings. Instead, their music is imbued with communitarian impulses and a fumbling, ever-hopeful sense of personal connections.

Integral to this is the band’s Christianity. Almost every one of David Wimbish’s songs is studded and seeded with Biblical allusions and resonances, yet he’s never rendered complacent and conformist by his faith. Rather, he’s caught up in it – a tender-hearted radical questioning and examining his beliefs, challenging his own conscience and the orthodoxy, compelled to decry the church’s seams of bigotry and exceptionalism whenever he stumbles over them. At the same time, David is clearly fascinated by the church’s central mystery of life renewed, setting it (with some pain and trepidation) against the deaths of friends and family that cut grief-lines into his songs and filter both darkness and weight into the Collection’s music. Like me, you don’t have to actually be a believer to be moved by David’s explorations and exhortations as he travels from exuberance to despair, from buoyant encouragement to audible tear-swallowing. After all, the best Christian music is always a little wracked and cracked: something in which their faith reveals people to themselves, and perhaps a little more of their humanity to others.

 

On this tour, the Collection will be accompanied by two of their Greensboro compatriots – husband-and-wife duo Daniel and Lauren Goans, a.k.a. Lowland Hum. Fond of the intimacy of house concerts, they ought to make a good foil and complement to the Collection’s inclusive spirit. Hopefully Daniel and Lauren will get the chance to carry out their usual immersive, synaesthesic gig experience – staging and dressing the playing environment with props and essential oil burners, passing out hand-bound lyric books to their audience, and generally eliding the boundaries between the many ways a person can experience a concert.

Lowland Hum get immersed (photo by Griffin Hart Davis)

Lowland Hum get immersed (photo by Griffin Hart Davis)

Even if not, there’s still the music from their eponymous debut album (released in April this year) to consider. ‘Lowland Hum’ is an enthrallingly American art-pop record in which country-duo harmonies and Atlantic folk guitar intertwines with multi-instrumental Portishead/Mandalay trip hop, and in which songs flick unsettlingly between sports arena scale and backyard porch intimacy in the space of a breath. Lyrical preoccupations (fragmented but lucid) span ageing, the shifting internal perspective of growing and growth, or suburban disassociations; or cover the life of Toulouse-Lautrec in ten short scattered lines.

Sharing voices, instrumentation and production between them, Lauren and Dan sometimes seem to phase in and out of each other (as on Rolling And Rolling, a touching first-person meditation on a boy’s budding adolescence on which both singers take turns to voice his slipping thoughts). Similarly, they move through genres like purposeful ghosts. A song like Jack Of Hearts (a study of the dangers of power and charisma) can begin as a country cautionary, fray into psychedelic folk, clatters its sticks into complications and end up as a layered ambient march.

 
On a couple of dates the Collection and Lowland Hum will be joined by other performers. In Birmingham, Alabama, they’ll be playing with folk-rock trio War Jacket (who describe themselves as both warm and haunted, like their hometown); in San Francisco by Gothic-tinged chamber-pop crooner (and Stephen Merritt collaborator) Jon DeRosa; and in Greely, Colorado by both the Denver art-and-music collective Giants & Pilgrims and the outlaw-country cowpunker Matt Davis.

 

 

 

 

Full tour dates below:

  • Ashland Coffee and Tea, 100 North Railroad Avenue, Ashland, Virginia, USA, Thursday 20th August 2015
  • Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar, 414 E Main St, Charlottesville, Virginia, USA, Friday 21st August 2015
  • Hanesbrands Theater @ Milton Rhodes Centre for the Arts, 251 Spruce Street North, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, USA, Saturday 22nd August 2015
  • Local 506, 506 West Franklin St, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, USA, Sunday 23rd August 2015
  • The Pour House, 1977 Maybank Highway, Charleston, South Carolina, USA, Monday 24th August 2015
  • The Camp House, 832 Georgia Avenue, Chattanooga, Tennessee, USA, Wednesday 26th August 2015
  • Eddie’s Attic, 515 North McDonough Street, Decatur, Georgia, USA, Thursday 27th August 2015
  • The Nick, 2514 10th Avenue South, Birmingham, Alabama, USA,
    Friday 28th August 2015
    (supported by War Jacket)
  • The Beatnik, 615 Toulouse Street, New Orleans, Louisiana, USA, Saturday 29th August 2015
  • Common Grounds, 1123 South 8th Street, Waco, Texas, USA, Sunday 30th August 2015
  • (House Show), 407 Mignon Lane, Houston, Texas, USA, Monday 31st August 2015 (ticketed – apply via link)
  • Mohawk, 912 Red River Street, Austin, Texas, USA, Wednesday 2nd September 2015
  • The Viper Room, 8852 West Sunset Boulevard, West Hollywood, Los Angeles, California, USA, Sunday 6th September 2015
  • Hotel Utah, 500 4th Street, San Francisco, California, USA, Wednesday 9th September 2015 (supported by Jon DeRosa)
  • Fremont Abbey, 4272 Fremont Avenue North, Seattle, Washington, USA, Friday 11th September 2015
  • Kelly’s Olympian, 426 SW Washington Street, Portland, Oregon, USA, Sunday 13th September 2015
  • Old Nick’s Pub , 211 Washington Street, Eugene, Oregon, USA, Tuesday 15th September 2015
  • Reef, 105 South 6th Street, Boise, Idaho, USA, Thursday 17th September 2015
  • The Dawg Pound, 3550 South State Street, Salt Lake City, Utah, USA, Saturday 19th September 2015
  • Moxi Theatre, 802 9th Street, Greeley, Colorado, USA, Monday 21st September 2015 (supported by Giants & Pilgrims, Matt Davis)
  • Downtown Artery, 252 Linden Street, Fort Collins, Colorado, USA, Tuesday 22nd September 2015
  • Hi-Dive, 7 South Broadway, Denver, Colorado, USA, Wednesday 23rd September 2015
  • The Tank Room, 1813 Grand Boulevard, Kansas City, Missouri, USA, Thursday 24th September 2015

Woven in and out of this tour, Lowland Hum will be playing some separate headlining dates of their own (shared, on one North Carolinan occasion, by church-and-country songwriter Josiah Early).

  • Horizon Records, 2-A West Stone Avenue, Greenville, South Carolina, USA, Tuesday 25th August 2015
  • Westmont College, 955 La Paz Road, Santa Barbara, California, Saturday 5th September 2015
  • Old Orchard Church, 640 Amelia Avenue, Webster Groves, St Louis, Missouri, USA, Saturday 26th September 2015
  • The Grey Eagle, 185 Clingman Avenue, Asheville, North Carolina, USA, Sunday 25th October 2015 (supported by Josiah Early)

 

The Collection/Lowland Hum, summer/fall US tour 2015
 

 

Jim Lampi plays in London: Balham tonight, Putney at the end of the month

15 Jun

A quick note, since this is at very short notice. Jim Lampi, singer-songwriter and arguably the world’s best Chapman Stick player, is surfacing for two rare gigs in London this month… one of them tonight. Jim Lampi The Chapman Stick is often known as a technician’s instrument – studied polyphony, smooth jazz, fingertapping extravaganzas. While Jim’s more than capable of all that there’s also a rootsy joy to his musicality, born from curiosity, a subtle musical restlessness and a diverse if low-key career. He’s played with people as diverse as Michael Manring, Courtney Pine and in particular the late John Martyn, for whom he was an occasional bandmember. The latter looms large in Jim’s own recent songwriting, which is full of dreamy slurs and elastic timing and sung in a weathered voice that’s part Martyn and part Leon Redbone. Watching him play, even in short bursts, is a joyous experience.

Live @ The Bedford, The Bedford, 77 Bedford Hill, Balham, SW12 9HD – Monday 15th June – 8.00pm, free event.

Jim plays at the resident singer-songwriter night, alongside three other singer-songwriters: Brendan Cleary, Josh McCartney and Robert Kennedy – full details here.

The Half Moon, 93 Lower Richmond Road, Putney, London, SW15 1EU, UK, Monday 29th June – 8.00pm, £8.00-£10.00.

Jim plays a support slot for the acclaimed John Martyn tribute band The Glorious Fools. More details here, and get tickets here.

REVIEW – January 2015 singles, part 3 – Hypenkrünk, Low Low Low La La La Love Love Love, Grayhound O.C.D., danny0, Sea Change

16 Feb

I finished with a sex rap last time, and I’m picking up with another one now, although the rich fantastical swirl which Appalachian crew Hypenkrünk indulge on ‘Clitmatist’ lies far over the mountains from Ardamus’ down-to-earth D.C.-based romantic farces. Forty years in, one of the joys of hip hop’s current universality is that anyone can wallow in its rich sea of roleplay. In this case, stocky thirtysomething white guys from Tennessee who look like pro wrestlers get to pose as love gods. “Keeping it real” was always a wobbly concept for hip-hop: let’s just go with the dance of masks for a moment.

We’ve had dirty South for a while. This is mountain-man smut, with a swirl of German oscillators. For much of the ‘Clitmatist’ video, rapper Realtree (pallid stony-faced expression, magician’s robe, and whiskers that are part kung-fu-villain and part backwoods outlaw) lovingly serenades an only-just-offscreen vulva. He’s armed with ouija board, hypnotist’s watch, and a lubriciously loaded tongue. Explicit promises roll off the latter in a drench of hip hop wordplay (“Stow that hidden treasure packed away upon a shelf / You could never reach it – I think that I can help… / I would have brought some flowers but I’m here to smell yours,”) and down-home Southern innuendo. The words crawl over a billowing duvet of mongrelised electronica: some whining G-funk synth, Hawkwind gizmo dabbles and an undulating mattress of Berlin School sequencer. A discreet psychedelic guitar glints and swells as part of the ensemble. While nobody’s looking it sneaks out a sitar impression, as if furnishing a ‘70s-themed shag-pad.

In between glimpses of Realtree’s cartoon crib, stoned shots of trees claw the sky. A second Hypenkrünker shows up as a Charon figure. As fat, bald and impassive as a Turkish masseur in a peep-show (and poling his punt down a misty vagina-pink Styx), he’s a living “man-in-the-boat” gag who, at one point, shares a raunchy topless man-massage with Realtree. The Hypenkrünk PR promises essay on duality, alternate worlds, evolved consciousness and animal nature, and the lyrics drop references to stargazing and meditating as well as mystic rides; but right now our potential guru (when not rhyming “Kundalini” with “bikini”) seems more concerned with urging his date to “spread it like a flying squirrel.”

OK, you’re probably snorting your drink out of your nose by now. All of this is a joke, at least on one level. The players are moonshiners and moonlighters, coming in from assorted east Tennessee electronica, prog and psychedelic projects as well as from hip hop; while both in and out of the video, there’s a tinge of good-natured, low-budget, storytelling porn (tacky costumes, audience complicity, and all). But even as they rip the piss out of slutty-Romeo raps, whacking-material traditions and cosmic posturing in sound and vision alike, (“I am the saviour / of your l-l-labia – / I’m gonna see you on your worst behaviour, freaky neighbour,”) there’s an authentic tang to both Hypenkrünk’s trippy vapours and their juicier ends. As a self-styled master of sex Realtree’s clearly devoted to the task – from end to end, the song’s entirely and exclusively about serving female pleasure – and as musicians Hypenkrünk sink themselves deeply, devotedly into every genre they love and pillage. Filthy, sweaty, trippy, and even tender… at least, this time round.

* * * *

Conversely, it’s the last time around for Derbyshire alt.pop brothers Low Low Low La La La Love Love Love, but on their final single they’re speaking up for the bemused and frightened beast in people. Initially, ‘Burrow’ comes across like The Walker Brothers heard through a static storm, or like Phil Spector hauling My Bloody Valentine back into the ‘60s. Drums boom like warehouse crates, tubular bells are smacked: a cavernous crooning blur of backing vocals rides the swagger and swells like a sailor’s choir, while guitars shrug off a gluey sonic trail and a slow low-tide lick of quiet frying noise. Kelly Dyson’s vocals are nasal and poppy, while the words they’re singing are pitched between nightmare and compassion – “The weight of fears above the burrow, / of teeth and fur and blood / I clear my throat at a circle of sky / from the back of the hole I dug.”

It’s a singalong rabbit siege; a fatalistic, cowering gnash back at life’s terrors, a last burst of resistance before fate takes shape and takes hold. (“Maybe I’ll bolt out into the snare / from the back of the hole I dug. / And feel the cold metal wire tear / at the fur and skin and sinew around my throat.”) You can’t help thinking that the latterday Scott Walker, looking back over his own post-crooner gnarls of cruelties and complications, would tip his baseball cap in approval at the Low Low efforts, as well as the way they interweave animal behaviour and human anxieties. “I’ll lay and watch the long migrations / and envy the southward bound formations. /All the world performs the same motions / as I choke and wretch and spit and curse at my complications.” After the recording sessions were over, one of the Dysons immediately quit the band and Derbyshire, and lit out for London. Presumably he ducked the snare. Let’s hope he escapes the city predators.

The B-side, ‘Stop Spinning the Birdcage’ drops the fuzz drapes and the timpani booms for a brace of acoustic guitars and syrupy West Coast harmonies. Until banjo, bass and noisy lead guitar (all squeak and corrosion) work their way in (gradually sickening and splintering the song into disorientation) it sounds like an unplugged Byrds on the cusp of psychedelia, with the voices keeping their candy throughout. From the start, though, sunny, stoned-love-song intentions are hijacked by morbid distractions – “butterflies all around her eyes / I wonder when she makes up her eyes / if she draws blood?” – and its lazy and blissful carnality ends up hopelessly confused (“My eyes are carnivores / I’m thinking which bit of her face I should have first. / Little mouth or little nose? / I wonder, should I kiss it / or should I eat it whole?”).

Yet there’s no malice, no self-conscious weirdness to it: While a songwriter like Momus would have had a detailed and literate field day with this kind of polymorphous perversity, the Dysons are content to leave it as a passing blip. A sprained acid hiccup on a day for canoodling, a momentary surfacing of something more animal. A good, ever-so-slightly provocative note to go out on.

* * * *

There are no such peculiar moments (or quivering perspectives) with Grayhound O.C.D., despite their goofy name. They play straight modern rock throughout: the U2 root-note pulse in the bass, the sugar-frosted piano picking its way lightly through the chords, the choral synths. The guitars have that caressing thresh we know from Coldplay – gauze-wrapped shoegaze thunder, honed down from trance-inducer to aural duvet. Frontman Gray calls his girlfriend a “shining star” and – in the video – loiters theatrically at the tops of castles and by the side of lakes, staring meaningfully at imaginary horizons like a Thor-bearded Bono-in-waiting. He seems oblivious to the fact that the weather has seriously let him down (staying resolutely nice and clear when it could have had the decency to whip up a quick squall or dramatic cloud) or that maybe there’s another tour party waiting to squeeze past on the battlements.

In other words, everything’s in place but the actual drama, underlining how contrived and calculated the band are. I let Hypenkrünk off their own contrivances, thanks to their wit: I’m less inclined to do the same for a band apparently poised to snatch up any tour or festival gaps left by touring Anglophone acts. Yet for three minutes they almost have me. Maybe Gray wins his day pass simply because it makes a change to hear an inflated arena-rock package with a soft-sung German accent rather than a simpering high-volume falsetto. Maybe it’s the superb, sensual production that buffs everything up to the glossy, summer-storm sheen of mid-‘80s Simple Minds (a sound I’ve always loved, even when the mighty winds curdle to warmed-over gassiness). Perhaps its the simple pleasure to be had by hearing assured musicians hit their mark and keep the rhythm bounding – a perpetual mid-air freeze-frame.

I also suspect that none of my skepticism is going to stop boys from Hamburg to Vienna snogging their girlfriends to this one from now till early summer. They’ll probably also be breaking up and making up to the B-side, Alone – its dark-toned modal guitar figure offering a bit more of the meat and sours. Still, it’s not long before Gray is pledging to plunge into deepest seas and climb highest mountains. Pass, pal.

* * * *

Even while he’s working on bright young Los Angeles neo-soul with Idesia, or dipping into African fusion pop with Izinde, bass playing producer Daniel Oldham carries around a pocketful of other projects. When he’s nurturing his dance svengali side, he’s danny0, with a debut single pursuing a darker, more twisted side… or so he says. It’s co-written and sung (with poise and operatic smoulder) by Anna Delaria of Anna & The Static, who – like Daniel – seems to be looking for the diva-frowns and broody depths that her day band doesn’t seem to offer.

It’s almost a pity that ‘Fire’ is so cute – a slinky haunch of electronic R’n’B hanging from a fingersnap and great stomping blocks of fuzzy synthesizer. There are probably too many songs with that particular title (a magnet for posturing and duff lyrics). True to form, some of the words here wobble as Daniel and Anna toy with images of flames, menace and insouciance, some of which slip through their fingers. Anna, however, never loses her step. Strutting and ducking through the keyboard slams, she sells the song like a haughty Liza Minnelli.

Daniel’s production seals the deal. He seems eager to confess a debt to Rich Costey and Kimbra, but in truth this is his own beast, full of glowing slithering detail, ghost-orchestra arabesques and some subtle rug-pulling. Like the massive pixellated orange explosions in old video games, two-dimensional blossoms of blurred expansive sound belly out in great fan-dancing puffs, covering up a few shortcoming as they go. ‘Fire’ isn’t perfect, but as Anna rides it around the dance floor on its fat hairy tentacles, trailing a veil of flickering embers, you could easily forget that it isn’t.

* * * *

Even on her singles, Ellen Sunde (a.k.a. Sea Change) doesn’t showboat or swagger. Instead, she deliquesces. The blooping bedroom-pop of ‘Squares’ is both epic and introverted – a small constellation of freezing glows and vapours and the impatient blat of cheap drum programmes, with her small, sighing sob of a voice nestled at the heart of it, a warm breath on ice slurs.

In some respects Ellen resembles her fellow Norwegian, Anja Garbarek, working within a modest, birdlike sound and a haunted sketchbook, grappling with ghostly nervy ideas. In other respects, she’s whittled down the ideas of Kate Bush’s jarring, demonic ‘Get Out Of My House’ from primal screams to a flinching dodge. You could call it dream pop if it wasn’t so wide awake and bug-eyed. Far from heavy-lidded narcosis, this is dream-sharpened wakefulness and sometimes it hurts.

‘Squares’ is neurotic, fearful and ultimately brave. At times it sounds like an existential crisis wrapped in fairy lights (“just go inside, oh just go inside me / There’s no-one here”), but it’s mostly a crisis of confidence (“If I go there with you I will not be safe / All that lives inside me, all that you can see./ If you knew what I was – a frozen me, / what grows inside me – / then you’d let it go.”) Batting aside help, Ellen’s her own haunted house, her own jailor. Also, it seems, she’s her own salvation, instinctive and unpredictable, ready to burst shackles and flee without plans. “So don’t look back, don’t look back. / Out of this place, out of this house – / ‘cos if I don’t go there, / oh then my feet run, my feet will bring me there / My feet will run all they can.”

Trying to grasp at the song seems to melt it – it won’t keep a solid shape, it won’t provide a firm conclusion. Is this about self-hatred or about fervid, elusive independence? Resolving one’s own terrors, or bolting from them by panic and chance? “Save yourself first,” advises Ellen, towards the end of the song. She could be addressing a loved one, or herself: it could be nobility, or a covert brush-off. Sea Change offers transformation of circumstance and state, but also a fluttering ambiguity. Nothing is mapped out. I’m alarmed. I’m fascinated.

Hypenkrünk: ‘Clitmatist’
El Deth Recordings (no catalogue number or barcode)
Stream-only single (released 28th January 2015)

Low Low Low La La La Love Love Love: ‘Burrow’
Audio Antihero/Other Electricities (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download-only pay-what-you-like single (released 26th January 2015)

Grayhound O.C.D.: “And I Love You”
Khb Music/Timezone Records (no catalogue number or barcode)
CD/download single (released 16th January 2015)

danny0: ‘Fire’ (featuring Anna Dellaria)
danny0 (no catalogue number or barcode)
Stream-only single (released 27th January 2015)

Sea Changes: ‘Squares’
Sea Changes (no catalogue number or barcode)
Stream-only single (released 20th??? January 2015)

Get them from:

Hypenkrünk: ‘Clitmatist’ – stream from Bandcamp or YouTube, or download from Bandcamp, iTunes or Amazon as part of ‘Lords of Rap, Volume 1: Just Da Tip’ album.
Low Low Low La La La Love Love Love: ‘Burrow’ – Bandcamp.
Grayhound O.C.D.: ‘And I Love You’ – iTunes or Amazon.
danny0: ‘Fire’ (featuring Anna Dellaria) – stream-only via Soundcloud.
Sea Change: ‘Squares’ – stream-only via Soundcloud.

Hypenkrünk online:
Facebook Twitter Soundcloud Bandcamp YouTube

Low Low Low La La La Love Love Love online:
Homepage Facebook MySpace

Grayhound O.C.D. online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace YouTube

danny0 (Daniel Oldham) online:
HomepageSoundcloud

Sea Change online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Soundcloud

REVIEW – Marty Walker: ‘Dancing On Water’ album, 2001 (“a leading light in bass clarinet”)

19 Sep
Marty Walker: 'Dancing On Water'

Marty Walker: ‘Dancing On Water’

Blowing thick darkness, cheery reed-chatter and diva moans with equal facility, Marty Walker has earned himself a New Music name as a leading light in bass clarinet. Over eighty pieces by diverse composers have been written specifically for his particular gifts, and he’s effectively the in-house reedsman for many of the “California school” cadre of composers. For ‘Dancing On Water’ – his first release under his own name on Cold Blue Music – the California school returns the favours. Works from five of its members – the blissful voice-music of Daniel Lentz, the plotted-out ellipses of Michael Byron, Jim Fox’s expansive impressionism, Michael Jon Fink’s lonely, romantic grace-of-few-words and Peter Garland’s percussion-slanted Native American leanings – all juxtapose in different ways with different aspects of Marty’s interpretative approach.

On several of these pieces, Marty gets to stow away his bass clarinet (along with all of its invites to the New Music party) and bring his B-flat clarinet out from under its cousin’s shadow. The close-up duets of Peter Garland’s two-part Dancing On Water sets Walker down next to William Winant and David Johnson’s four-handed marimba. The music neatly folds Mexican folk melodies into minimalist discipline: the marimba clinks with sharp solemnity, both childlike and gamelan-esque. It’s a wily dance of toys, slicing the simple cadences up with unpredictable yet precise spaces. While the clarinet traces similar curves up through the arpeggios, Marty invests it with warmth plus infinitesmal bluesy slides and fades from small-group jazz: a wink in the midst of discipline. Moonlight is the meditation afterwards – a tremolo marimba twinkling like water underneath a much sleepier, dreamier clarinet, Marty coaxing utter expressiveness out of Garland’s clipped material.

Marty Walker: 'Dancing On Water; (30-second excerpt)

On Daniel Lentz’s efflorescent Song(s) Of The Sirens, Marty’s ten overdubbed clarinets are matched by ten overdubbed pianos (played by Bryan Pezzone, another Cold Blue loyalist). But rather than being slaved to a rigid percussive regimentation, all twenty instruments are worked into Lentz’s familiar fascination with overlaid, overlapping vocal fragments. A sensuous undulation of slightly disfocussed pitches are linked by Pezzone’s summery, waterfalling spirals of virtuoso piano; a squadron of tiny icicles falling on the ear.

Amy Knoles’ sighing, narcotised voice (doppelgangered and folded into blurry harmonies and elisions, stacked like sated bodies) provides the siren’s role. This reaches us as a meandering stream of single spoken words – “lips”, “let”, “love”, “air”, “sweet”; “to”, “our”, “listen”, “touch”, “voices”, “you” – all of which are lifted and displaced from their sentences, suggesting an erotic, subliminal hypnosis. As digital manipulation slowly brings the intent into focus, full sentences and melodies coalesce from the haze. Marty’s role here, though, is simply as one (or ten) of the ensemble dreamers, voicing Lenz’s drowsy vision via the clarinet’s sleepy yawning tones. By the time of the stirring, ecstatic finale of piano rolls rumbling out of the trance, he’s not even there anymore.

Marty Walker: 'Songs(s) Of The Sirens; (30-second excerpt)

In the end, it remains the bass clarinet that provides the best bridge between Marty Walker and the composers who seek him out. It’s on that instrument that his expressiveness achieves its most fascinating levels. Certainly it’s fascinated Michael Byron, whose composition Elegant Detours has the most obsessive interest in Marty’s abilities. Byron, however, seems more interested in Marty Walker as a performance mechanism rather than as an emoter. Trapped inside an implied run up a three-octave whole-tone scale, Elegant Detours scurries in super-compressed bursts to explore the possible patterns available. A workout of bass clarinet extremes (from tiny puffs of air to sweeps across its whole range) it ends in lung-bustingly sustained wails knifing the attention to the wall, almost physically painful to listen to. Marty rises superbly to the technical challenge, but it’s frantically clinical. The music seems to feast on itself; like competitive weightlifting, or like laying bets on the frantic mice attempting to escape from a lab maze.

Marty Walker: 'Elegant Detours; (30-second excerpt)

Using far fewer games of structure, Jim Fox demonstrates that he understands the empathy in Marty’s playing. Fox usually works with quiet, beautifully ominous nightscapes and slow-creeping tonalities, and his piece – Among Simple Shadows – is no exception. Trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith blows a transparent and hushed last-post of a tune, which Marty shadows like the last hum resonating from the throat of a gospel bass. Bryan Pezzone’s piano flaps weightlessly in the wind, and casts anxious repeating clots of melody after the mingled brass and woodwind as they move through a dark-blue spectrum of emotions from quiet grief to undefinable hope.

Marty Walker: 'Among Simple Shadows; (30-second excerpt)

Of all the composers, Rick Cox might have the most fellow feeling for Marty Walker. After all, throughout On Tuesday that’s his own contra-alto clarinet playing in counterpoint to Marty’s bass model. This chokingly slow four-movement duet has more than a tinge of swamp-blues to it – like the last notes restlessly clinging onto the grass tussocks after the funeral procession is long gone and the coffin rests in its mausoleum, floating above the bayou. With both instruments burring and smearing towards the bottom of their ranges, there’s a sense of exhaustion. As with much to do with the blues, there’s also a feeling of unfinished business.

Marty Walker: 'On Tuesday – pt. 1; (30-second excerpt)

David Johnson (on vibraphone this time) returns to help Marty tackle Michael Jon Fink’s micro-concerto As Is Thought/Aurora. This time, they make a trio with orchestral harpist Susan Allen. A tense set of precise unison arpeggios, venturing warily out into space, are connected and soothed by Marty, whose jazz-inflected way with the shaping of his bridging phrases counters the music-box abruptness of the other instruments. As the piece’s initial trepidation melts, like the dissolution of fear, Allen’s harp comes more to the fore. Each instrument softens, progressively handing the others a tiny cadence of notes to repeat – a canon which clambers on like hands swapping grip-space on a rope, continuing to move outwards.

Marty Walker: 'As Is Thought/Aurora; (30-second excerpt)

Overall, ‘Dancing On Water’ reaffirms Marty Walker’s excellence as an interpretative musician, providing a set of multiple masques – or masks – for him to excel in. Still, I’m left uncomfortably whetted and slightly unsatisfied. His generous illumination of the music of others draws me into hankering after other aspects of his musicality – the creator, the improviser; the Marty Walker who’s drawn on his own music to provide that illumination. Hints of this are dotted all over ‘Dancing On Water’ in every cunningly bent note, in every hint of intelligence drawn from outside – even in the times when he steps back into the ensemble, upstaged on his own record.

There’s power in a name. Perhaps Marty Walker’s name, and his musical identity, has become too powerful to let him play second fiddle on his recordings. ‘Dancing On Water’ certainly showcases his talents, but in comparison to other Cold Blue albums – each firmly stamped with a composer’s identity – it feels like a picture of a man grown just a bit too big to comfortably wear other people’s handed-over suits in his own house.

Marty Walker: ‘Dancing On Water’
Cold Blue Music, CB0005 (800413000525)
CD-only album
Released: 5th June 2001

Buy it from:
Cold Blue Music

Marty Walker online:
Homepage

REVIEW – Michael Jon Fink: ‘I Hear It In The Rain’ album, 2001 (“into the tundra of forgetfulness”)

7 Aug
Michael Jon Fink: 'I Hear It In The Rain'

Michael Jon Fink: ‘I Hear It In The Rain’

Often it’s as simple as this – for true treasure, let go of the precious.

Michael Jon Fink (operating within New Music but sidestepping much of its systematic, lab-dulled pretensions) proves it on this album of close-up and subtle music, aided by remarkably sympathetic collaborators – textural guitarist Rick Cox, percussionist Dan Morris, Bryan Pezzone on piano and celesta, and bass clarinetist Marty Walker. There’s something of Gavin Bryars’ evanescent emotional skill to Fink’s music; something of the soft spatial blur of the Evanses (both Bill and Gil); but little of the chart-plotting dryness of a composer after cleverness points. Although Fink’s composing seems to be romantic at heart, he’s well aware of what modernism lets him draw by implication. ‘I Hear It In The Rain’ has feeling in plenty, but doesn’t lay out its secrets that easily.

During Five Pieces For Piano, Bryan Pezzone’s soft playing presses oh-so-gently on our ears. Fink’s music emerges from Pezzone’s piano so delicately that it hardly disturbs the air, as silent as night-travelling stealth ships, yet it sets reactions moving. The musical voicings are widely spaced, just dissonant enough for a shadow of doubt. The melodies are simple – songs from a sleepy child on the road – and it’s Pezzone’s exquisite touch on both keys and pedals that brings out Fink’s intentions.

The sparse sketch of Passing sounds like Debussy, but also like worksong. Its tentative descending melodies touch down in firm but unsettled chords – displaced, jazz-shadowed. Constrained by its skeletal melodic discipline, Mode uses space instead to ask its wordless questions, which remain unanswered by the rising minor-key bass arpeggio of Fragment and the two-note treble alternation which rings on and on – absently, a long-ignored alarm that’s forgotten both urgency and reason and instead beats out its worn, relaxing ritual. For Echo, two cycles of elegantly picked-out notes overlap each other, engaging not like machine parts but like two people caught unwittingly in a loose parallel. The fifth and final piece, Epitaph, draws the harmony together. The sustained, rising rumble of each decaying bass note holds the attention, while a melody in the mid-range takes up the implications of a death song.

This is not about feelings being directly manipulated. Fink’s music induces them, drawing into the gaps and implications between the notes. A lot of it is timing: the attuned sensibilities of a performer and a composer both inspired by the subtle, near-telepathic interreactions of small-group jazz. More of the slender, yet involving, same can be found within Two Preludes For Piano. The first of these, Image, keeps that same poise between amnesia and raptness as the Five Pieces do, tiny details slipping past the pared-back structure of Fink’s notes. The second, Wordless, heads further into the tundra of forgetfulness: the tenor- and soprano-range parts thoughtful and reassuring, but set just far enough apart from each other for disturbance, fading unresolved into the deep evening.

When Fink and Pezzone leave the piano’s subtle, powerful dynamism, they favour the celesta – an instrument which demands (and produces) an exquisite clarity, but with soap-bubble fragility. While the instrument is chillier and less robust than the timbrally similar Rhodes piano (the jazzer’s usual choice for the otherworldly), Fink turns this into a virtue. Initially, For Celesta seems as physically ephemeral as a frost-painting – bright points glimmering on a window – but grows by degrees as Pezzone brings out the full resonance of the instrument’s range. A beautifully sleepy melody grows, reflection by reflection. It’s precise, yet weighted oddly by its slow ebb and return of acceleration; and by the sudden unexpected welling-up of emotional and physical volume midway through, before returning to its soft contemplation.

Elsewhere, Fink’s moods are less compressed and matter-of-fact titles are left behind for more poetic names. On Living To Be Hunted By The Moon (which could be a nod to Gurdijieff’s mythology of soul-eating moons, or to even older fears) Fink builds a landscape of powerful but distant sampler drones. These slant across the sky like angled, endless, featureless walls, each one eerily bisecting the former with a disquieting geometry. Underneath this beautiful and subtly oppressive canopy the marvellously expressive Marty Walker purrs and throbs all-but-subliminal lines on his bass clarinet. It comes across as a supernatural play of light represented in sound, but once again Fink’s near-narcotic sense of subtle disassociation comes into play. His soundscapes hover overhead like a deferred threat, or like a beautiful, cruel and thoughtless god – something to be crept past; something of predatory attentions, carefully evaded.

Michael Jon Fink: ‘Living To Be Hunted By The Moon’ (excerpt)

No such emotional deferral happens on the album’s title track, which is also it’s haunting and lovely finale. Everything that has been promised (or hidden) elsewhere on the album settles home like final snow, or final tears. Where all else has been sparse and minimal, I Hear It In The Rain is luxuriant and gently cathartic. Dreamily slow, founded on Fink’s pedal-point of bass guitar and the gentle rocking motion of his bell-like keyboards, it’s shot through with fluttering orchestra-sized samples of tremulous cellos, blending with the soft rushes of Morris’ gongs and bell trees. Rick Cox’s electric guitars (teased into hallucinatory smears by sponge or glass implements) buoy up the spectral and blissfully desolate melodies, dissolving the emotional suspense in one long resolution; dissolving you too and easing you out through your opening window up into another warm and solitary Los Angeles night.

Words aplenty… I could go on and on to you about the restraint and wisdom in Michael Jon Fink’s work, but what gets me every time is its sheer and honest beauty. There’s a disciplined mind at work here: it’s also one which is in touch with such universality of feelings that praising his deft economy and musical grammar seems reductive. I could pin him down further for you, but what matters might be beyond by reach – though, even as I finish this, it’s come filtering through the air to reach back to me again. Simple. Special. Indispensable.

Michael Jon Fink: ‘I Hear It In The Rain’
Cold Blue Music, CB0004 (800413000426)
CD/download album
Released: 2001

Buy it from:
Cold Blue Music (CD) – various downloads available from Amazon and similar.

Michael Jon Fink online:
HomepageLast FM iTunes

REVIEW – John P. Hastings with New Century Players & Ensemble 303: ‘Chamber Music’ album, 2009 (“stark rectitude and detachment”)

6 Aug
John P. Hastings with New Century Players & Ensemble 303: 'Chamber Music'

John P. Hastings with New Century Players & Ensemble 303: ‘Chamber Music’

As well as being a composer, John P. Hastings is a curator. Actually… no. Separating the two terms suggest that there’s a gap between them: some kind of change in philosophy or mental state. It’s true that when he’s not composing, Hastings involves himself in arranging and hosting music events and sonic installations in his adopted home of Brooklyn, New York (via the ‘Sound Series’ at Presents Gallery) as well as co-running ‘The Experimental Music Yearbook’. However, it seems clear that these other activities might not involve much of a conceptual shift. I’ll come back to this later.

Starting off in Washington and Virginia, Hastings was at one time a late-’90s college rocker, playing guitar and writing songs for the post-grunge band Utris. After that he moved his base to CalArts and moved his musical allegiance – with a vengeance – to New Music via avant-garde process work and sonic art. While Utris occasionally dabbled in hard-rocking drones, Hastings’ subsequent music (be it orchestral, laptop-based or both) has quietly and methodically embraced many of the scientific components of late-twentieth-century conservatoire culture. His work sometimes shades carefully and soberly into the post-modern (via technology, found sound, chance methods and a fascination for the minutiae of microtones and the harmonic series) but his primary commitment has been to formalism and to music which establishes, as he defines it, “a logical and rationally satisfying whole.” His early chamber music pieces are rooted at the sternest end of late modernism, asserting a profound minimalism and blending it with clear process-based choices.

This debut collection reflects this position in all of its stark rectitude and detachment. All three of the minimal yet sonorous pieces here were performed either by the New Century Players (CalArts’ ensemble of “emerging musical language” musicians) or by Ensemble 303 (the experimental music group co-led by Hastings and Casey Thomas Anderson). Similarly, they were recorded in guarded heart-zones of the Californian avant-garde – two pieces in Roy O. Disney Hall at CalArts, and one in The Wulf gallery in downtown Los Angeles. These rooms seem to enclose and encourage the music in its deliberately slender and depthless form; its impassiveness; its focus on insidious pared-down number structures beneath the apparent form and textures. The musical notes themselves are explicitly passive components in a sparse mathematical schema, although this doesn’t stop them from often being beautiful.

Hastings makes his allegiance to science and mathematics plain from the off: the large-ensemble piece ‘telluric currents’ (performed by the New Century Players) is named after subterranean electric fields. Less scientifically, Hastings also describes in terms somewhere between angels’ trumpets and astro-metaphysics – “the music of the spheres, sounded with a low B-flat.” Translated, this means a single-note composition, though Hastings also states that it’s actually “one note, two curves.” The latter would appear to mean a gradual rise in pitch and an arc across the differing ranges of orchestral instruments. As for the former, every component note of the piece is a B-flat: precise timbre, octave and duration vary, but the pitch class doesn’t. The result is a kind of a chameleonic sound-curtain made up of nothing but octave variations on the same note.

In the opening moments, a low string drone is gradually joined by a low brass drone: after a minute and a half, the mid-range strings are backing up the low ones. Soon afterwards, the first of a set of horn soundings begin, adding to an enveloping hum. With no more than a single stacked set of octave intervals available to him, Hastings induces a surprisingly full sound, overlaying different instruments in different timbres and within different octaves to cover a broader spectrum of sound. The New Century Players seamlessly slot in replacement instruments as others fall out. It’s a little like a Risset scale trick reversed: instead of producing a continuous cyclic illusion of rising, the process camouflages a genuine rise. Those final sustained high B-flats (carried on stratospheric harmonics once all lower-pitched instruments have fallen away) come almost as a surprise. While this renders ‘telluric currents’ as more of an acoustic demonstration than a composition, Hastings’ arrangement of pitches and the ensemble’s dedication ensure that the listener walks away feeling that they’ve received much more musical information than they have.

‘Sonic Spiral’ (recorded by Ensemble 303 at the Wulf) is billed as “music and math in direct correlation” and as “a sound equivalent of the Fibonacci series.” It’s not the first time that the latter has been employed in structuring music. Building up from a start-point of zero and one, successive Fibonacci numbers sum the previous two, resulting in rapid and increasing jumps in magnitude as the sequence progresses. Spirals based on a linear and increasing Fibonacci sequence closely resemble “perfect” spirals based on the golden ratio, tying them in with idealised human architecture. Their appeal in guiding a compositional approach is obvious – allegedly, Bartók used them to compute part of the structure for ‘Music For Strings, Percussion And Celesta’.

Hastings’ own seventeen-minute Fibonacci piece is written for 11 unspecified tunable instruments. On the Wulf recording, I think I can hear low brass, standard and bass clarinets, violin and viola, saxophone… but what I predominantly hear is sustain, and the long harmonics which it allows to play against each other. Hasting winds the piece up with a little silver key of mathematics and simply lets it unfurl. Over seventeen minutes, the development is glacially slow. More accurately, it’s indifferent to human priorities of time and gratification; obeying rules of harmonic motion or aggrandisement set by the Fibonacci sequence.

Sitting on its locked tonal centre, the piece seems static, a softly growing hum within a gentle dynamic range. It’s actually an ever-growing and increasingly complex chord, moving subliminally up a spectrum of pitch into which new notes are eased and out of which silvery harmonic whistles sprout according to acoustic interference. Around eight minutes and forty-five seconds a lone violin seems to emerge from the stack, dipping over its own sustain and briefly leading the ensemble. It’s an illusion: the instrumentation is less dense at that point, revealing the mechanical workings of one briefly exposed instrument. The tiny dips and recoveries in pitch between continuous bowstrokes, the human flutter and inevitable tiny flaws of the working player, seem momentarily to impose a new idea on the piece: but the grand plan has always been dictated by the numbers. Just as the piece was wound up, so it winds back down.

Unlike the other two pieces, ‘desertum’ lacks a stated mathematical context. Instead, following Hastings’ habit of bringing in arcane or mythological references, it’s touted as “the dark shadow of an Earthly paradise.” Apparently performances of ‘desertum’ can be between fourteen and twenty-one minutes long. Perhaps I’ve missed some obscure rule-of-seven which Hastings hasn’t mentioned. This particular recording is eighteen minutes and twenty-two seconds long – or one thousand, one hundred and two seconds. Neither of which fit the sevens. Maybe maths isn’t dictating the process this time, although I suspect that its hidden rational hand still guides the way: perhaps the clues are elsewhere.

Despite the instrumental billing – brass quintet and percussion quartet – the main instrumentation on ‘desertum’ is an uncredited sub-bass tone. Pure, continuous and borderline subliminal, it runs throughout at a single unchanging pitch. Too textureless for an actual drone, it acts as a flattened-out level ground for the other instruments to perch on: utterly unyielding, it renders everything they do impermanent. Periodically, the brass instruments engage in a kind of minimal fanfare, each playing a single elongated note as part of a staggered, overlapping arpeggio.

The resulting sound resembles a diagonal chord, changing component notes slightly on each widely-spaced repetition. The hierarchy of pitches changes too, sometimes with the higher notes sounding first, sometimes the lower or midrange. They stack up like wobbling columns of stones, or like the same ruins viewed from different angles. During the lengthy pauses between these chord-piles, assorted percussion winds quietly across that monotone floor – wary rattlesnakes sneaking past. There may well be a long game of determined structure here: a slow-motion play through a specialised harmonic sequence played out at an inhumanly attenuated, Morton Feldman-esque pace. Perhaps, without the score, I lack the patience or the ear to determine it.

Instead (listening with more abstract, literary ears) what I hear in ‘desertum’ is a generalised sense of place – a parched and uncaring environment in which any human scratch or sculpting remains solitary and ignored, however vividly it stands up against the dry horizon. Hastings’ chords stand unrewarded and unresolved, isolated between ground and sky. Any message or change which they might carry is reduced to a molecular level. Wherever the idea of an earthly paradise fits in is an open guess. Perhaps the brass instrumentation was chosen for its association with angels, and the broken contortions of chords and desolate lack of movement imply the failure of Eden and the bitter aridity of Exodus. Perhaps Hastings’ rationalism discourages too much of a literary or Biblical interpretation, and ‘desertum’ is simply an existential communication about us – placed in hostile and impartial landscapes, struggling against the odds to make our lives and establish our significance.

Rooms and spaces which encourage. Landscapes that reject… All right, these are classic pathetic fallacies of the kind which Hastings’ more rational side might reject. But on the other hand, I think that this more emotive idea of placings, of placement, does have a relevance. Bar the utterly aleatoric or the free improvisers, almost all working composers ensure that each note and harmony used has a place in the scheme. The utter minimalism provided by these works (with their mathematical maps, their formal constraints, their refusal to allow any kind of horizontal development other than that permitted for duration and equation) works differently.

In these pieces, Hastings comes across less as a composer and more as a kind of… curator of notes. Rather than putting those notes to work, he maps them, provides them with a decreed academic location, gives them their single fixed point in his sonic display and keeps them safe there. He can and will demonstrate where they come from and how they fit in, but it’s as if his artistic work as curator of events has overlapped and merged with his compositional creativity to the extent that it’s now difficult to tell them apart. Similarly (and with the possible exception of the stonily suggestive ‘desertum’) its hard to imagine these three pieces existing and living outside the shelter of the Wulf, the Disney Hall  or their equivalent art-labs dotted around the world. It’s where music like this is safe: is understood and identified; ultimately, is pinned down.

To be honest, sometimes it’s as much about the chamber as it is about the music.

John P. Hastings with New Century Players & Ensemble 303: ‘Chamber Music’
Bandcamp
Download-only album
Released: 21st April 2009

Buy it from:
Bandcamp

John P. Hastings online:
Homepage FacebookBandcampTumblr

New Century Players online:
Homepage

Ensemble 303 online:
Homepage