Wednesday, December 10, 2008

White Christmas

Just a quick note to say that I will soon be back amongst the lumpy New Hampshire landscape for a couple of weeks, and, as you can see here from last year's expedition with Jane in the Notch, it's somewhat different to Suffolk. But not much; there's always that 100 meter rise out of Clare to deal with.

So it's the White Mountains and, on the coast by my Mom's house, Lupo's Bar and Grill, which of course doesn't have anything so jejune as a website, (hence no link) and has non-stop ice hockey on the tv above the bar. It tends to score fairly low (if at all) on foodie indices. Imagine, in a place far away, a small place right on the ocean that's boarded over the windows with a sea view, with plastic lobsters in fishnets over the bar, and choppsy 60-year-old waitresses your mom is on first name terms with when they bring her that first scotch on the rocks, along with slightly left-too-long-in-the-fryer clam rolls.


ho ho ho


Sunday, December 7, 2008

another get-off....recovery drinks needed

Sunday... a freezing cold morning here at the Lazy K; got up, made coffee, looked out at the amazing lightly hoar-frosted landscape showing gold as the sun rose. Too much excitement for attempts at satori - so the wonderdog and I went out and slid around on the ice for 15 minutes up the path by the stream amongst all the fresh deer tracks, while the lazy sun came up and showed through our steamy breaths. Stood like a tree while the dog emptied, then back inside, tea brought up to she-who-toys-with-my-heart, nuke oatmeal, then light up the wood stove. We're leaving for the States at the end of the week, so I had to spend some time getting in firewood for the folks who will be house & dog-sitting while we're gone. Skating (literally) across the still-unsalted road with the dog, I was torn between wanting to get out on the fixee all day in the blinding winter sunshine with the chain gang, and knowing that we'd all be sorry as soon as we hit the first corner that the sun hadn't reached. I've been there before... A & E... stitches...picking gravel out of my head for the next few months...

Sooo.... fire up the chainsaw without guilt, knowing I'd have a ride to somewhere exotic like a 50 mile jaunt to Bures after the ice melted. Cut up the poplar I collected in the spring and split it. The day stretched before me - chainsaw stuff, cycle to Bures through damp, ancient sunken lanes and have a coffee, work on the Guzzi, do some composing. Soak in a bath, aided by grape nerve medicine - Perfect.
Come 10:30, togged up in roadie mode, complete with sunglasses, (sad) soaked the fixie down with WD40 and hit the road. Hmmm.... ice everywhere on the verges. Blew through Clare feeling good, cold sunshine on my face and climbed (gently, only about a 100 meters up) into Essex. Legs limbering up and cadence rising - what's that white in the shade of the hedge on the other side of the road? Into a corner for the junction at Belchamp which I notice is also shaded; I also notice the looming solid white road, slow down to have a look; but the rear wheel kicks out down the camber, I'm facing at 90 degrees to my direction of travel and still (momentarily) upright. This isn't supposed to happen on a fixed. One more time.

Limp 5 miles home.

So to the Guzzi, best to end the day on a high - all I needed to do was fill the crankcase with oil, screw in a pair of plugs,drag it out of the barn and hit the start button. Various pops and bangs scare the dog back into the house, and a sheet of flame blows out the open, silencer-free pipes; phooarh...I've got a spark, anyway. I'll see about getting it to actually run when I get back. It just so looks better now, and, as we all know, that's half the battle. Back to that wiring diagram.

The afternoon was spent trying to capture a sound in my head, an initial gesture to start an aria for the Neal Cassady thing. I kinda managed to find a start, and it's going to be low... cellos, basses, bass clarinets, that sort of thing. And woodblocks....lots of them. Neal is going to have to be a tenor, I think. I can hear the voice counterbalanced against the orchestra's low register unison lines. Who's the baritone, should it be Kerouac? I seem to hear him even higher, for no good reason. Countertenor? That would just be just plain silly. But he really doesn't come across as a baritone for me.

The strange thing is that lately, more and more, I am struggling against how my head keeps getting invaded by the musak tracks I can remember being piped into all the environs of my childhood. 2-feel perky electric bass played with a felt pick, banjos, unison male choirs a la Mitch Miller and the Gang, shimmering strings - that kind of thing. Spooky. Since the mice ate my mp3 player's earphones about a month ago (another story sometime soon) I have been struggling with this rising tide of banal dross running in my head. It's a bit like zombies taking over the malls.

So, today was good, apart from a red and blue rash along my right side. Time for a recovery drink, mmmm...probably a Slipstream Cream Ale would hit the spot and aid tissue repair.

So, with the sound of Mitch and the Gang echoing in our ears, sweet dreams.


Saturday, November 29, 2008

enso on..

This is just a quick note to say that I've put up a download of Malcolm doing his poem "My Poetry is Jamming Your Machine" on the website for your listening pleasure and edification. I'll get a few more clips converted and uploaded as well in the next few days.

I've spent the last few days re-doing Newset for Piano and Violin, as Mifune and Paul are playing it again on December 12th. I was never happy with the last section, it seemed a bit abrupt; and so it was, as I merely stopped the piece, like Wile E. Coyote stopped in mid-air after running off a cliff, because I had exceeded the specified time limit for the gig. So I went back and re-wrote much of the last section, prying bars apart and adding great gobs of stuff, trying to work out the material in more leisurely transitions. It was kind of fun, and you realize that you always throw away too many ideas without really developing them. To come back to something even just 6 -8 months later makes you look at it very differently, as you've now completely forgotten what you were thinking at the time.

Dalhaus points out that after the triumph of technology here in the future, (the land of food pills and aluminum-foil disposable clothing) we now view works of art as an on-going process (like Steve Reich would say) rather than a finished, free-standing autonomous objects, and as such, always open to technological innovation. The temptation for me, rather than doing new stuff, is to keep trawling over old pieces, thinking I can somehow rescue them. And somehow, it's also much easier than trying to start something new, facing that terrifying blank sheet of paper on the piano. But it's more like having to accept it when the Vet says that there's no way your pet is going to get any better, and needs to be put down. The thing might just be crap.

The next big thing is to start on a piece for Peter Britton's orchestra; I'm thinking it could be a test bed for a chamber opera I've been planning with Malcolm about Neal Cassady. Something about the leap from the hot-wired cars of On the Road, the Magic Bus of Ken Kesey, to the last manic walk down the railway tracks on a freezing night after a week-long bender in Mexico. One fast move and I'm gone...

And things move forward here as well, if slowly - I had a couple of good couple of days - lots of compositional sketching, and, finally, I got the electrics of the Guzzi wired up and functioning: turning it over on the battery, a spark appeared at the plugs, lights work, there were no huge arcs of light with accompanying funny smells. The only thing that prevented me from starting it today was the fact I had no oil in the crankcase; otherwise it only would have run for a very short time. So a good weekend, adding that to a daily run on the fixed through the winter showers - I think the word for it is "bracing."

However, it's always two steps forward and one back - the bread I was making on Sunday collapsed, the Wonderdog has a more-or-less permanent limp, and Ruth Padel couldn't do February. But probably Grevel Lindorp is going to do the gig in Chelmsford... more as I find out.

Two more weeks to home in the States for Christmas; fingers crossed that the Arts touring grant comes through for the Riprap project.


Monday, November 17, 2008

external vs internal....

Just like the conjunction 'too much' and 'garlic' really doesn't exist, in most people's minds, music cannot be too 'expressive'. Ask any punter why they think a particular piece of music is good, and 9 times out of 10 they will say something about how expressive the singer was, and generally discuss the lyrics. But, in a sense, this tends to emphasize the external manifestations of emotion, just like there are external styles in the martial arts, which seem quite flashy and active, if slightly hysterical. In most martial arts, the ones they began teaching to young fighters are always the external ones, with lots of movement and power. This is opposed to an internal style, which looks mildly boring and it would appear you could run up while giggling and kick them quite hard without much trouble. Likewise, the logical extension of this in a performance would be writhing on the ground while screaming and rending your garments, preferably blaming everything on your unhappy childhood. And of course, as we all had one, so we'd all understand. Sharing catharsis as art? The word is also used to refer to a purging of the bowels.... more on this in a moment.

Anyway, these observations come after the recent round of very successful gigs we did with Riprap, featuring, for the first time, Malcolm Guite's poems. The gig at Anglia Ruskin went extremely well, after a personal pre-gig panic (which did nothing to leave me in good place) about PA and recording problems - the tech-guy had left, and there seemed to be no way of hooking up a mike for the reading because the fact that all the pre-amps for mikes in the studio were down, and allowed only the most obscure of work-arounds to capture any of the gig, and that not in the most satisfactory manner. A very deep and heartfelt ojigi to Roger from Kite Studios for recovering anything at all from the evening. I will post some of the clips on the website later today, once I do a bit of editing.

The group gelled around Malcolm's reading, and put to rest any hesitation I might of had about mixing the two disciplines, and becoming even more obscure and pretentious( later note: and I think I am succeeding). We all came away on a high, looking forward to further collaborations with more poets. The next step is to collectively hunt up a few more gigs, and start the tiresome-but-necessary process of getting some funding to offset the costs of performing at smaller venues.

This mention of external and internal, maybe we can discuss in it more Western terms of Apollonian versus Dionysian (although not really the same thing at all; perhaps objective vs. subjective? ...and that's different again) , was precipitated by the second gig the following week. We were preceded by various younger guys (and that includes just about everyone around me these days) doing personal takes on free - improvs in the Micheal House space in Cambridge. There was a very good, extreme-minimal violinist in a Feldman-esque kind of way, and a flute player exploring timbral variations in a quiet fashion. However, there was one party who decided that they had to "get something going" and inject some of his emotive energy into the proceedings, even though this generally had little to do with the other improvisers' contributions to the textures; and I say this without judgment, we've all been there (say, in my case, around 1976 in extremely obscure peripheries of the Soho loft scene, inspired by people like Braxton and Sam Rivers - avoiding eye contact with angry uptown guys a lot older than me, and trying to make up for in energy what I lacked in technique) . There's always been an on-going debate about this kind of thing in improv circles, with no clear outcome but lots of polarization, like in left-ist politics of the possible. People with no hope in Hell of ever affecting change spend enormous amounts of energy splintering into ever-smaller cliques.

The problem was that Dave had spent about an hour sorting out the piano and doing a bit of repair tuning and minor 'preparations'. That was put paid to by a short sharp sessions with drumsticks inside the new grand piano just prior to us starting. Bent damper felt rods, stuff in the action, and back to (even more) out-of-tune-ness. Ted Gioia, in discussing how jazz might still fall within the immature arts, with it's emphasis on expression as opposed to structure, anticipates this young Free improv player smashing my bourgeois preconceptions . I saw then and there that I had dispose of the usual 'plutocrat' outfit I use for gigs, with shiny top hat, cut-aways and spats, and realized it was time to don some very tight black jeans and "Chuckie T's". Apollo, with his light and symmetry, gives way to frenzy and intoxication.

Back to being sullen, thin and bearded -


Saturday, November 15, 2008

cross-border fixie forays

The specter of looming fat-bastard-dom beckons: I was once 150 pounds of blued steel with accompanying six-pack, now I'm more like an entire case of Aldi green stubbies of cheap French lager; hence the attempt at a daily thrash on the fixie around the lanes. Today was one of those classic Irish 'soft days', where it isn't quite full-on raining but being outside feels vaguely like being underwater. So after a morning of playing around with power tools under the strict supervision of the cruel mistress of my heart, I headed out across the border (only to Essex), just like in the Cormac McCarthy trilogy. And like his protagonists in The Road, I find myself moving through the post-apocalyptic world that is Essex, avoiding the dead eyes of the locals shuffling through the grey ash, while I constantly eye skips and waste ground that I pass for firewood and building materials; when I spot something, I make a foray with a friend (let's call him 'Robert', anonymity is crucial in these matters) in his white van (as we can pass for locals) to collect firewood for my crap chainsaw. As well as that, there's always the possibilty of finding the camper-van Jane has set her heart on, so, just as in a wildlife program, there's always the possibilty of suprising one browsing quietly in the forecourt of a semi-detached, overshadowing it's small clearing, not unlike coming upon an elephant in a forest. There are many VW's that have gone down there to die, but they all tend to have lowered suspensions and alloy wheels.

I just got back from hearing a friend's premiere of a new piece; John Hopkins' Floating World, played by one of the better regional ensembles, directed by Peter Britton. John's piece, a setting of a series of Haiku, was excellent - just one interesting texture I wished had written after another; and Olivia Tay was superb in her handling of fairly challenging (the 'C' word) material. I'll put up a few fragments on the Amp Publishing site shortly. I must get down to work on more composing...Paul and Mifune are playing my violin piece, and I want to re-work the last movement.

And I have also now entered what appears to be the sad world of Face book, it's not just viral, it would seem almost like cancer. After one day it has spiraled well out of control already. I'm going to have to be firm and limit myself to a single short session a day. I just realized the most sensible thing is to cut out the notifications.

I keep leaving the Rapha catalogue on the kitchen table now that Christmas is approaching, constantly retrieving it from the recycling bin. You just know in your heart that your life would be soooo much better with a 'classic' tweed softshell jersey - and at £450 , a bargain. That said, it is Paul Smith's cycling the price is, of course, entirely justified. we used to lust after his suits and assorted mod-inspired gear in the club scene surrounding Tommy Chase in the jazz revival of the late 80's. So, what the hell, throw that Mr. Careful hat away and go for perhaps even this. Let's spend our way out of this recession. It's our duty, and you know we deserve it anyway.

Anyway, the string of gigs to pull together the Riprap ensemble finished this weekend on a high point, there's a post of some videos on the Facebook site, and I'll upload some of the recording to the website and comment on it next week.

Excelsior -


Friday, November 7, 2008

beer chair observations, part 2..

A somewhat different beer chair view, this. And I promise, I'll dig out my photo of the beer chair, scan it in and upload it. Soon...

Following up the previous post's analogy of garden stepping stones, I was struck that , while reading Nishihara'a Patterns for Living, it would seem a good a way of conceiving of ideas of structure within an improvised texture. In traditional Japanese design, there is an interest in balance within irregular natural structures, and the relationship between strict symmetries at an extremely local level of individual elements of plants or crystals, and the sense of wild freedom expressed when these things are played out across the scale of a forest or mountain range. The word for this balance within irregularity is hacho , which has been translated as "imperfection" or "aversion symmetry" or aesthetic aversion" I'm going to string this meaning out a bit and suggest that what we have is a form of aesthetic dissonance, where the exuberant possibilities of surface structure create perceived irregularities of balance. It is from these disjunctive textures that any object both reflects nature and creates interest. And like this, in music it is dissonance, in the largest sense of the word as used by composers such as Ruth Crawford Seeger, that shapes music into patterns that can fascinate us. There is little less riveting than a series of over-sweet major triads moving in rhythmically locked whole notes reiterating a tonic (unless, of course, you are La Monte Young; and he only uses perfect fifths, and that's a whole different thing again). Even with cakes, I always discard the frosting.

In traditional garden design, one of the first steps is the initial placing of a few stones by a method called fuseki. This word comes from the game of Go, but has come to mean the preparation for future possibilities when any real knowledge of the approaching situation is unknown. Once the stones are set, to allow for focal points such as trees or water, the designers, like Go players, must then work between them as the situation develops. I suppose, when first reading about this, there was a feeling of recognition in the way I was trying to create structures that would evolve in real time, moving with the poets reading of the text. The stones, thrown out in hope, are like the throwness of the players; now placed in real-time situations to which they must react mostly on instinct, not having the luxury of reflection. These stones, set in irregular patterns to approach a Chashitsu, or Tea-ceremony house, force the entering participants to have to look, slow down and connect with the environment around them, rather than just unthinkingly striding across an open space. The same with the small gestures that act as fuseki that make up each piece.

And (once again) to move in my usual 'chaotic, lateral fashion' and mix my analogies even more, there are, in a game of Go, more than one player; perhaps we could design structures to allow several individual paths through our garden, setting out their own fuseki, and allowing the text and/or music to merge and diverge?

These reflections started after showing some of my scores to a musically literate but non-improvising friend, I was struck by their puzzlement when faced by 3 or 4 distinct gestures surrounded by blank space and a few lines of text. These composed moments were something that the group as a whole, through various cues, works away from or towards over the course of a piece.

And on a somewhat more mundane note, this is just to say a sincere heartfelt thanks to geeks and the Internet. Guzzi-related operations had ground to a complete halt when I realized that I had a 20 year-old electronic ignition on the slightly larger (1000cc) noisy lump I was installing on the 30 year-old T3 Guzzi in lieu of the original 850 that had gone the way of the buffalo. I was faced with a group of six connectors with no clues as to how they went into the wiring loom. Who would think that someone had sat down and uploaded all the various variations of a lucas-rita set-ups for 70's models?

It's just a matter of time, I have no excuses left.


Monday, October 27, 2008

A Fresh Start.

Normally, life out here proceeds with the infinite calm of 'silver mountains, iron cliffs', as beloved by the sages in the Shobogenzo. However, after the entropic events surrounding the organizing of the last couple of gigs, and my resultant somewhat over-wrought and fried playing, I have felt there might be other ways to make a living - so what could be more fun than taxidermy? Why the original author of the manual used an illustration of a mounted bat's head for his dust cover on the left here is something we'll probably never know. Perhaps this is the taxidermist's equivalent to putting small ships in bottles, (how do they do that?) another lost art. Disturbing imagery, perhaps, but humor me for a moment; especially as one could now always reside with ever-faithful companions, such as the former wonder dog Bonzo, (admittedly, after 12 years in the ground, not really a good prospect for stuffing) or even surround oneself with friends (and not-so) that one has outlived? Imagine the fun, as you regale them with stories, or even draw hilarious toothbrush mustaches and Frankenstein-style scars on them that they never would have put up with in this realm?

Anyway, things have gotten better over the last 24 hours: I no longer have to pretend that I'm Canadian, and have taken the red maple leaf off my backpack. (a later note - I now see that this little phrase is all over the Internet amongst ex-pat bloggers... that's me, always behind the curve) I always had a problem if anyone followed up with a question about Canada, only having hitched up there a few times in my late teens to circumvent the New Hampshire drinking age, therefore remembering very little about Montreal, or the trailer parks one inevitably ended up in. So I sat, in the small hours of election night, surrounded by half crushed tins of Co-op budget lager (the requisite bottles of Pabst Blue Ribbon being unobtainable in Suffolk) getting a bit emotional.

So apart from my playing, the gigs went well, and Riprap were able to pull the settings together of Malcolm's stuff convincingly on the night. In a contrast to working with just music, I find that the text is a very useful structure - I think this has always been the case, now more than ever, when the lack of agreed templates or song structures makes it more difficult to handle larger spans of musical time coherently. I tend to try and compose a series of discrete 'triggers' that have their own particular texture for us to move away from and towards - almost a series of stones in a Zen garden.

I consider myself incredibly lucky to have accidentally assembled an ensemble with such a spooky level of space and communication. The thing I was always aiming for was the type of open-ended trigger-forms that early (and I must stress the 'early', it all went a bit off after say, 1974) Weather Report developed from Miles. That, and the concept of acoustic/analogue group improvisation that remained largely unexplored since New Orleans. What you see on above is a fragment of some of the triggers we use to take off from and return to, allowing the structure to be open enough to allow the ensemble to react to whatever pace the poet chooses to read at. The interesting thing I have already noticed is that Malcolm already feels confident and comfortable enough to depart from the strict reading of the text, and enter into the general continuum of improv. Only in a small way at present, but it's something we can develop.

So, we continue our mad search for kicks

friday week gig ... maybe laptop guy as well.


Saturday, October 18, 2008

Life out at the Lazy K....

Things are, of course, never dull out here. Granted, although we are certainly not in the league of the Lazy K Dude ranch of Montana, (the original dude ranch seen at your right) but in our own small way we keep up our levels of duderino-ness, although eschewing White Russians and bowling, for the most part (if only to preserve my marriage). It's my own small way of making a difference to people's lives here in East Anglia.

I've been sitting around in a mild panic not quite composing a new series of settings for the kick-off of the next series of Riprap gigs. Suddenly the days consist of a series of minor crisis: the dog and I have a series of crippling problems about the right kind of mechanical pencil, whether I've already had too much coffee, where's my favorite eraser, should I make bread? Would I be better off sitting at the piano and going through all the scores I have out of the library for a hoped-for flash of inspiration (or at least just something to steal), or should I just sit down and get on with it? The phone rings, and I'm greeted by a pre-recorded foghorn blast announcing I have just won the 6th holiday this fortnight. The John Cale/La Monte Young Dream Syndicate drone CD is proving strangely irritating (I suppose you just had to be there, man: NYC '65). Perhaps I should just put on the kettle?

The day started out in a promising fashion: a short sitting, empty the wonderdog as the sun came up, doing Wu Dang Long Form while the dog ran around me barking every time I attempt to 'sweep lotus leg', (something he finds wildly exciting, strangely). Make coffee, nuke oatmeal, eat.

That's it then - I will have to go and sit in my room and actually do something. A couple of hours later, there's this stubborn passage that, after much fidgeting about, will probably serve as a basis to Malcolm's poem Singing Bowl. Now it's time to start the kettle again. The dog and I eye up the truculent cheap-ass Screwfix chainsaw, in lieu of doing anything. This of course leads to 15 minutes of cleaning plugs, yanking and swearing before I finally get the thing to start for the first time in months. While I stand around like a maniac cursing and revving the nuts off the little bastard as punishment, I realize the whole last part of this sorry episode has been quietly watched by a Polish painter who had come by to give us an estimate, and is now clearly having second thoughts about working for this particular household.

So, an attempt to regain mental balance is necessary, and of course this entails two wheeled conveyances. I pull my road iron (as opposed to the fixie) off the rack and start to effect a few minor repairs with a view to having a quick, brain-clearing hour circuit before lunch and more work. Pull pedals off, start to replace and the phone rings; back to the bike again, and the postie shows up waiting for a signature. Return to wrenching, phone rings and I've won another holiday. Damn... run into house to tog up in embarrassing roadie gear and get out before anything else happens.

Barn locked, bike out, I clip in and start to spin down the road in a low gear. Legs always hurt for the first couple of miles, for no explicable reason, but it feels good to be out, as always. A few hundred yards down the road I shift up, and stand out of the saddle to pump it a bit and get it up to cruising cadence.

Bang... I'm on the deck, flat on my back, winded, with the bike on top of me, like a starfish spread in the middle of the road. It was as if I stepped into a manhole : straight down, no warning. Lying there dazed, I realized I had heard that funny roadie sound, which was made by me, of a large, hollow whump of a leather bag being tossed and slid along the tarmac, followed by a sudden silence punctuated by birdsong and the quietly clicking rear wheel as it slowly stopped. This was going to hurt in a minute, I knew... road rash, bruises, general next-day-soreness. As I struggled to unclip, I could hear a car coming around the corner......great, just great.

I had forgotten to tighten up one of my pedals.

things just get better.


Thursday, October 9, 2008

Normal Service Will Resume Shortly....

I apologize for the interruption in service, I got back from the States completely relaxed, straight into term-time madness. Then, to top things off, the cruel mistress who toys with my heart ended up overnight on a drip in A&E with blood loss because of a nose-bleed. I had gotten home that evening from Cambridge to find, Marie Celeste-like, all the house doors open, the lights on, the car sitting in the drive, the dog wandering in the yard, and the phone, ringing, ringing.....

But what I was going to go on about, and will have to wait, was Seamus Heaney, in The Redress of Poetry, writing about John Clare. He speaks about how in composing a poem , the fact that as he had already thought twice about a particular usage as to whether or not it was authentic, it was already too late. The idea that the first thought is as swift and inexorable as a descending katana is an interesting one. As Mushashi stated in the Book of Five Rings, to have a thought means that the moment has already passed.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

bears and beer hats

Yup - it's that time of year, I'm off to New Hampshire for two weeks, to visit my folks and spent some time in the hills. As you can see, the beer hat is on standby, and I'll be wearing it sitting in an inner tube anchored off my sister's place on the Saco River in the White Mountains

I've been putting together some sketches of stuff I should be working on, with a fragment here; you might want to pause the guy yakking below for a moment. I've been messing about with a string quintet, a solo violin piece, and raiding my sketchbooks for ideas set to poetry for Riprap, but it seems to be going slow.

Also, for those of you who have never been, and likely to never be, up North, we have included a 'virtual walk' here below for your delectation, which, as the Thoreau fans among you will know, takes you up one of his routes, albeit in a somewhat nasal fashion with a hat no local would ever willingly wear. If you go to northern New England, never wear anything from LL Bean or any other catalog purporting to be outdoorsy. Especially those vests with lots of pockets for fishing stuff, even more so if they look new and you're not fishing. If you wear work boots, they should be left open outside of your jeans, and never, never laced to the top. If you must wear a baseball cap, make sure you've left it outside on top of the hood of the dead car in the back yard through at least six month's weather to acquire the proper patina. And borrow your brother-in-law's beat-up red Dodge pickup with the snowplow attachment to arrive in style......

see you in a couple of weeks. Mildenhall was good, by the way.


Tuesday, August 19, 2008

blue suit + brown shoes = dissonance

In the mild mental fug before 7 am every day, after having walked the dog and stood like a tree and so on, there is always a short hiatus before I get organized to nuke some porridge (I discovered this a few years ago, rather than getting a bowl and a pot dirty, 3 and a half minutes, ping: throw in some some raisins and fruit . This has subtly changed my life, but I still haven't worked out how). This brief suspension of motion within the morning usually spent leaning back in the bench, with my feet up against the porch post, drinking coffee and reading the Gruaniad. The same every morning, rain or shine, most of the year, unless the wind is dead on southerly with rain. Then, the other day, I came across an article discussing modes of thought - and in passing, it made a statement something like "...or like music composition, with its chaotic, lateral patterns..."

This suddenly popped back up, bobbing like a stupid, happy, child's toy submarine surrounded by suds, clockwork key still turning, into my head while running scales days later in the evening (admittedly while reading the aforementioned paper again on the music stand - I have always figured that if I could read the paper and do my arpeggios, I had them taped) And I then had my own chaotic, lateral search through the pile of papers reserved for Jane's firings to see if I could find the article again. Nope.

"Chaotic and lateral".. sounds like a reasonable description of my default modus operandi, drifting from one thing to another like a bored six-year-old with the remote. As I mentioned before, I always felt that there should be a deep connectedness within anything I created, but this was never the case in practice. It sprung from my early, self-taught attempts to get to grips with the textbooks Schoenberg wrote concerning harmony, structure and counterpoint - and were disciplined and scary in the extreme. I think if you are self-taught, you often tend to be following models that have already gone out of fashion, as those models have had time to be codified and become part of the canon - but as soon as that happens, they are already passe. But all of this approach is really something that's been fostered on us by a now somewhat-outmoded High-Modernist/Serialist take on what makes an artwork legitimate: the idea of an all-encompassing 'organic' approach, (taken, in a way, from the rationalist project that followed on from the Enlightenment ) that all local and global elements should be contrived from a single unifying concept.

However, what made music prior to the 20th century interesting was the manipulation of dissonance, having clashing sonorities driving the line forward. you could therefore argue that by placing dissonant objects next to each other is a way of creating interest....such as two notes that shouldn't go together make you wait until something happens. This can also be extended to entire structural elements, as Stravinsky did. Brick wall transitions between things which have little in common create a different kind of drama to a slowly unfolding 'line' beloved by the late Romantics. Imagine constellations of color that slowly move around each other, revealing new combinations with each turn; children's blocks that are constantly re-assembled.

And finally, I'm just prepping the fixie up for the yearly Mildenhall 200k tomorrow morning - I was thinking of doing the 300, but I couldn't face the 4 am start. Lots of pasta tonight, couple of cans of beer; all good carbs. Should be good; an excuse to do nothing except ride a bike all day.


Saturday, August 16, 2008

structure and time.

yeah, I'm always avoiding discussing structure - it's been my weak point as an incredibly slack self-taught jazzer. I'm happy building stuff, or stripping and reassembling various things, such as the Walden hut, the Guzzi, or whatever. And I won't even begin talking about Italian bicycles, or fixed wheels - it would just get too wildly boring. Some other time, perhaps. But my main problem has always been this nagging feeling that I should be able to, in a long-range kind of way, justify each note. But it's not (probably) ever going to happen, so I've gotten used to it.

And also, being primarily a woodwind guy, I don't have problems imagining false fingerings, harmonics, altissimos and subtone stuff, thickened line and all the rest; but I've just spent the better part of the morning at the piano today trying to get my head around the possible combinations that a string player could create by using a arco double-stop combined with a left hand little finger pizzicato. Just sit quietly and think(especially if you're not a string player) about about it: perhaps the first finger could bridge a fifth on the A and E strings over the open D, giving you, say, a Bb and a D arco, while the second and third finger could extend the E string F to an F#, playing a kind of appoggiatura pizz between the F and F#... it could work - and so on. You can picture the bow running across two adjacent D & A strings, while the left hand performs assorted tasks on the E string... does my head in.

What I suppose this typifies is the two polarities of approaches to composing: allowing various formula dictate particular pitches, and let the sorry-assed muso's figure out a way of playing the shapes that result, or try and create gestures around the timbres possible by a particular instrument and its inherent sound world. Each has its advantages - the first might, possibly, 'show something new', throwing up combinations you wouldn't have thought of, while the second creates gestures and shapes beyond that of just re-combining notes, forcing you to imagine and re-hear material. One is coerced and pushing the envelope, the other manipulating the possible.

But that's symptomatic of western notation, which is in turn a reflection of how we view music (if you buy into a Chomsky-ish 'deep structure' world view); i.e., possible pitch-based hierarchies, rather than the way most other cultures notate sound, which is not an abstract pitched-based (for us, a middle C can be played on violin, piano, recorder, whatever and still retain what we consider its primary characteristic), but considered by the particular technical means to produce an individual timbre, pitch being just one of many considerations such as attack, delay, timbre and so on. It's a means and ends sort of thing.

Anway, I must get started on this violin thing.... and start sitting, ....and get the Guzzi running, get Riprap off the ground....and cycle more

and save all sentient beings.


Monday, August 11, 2008

poetry and, um... dirigibles.

For the last month or so, I've been reading and thinking about the issues around rhythm within spoken poetry, as opposed to how it appears on the page. And I had hoped that this would be an extended, cogent discussion of what might be done. But I keep constantly finding myself thinking about dirigibles, with them bumping their way into my awareness like affectionate puppies. Who doesn't have these problems?

This all started after watching the mash-up Zeppelins vs. Pterodactyls ; innocent enough, you'd think, with the dirigible quietly looming out of the clouds; inexorably nosing its way through misty skies, accompanied by a faint buzzing, like a giant electric razor. There are songs, machine guns, and choppsy 30's women, who occasionally scream (-this is the era of Fay Wray, remember) and of course zeppelins and pterodactyls. These lost giants of the air, confined to some grainy images from 30's newsreels, are only in a few films: I found myself trying to find the 1931 Frank Capra film Dirigible!, which starred Fay Wray and Jack Holt (who was famously drunk throughout all the filming) in an lighter-than-air thriller (a meringue of an adventure?) at the South Pole, shot entirely in New Jersey with detergent flakes. I have only been able to see this film once, and then only the first third, as my pianist showed up and insisted we leave for the gig. Insisted. Priorities?

Anyway, back to business - this idea of floating above the earth is not unlike being free of rhythmic constraints, detached from earthbound time frames, like in a dirigible ? (talk about a dodgy link, I was wondering how to get out of the first riff) One of the main things interested in is that the poets try not to conceive of their words as having a predetermined rhythmic bias. I've often asked Malcolm, in a completely dufus sort of way, about the apparent rhythm in one of his poems; he would then spend ages explaining it to me, I would glaze over trying to see it, and then I would perform it completely ignoring his advice. Some of the reading I'm doing points out the triumph of a completely visual experience that seems to have become more prevalent in the hangover after High Modernism, the kind of reductive approach of being able to analyze their work in purely lexical or visual terms. The thing is fixed, on the page, and ready for dissection, encouraging the view of poetry as a private act, rather than public performance, open to transgressive meanings. We can go a bit further with this with the idea of playing with structure later.

Think of it: if you look at the published sheet music for, say, My Funny Valentine, the song consists of plodding quarter and half notes, straight-up triadic harmony reinforcing a regular barline-constricted meter of 4/4. Played like this, very, very boring. Now listen to Miles' version, on the album of the same name.

more on this...


Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Other stuff I feel guilty about: ah, the Guzzi...

While we're at it, apart from not sitting, (enough? at all?) there's lots of stuff to feel mildly guilty about - so today, I'll concentrate on the Guzzi; with which, I'll have to admit, I've just had a breakthrough, so it has swum back into the dim reaches of my consciousness after being rigorously repressed for the last two years; probably like Anthony Bates and his mum, with its carcass sitting slowly decomposing in the barn. (... I'll just go ask the never lets me do anything..)

I thought, when I had a break two years ago, I'd have all this time to sort it out to something like concours (dream on..) standard. All the alloy polished, the engine fettled, electrics sorted. That sound, of a big lazy twin, would prick up the ears of the cognoscenti like a dog hearing a whistle for dinner, as I blatted through the lanes of Suffolk in an adult, responsible manner on the way to work and gigs, my horn slung insouciantly across my back... right.

I had ridden this bike for 15 years all over the UK, to gigs , college and whatever; there was a covenant of responsibility on both sides - I would look after her in a bodgy kind of way, she would always get me home, on a single cylinder if need be (gasping, sucking air through the removed plug that would reside in my jacket for the journey home), but never ever let me down. Then that fateful last ride in a lowering winter evening, cold sleety rain: after a catalogue of minor upsets, the trans locked making a horrible tin-can-full-of nails kind of sound and she refused to shift out of 3rd, then the lights failed leaving me to limp home burning the clutch at every stop of the 25 mile ride, staying on back roads feeling my way along in the dark narrow lanes. We made it back, and as the rain grew heavier, I wearily sat on the porch in the dark after opening a beer, listening to the ticking of the cooling engine in the hiss of a rain turning to sleet. Finally, as I watched, with a final, resigned sigh, the sidestand broke off, and the bike (gracefully, it has to be said) collapsed into the gravel of the drive with a gentle crunch.. .. I knew our relationship had reached an impasse. I swore, then and there, that I would make things right, and we would once again ride through sunny, sweeping bends, touching the foot peg down and laughing together as we had in happier times.

this is the kind of guilt I have to live with on a daily basis.


Sunday, August 3, 2008

After Zen

Probably the most quietly moving book I've read in the last few years is After Zen, by Janwillem van de Wetering. It's one of those things that just stays with you, and a day or two after you've finished it you realize you're just going to have to read it again. It was recommended in the Hardcore Zen blog's obituary of him and seconded by Andy. Fragmented, delicate, and elusive, de Wetering's insistence that he's finished with the whole process of seeking satori or enlightenment through any kind of formal tradition makes you feel he's reached a place most would envy, but not recognize the arrival. Towards the latter part of his life, he ended up writing crime novels about a trio Dutch cops while living up in rural Maine; but in a so not Stephen King kind of way.

The interesting thing is the contrast between the Rinzai and Soto traditions, and his clear view of time spent in the Diatoku-ji at Kyoto, the same monastery as Gary Snyder and many other westerners studied at in the late 50's. Snyder comments that he felt the Rinzai tradition of solving a series of Koan would be more heroic the the 'just sitting' tradition of Soto. It seemed to be the one that most early zen-sters were attracted to. When I was young, it seemed like the way forward - struggling with Koan, getting whacked with a stick, sit in the early watches of the day; stub your toe, and (ha ha) hear the universe open up....I don't know now. Plus, the atmosphere at the school sounds very different and far more austere during this post-war period than those of the more westernized, pop-cultured sensei that followed in the alternate 60's and beyond. It makes you a bit more humble about crapping around in occasional sesshins....spacing out on your zafu for 20 minutes in the morning....most telling is the insistence that if you have a satori-ish experience you should forget it, ignore it. Leave it behind and, mai nichi-mai nichi , just continue daily focused zazen; that's all it's all about. Nothing dramatic happens, it just slowly gets slightly better, like in music, but at an incremental rate you can't really perceive. Anything else leads to unfortunate messianic cults.

Anyway, it makes you guilty about your sitting, or the lack of it. Having vowed to save all sentient beings, and even though I've been doing other types of meditation daily (the 72 inch one, for example... or standing around like a tree in the morning, or the daily 'two hours of long, very noisy Parker-san breath' is a particular favorite), I realize that it's just not good enough, compared to the Stankovian zendo daily routine required to understand that its actually not really required. I prefer the final scene in the Finding the Ox: entering the marketplace to see the wine seller (or "with helping hands" depending on your version - I like to think wine one - violation of the fifth precept)

Must be more organised.....


Thursday, July 31, 2008



I realize that this all starts to sounds a bit negative, and god forbid, a little too self-conscious. What happened to fun? But I hate hot, humid weather; sitting at the piano while thunder rumbles around in the distance, making the dog listless, threatening but never fulfilling its promise of rain and a cool breeze. You keep playing five chords over and over again, hoping they'll sound a bit different the each time; listening to them , moving the voices around, sometimes holding the pedal down and trying to catch something in the decaying outline of the upper harmonics. You can almost hear it - maybe the next time, when you re-order them once again, and then try to remember the grouping that seemed to work in retrospect five minutes ago, especially compared to the crap you're hearing at the moment. So I take the five chords, derived from a pitch group, and try to do something interesting (?) with them. They occur first here, and then start to evolve into a spine of what they might become.

Pare down the possibilities and listen. Then try to imagine them off the piano, on something else, say strings, with some kind of shape. Visualize the shape, as if in space, as a physical gesture, like a dancer. And what happened to the pulse? There was one when I started all this; we always get hung up on notes, piling them up, great vertical cumulonimbi of static, lifeless harmony. As Cage said, rhythm is the most fundamental structural element, but when you read about music it's either about the notes, or even further removed from the original problem, the text.

I love writing music - it's the end result of the whole process that's the problem. You wouldn't think so.

The morning had started well: making new floor for the porch; no power tools - just a pencil, a saw and a t-square, strong coffee and birdsong. Every now and then there was a quick spattering of thick raindrops, almost like someone flicking drops from wet laundry across a wall. Drag everything inside, but it doesn't rain. And the whole time, hearing those stupid chords you played for a couple of hours yesterday afternoon, and will again today. Ideas come and go, and you know you'll have forgotten them by the time you stop for a hunk of bread and cheese at noon.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Dave's trio recording out soon:

Something to take note of, Dave's Trio should have its next CD out shortly. Superb stuff.

This is a clip of my trio's most recent recording: Ole Rasmussen bass, Paul Cavaciuti drums, from a recording we did last year. It's the title track, and it should be out on CD soon. . I'm not sure I've got much to say about it. It was a mantra I learned from the 'healing voice' expert Jill Purce. We sang it about 200 times, and the more we did, the more I started to hear it as a trio track. We recorded it at Livingston Studios in Wood Green on a Fazioli piano, and will appear as a track on the CD 'Second Language', to be released on ZahZah records.

have a listen to a clip of the title track here.

see & hear more of Dave's stuff on amp and his own website


Friday, July 25, 2008

Beer Chair Observations, part 1.

First of all, we'll discuss the beer chair another time, when I can find a picture of it to scan in. It features on the last album I did with Chris, and has a certain emotional resonance for me; that and a quart bottle of Pabst Blue Ribbon. ("From Milwaukee to Motown, through the Pacific Northwest and back East again....brown, friendly and beckoning" ...this was a lower-end guy-ish beer long since swallowed by the Miller conglomerate) which would be consumed in the chair after work building (somewhat incompetently on my part) inshore trawlers and swordfish boats in Po-town .

And before we say anything else, let me point out that it was
so not Andy who cut me up on the fixed the other day; as the the rider was identified as being from France, not in France, which Andy currently is, which besides everything else makes it literally impossible that he was present in the UK yesterday for the alleged shunt . Paranoid?

I felt I had to answer that post as it was something of a watershed in the life of any blog, that of the first comment; I now feel I have been blooded, in a sense, and now stand ready to blithely delete the expected deluge of extremist rants in howling capital letters, as if the caps lock of the cold, unfeeling universe was accidentally stuck, its blue indicator light winking unseen, just beyond us, under various Hubble-lit nebulae.
No, this post is about that moment of elation that doesn't occur everyday; that of discovering something new: I can practice soprano sax in the hammock. No, really.

After years of standing around for hours with a tenor slung lashed to my neck, like Ahab in the final chapter (I always see Gregory Peck lashed to the whale, waving them on to perdition), giving myself assorted back problems, curvature of the spine, hernias and god knows what else, I finally find this. I could go one further, and add a cold Guinness to the equation; watching the new-fledged wrens pick bugs off the beanpoles in the veg patch while the buzz in my head slowly grows louder. But, as I found many years earlier, it makes your horn smell funny, especially the day after. Better to go with things like, say, vodka, or green tea... or both. The strange thing I found, after exhaustive experimentation, is that only certain kinds of things work: scales and such are fine, from strange altered Messiaen rip-offs, to cod-arty attempts to enter the clean, detached snow-kissed worlds of obliquely-lit ECM artists - cool, close miked, vibrato-free tones cutting through the foliage like a sparrow hawk on the stoop. However, not everything prostrates itself before you in this prone new world, while staring at your toes just above your line of sight. There are still pockets of resistance: if you want to play bebop, you have to stand up.

but we all always knew that.


Thursday, July 24, 2008

What was I thinking?

I am really aware that this should be a witty dissection of the whole business of trying to get something a bit left field going, funny anecdotes and other vignettes, and commentary on the world around us.... strange goings-on at the last gig in terms of various musicians opting for cosmetic surgery, the DVD Tokyo Drifter (a suit to die for, completely with wildly camp 60's Japanese pop backing music) that's waiting for me when I stop messing about with this blog tonight, getting knocked off the fixed today when my mate over from France turned left instead of going straight ahead on an otherwise pleasant ride this afternoon, my sister-in-law's (hugely ugly) Winnebago-type thing that is parked in my garden and destroying my piece of mind (I can always, always see it, just there, out of the corner of my eye... waiting), and so on. Soon...

I think, though that I want to articulate what the hell I'm trying to accomplish with this new stuff - if only to make it more clear to myself. The idea behind the Riprap project was to investigate some new ways of musicians and poets collaborating , and to figure out some fresh ways of structuring compositions/improvisations around the poetry. Ultimately, it would be great if the poets would also feel there were ways they could also join in with texts they felt could be treated as a starting point, as the main idea is to explore the same kinds of freedom within a performance the musicians are using. Perhaps their text shouldn't be viewed as an fixed object, but something they could also change on the hoof, adapting it from gig to gig. I think it would be nice to re-align the idea of the text into the same approach as the music, with the emphasis on 'sounding', rather than a fixed, finished visual text. we'll see...

Any way, I've been obsessing over a couple of composers who I'm hoping might show a way of restructuring the musical element for all this. I suppose the criterion I'm looking for is the use of non-musical formula, namely those taken from literature. Because of this, I have spent the last month locked on a particular piece: the string quartet Ainsi La Nuit, by Dutilleux. Listening to it daily, playing the score at the piano, reading his essays and various analytic dissections of his music. I hear it at night lying in bed trying to sleep. Kinda Asperger's really; boring but necessary. Never really being a 'natural' musician, I find I have to kind of go through these total immersion phases to get anything really down.

His avowed aim in this composition was to explore ideas of memory as used by Proust. As he explains it, music often tends to move in a kind of forward-looking narrative arc, exemplified by something like, say, theme and variations. This could be crudely illustrated by the normal modus operandi of bebop; a head followed by solos on the song form... and then the head again. no surprises, in a sense, both the musicians and listener having all the clues straight from the off. But to view the form as something that goes backwards as well as forwards, information being given inside the piece that can move either way; ideas and textures only slowly being hinted at... how to create this in a straightforward, digestible form compatible with improvisation?



Tuesday, July 22, 2008

I suppose I'll blame Phil

It was Phil who suggested this state of affairs..."you should have a blog" , so I promised to have a go. So this is just a bit of an introduction, hopefully buried by subsequent posts.

Anyway, this will mainly be about the trials and tribulations of trying to get something a bit left-field off the ground, namely the poetry project. I have spent about a week in total over the last month going through revisions of an endless grant proposal process to help try and offset the costs of the first half-dozen gigs, as this is, as usual, somewhat unprofitable music, and will of course have to be helped along with the taxpayers money. Little do they know.

I am extremely lucky to have an interesting crew along for the ride on this one: so think of this as an opening credits-sort-of-thing.
-Phil: arty punk (you're never an ex-punk, really) web guy who has been incredibly supportive/hectoring over time.
-Malcolm: poet, biker; aka the 'Rocking Rev', the only man I know who still owns a fringed leather jacket, non-ironically.
-Brownie: bass player, cyclist, stoic and vicar?
-Dave: too talented and well-dressed by half, keyboards, closet maths genius.
-Russ: the wild card, pulse, sifu, large and small sounds.
-Jo: who will probably learn a lot from this, namely not to work on 'edgy' projects.

so off we go...