Friday, December 30, 2011

Dark Dogs and the Dance of Death

As posy as it sounds, after teaching ended and prior to the post-Christmas recording session for Riprap, we (that is, myself and the cruel mistress who rules my heart, not the quartet) went to Madrid to visit a friend and get some R&R. The general plan was, to keep everyone happy, to alternate days in the surrounding hills with hard-core gallery-hitting days.

To that end, while Jane went all enlightenment, checking out the Ruebens, I wandered through much of the darker side of things (as usual). After an extended, cheerful period in a deserted room with Goya's Black Paintings from his late years of gathering madness in the Quinta del Sordo (typified by light-hearted themes such as this painting of a drowning dog on the right, which makes an intersting contrast to Hokusai's Kanagawa oki nami-ura), I found myself standing speechless and shaken while touring the Late Medieval sections of the Prado, looking at the Bruegel, Bosch and Fra Angelico paintings.

The thing I noticed in most of them, as in this detail below of Brueghel's (and the title brightens your mood just hearing it) The Triumph of Death, was that music usually had some very unfortunate outcomes in the grand scheme of things. As we can see here below, a fool plays a lute accompanied by a figure of death on lute as well, playing a counter-line, as the army of Death sweeps across Kings, Fools, and Beauty alike, disturbing the banquet, and the skeletons with scythes and swords literally reap the living, who, distracted by their little pleasures such as music, sex and drink, are oblivious to the approaching Apocalypse.

Hmmm.... not good, not at all the way I had planned things in my somewhat erratic career as a musician to shake out at all. I had always thought of music as something that would affirm life, (or at least get me some girlfriends) and, in a sense, could even be said to have transcended it for a privileged few, like Bach or Stravinsky, whose art is still tracing some kind of narrative arc, complete with unseen outcome, through our culture. Although it has to be said that it is questionable whether it makes any difference to their current state of being. Instead, I was presented with the stern Northern view (mostly Flemish) of the frivolous arts distracting us from the proper contemplation of memento mori, and that inevitable and inescapable conclusion of our affairs. Our time is short - don't waste it. Yeah, like I said, a short holiday. Check it out in detail online; especially scroll over to the lower right-hand corner in the link. Happy Days.

Anyway, I have been reading a couple of books of Hubert Dreyfus after an oblique recommendation by a local spiritual leader and generally lower-register guy. While sitting in a self-catering flat in Madrid, being too cheap to go out to eat every night, I was slowly working my way through All Things Shining, one of his most recent books, and came across the chapter on Melville's Moby Dick (which, by a strange coincidence, I also was in the middle of one of my bi-annual readings). One of his points is our loss of any sense of connection with wonder, exacerbated by our post-Cartesian mind/body concept of duality. He specifically un-picks the chapter where the crew has to collectively break down the finest oil of the sperm whale, the head oil or spermaceti, by plunging their hands together into casks filled with the cooling oil, and, as it starts to crystallize, to squeeze the lumps and break them up. Melville describes how, because of the many pairs of hands working in the still-warm, slippery oil, he lost any sense of his individuality with the others and they all created this spreading sense of well-being as they pressed lumps of oil and each others hands indiscriminately. This brought me back to the experience of the group of bass clarinets and low-pitched ambient noise we created, where I couldn't, for at least the last 10 minutes, tell whether I was making a sound or not; like the loss of self in the gentle pogo-ing within a mosh-pit.

We finally got a Riprap recording session done, and got some good, usable stuff after two solid days of playing. It could be that we need another, but that remains to be seen, and will depend on what the mix-down sounds like. It was strange, as my soprano sounded great, but I just couldn't get going on tenor, never mind bass clarinet. And we never got around to the Rameau rip-off. I might try to organize another day to try and re-do three or four tracks. It was the usual set of recording compromises, with great intros ruined by mistakes in the head, or superb solos rendered useless by a crap one (usually mine) following on its heels. I'm going to go into the mix-down to try and see if we can create some musical Frankensteins, perhaps grafting intro 2 onto take 5 sort of thing, or losing a section here and there.

The thing that seemed to work the best was, of course, one of the last things we decided to do for the sheer hell of it. Instead of doing the piece Old Year as a brittle, minimalist (more in the La Monte Young sense) twisted children's song we started from a Late Miles On the Corner inspired ride, and just blew the hell out of it. So much for being art-y.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Albanian Escapades

I just did an excellent gig in the Ruskin gallery to accompany the David Ryan film on Scelsi, as part of a forest of licorice logs (as opposed to the old licorice sticks; actually, only three bass clarinets), one of whom was a serious Mr. Bass Clarinet Guy. It was interesting as we were spread around the gallery to coincide with the three differing simultaneous cuts of the film. Our mission was to amplify any ambient sounds in the soundtrack, and to play around with the 'resultant tones' that come about from the slight differences of pitch between everything involved. This set up an unearthly beating in my chest as I played, and after twenty minutes I couldn't tell whether I was actually the one making a particular sound or not. The only problem was having to stand there beside Mr. Serious Bass Clarinet Guy, clutching my plastic (or ebonite, as the ads have it) Yamaha student-model special and occasionally squeaking. But it was kind of sad the way I kept trying to bring the conversation post-gig to saxophones to try and retrieve some dignity: "...actually, you know, if I was doing this on sax, where I'm more comfortable, I would...." He was, of course, ever so understanding.....

I had been suddenly plunged into one of those moments when one is revealed as a fraud (at least mildly). It was not unlike trying, as we all have at a party full of strangers, to pass yourself off as an Albanian with a contrived
Mittel-Europa accent, (even though Albania is properly Südost-Europa) complete with monocle and a sharp hat at what feels like a jaunty angle at the time (such as Erich here on the right), fabricating adventures based on half-forgotten Franz Lehar operetta scenes out of the Die Lustige Witwe, only to find out that you are in fact speaking to a descendant of King Zog himself (cutting a gay, dashing figure to the upper left), and haplessly find yourself drawn inexorably into a gun-running plot aimed at his restoration... it's the sort of thing that always worked for Da Ponte and Mozart? But the enduring attraction of Ruritanian escapades never really fades - and you can get a very good dose of the Hollywood version of the fantasy in Erich Von Stroheim's 1925 silent version of The Merry Widow is not to be missed:

and who doesn't sometimes wish to channel the Hussar look from old Vienna? Von Stroheim had it down: dueling scar (check) (those Heidelberg mensur clubs), monocle (check), plus fours (check), riding boots, lots of medals...and to complete the picture, one should be able to refer to the arguments made in Richard Burton's Sentiment of the Sword, a fascinating Victorian equivalent to Musashi's Go Rin no Sho or The Book of Five Rings.

Apart from that, the last few weeks have been spent doing the boring stuff; getting all the charts ready for rehearsals for the CD recording, it's all just wildly time-consuming. And of course the first run-throughs, while exciting, have, as always, thrown up a number of minor problems and corrections to be addressed.

Anyway, so it's early Sunday morning; and, sitting balanced on the
zafu, the rain spatters against the window's glass with a tinkling sound while a bolt of glaring pink light crosses the room horizontally from the low rising sun, ruffling the edges of awareness and filling my all-too-always-ruffled mind with intrusive questions: fixie with mudguards or road iron? 3/4 length bibs or roubaix longs? Hot chocolate/mocha or a nice pot of tea when I hit Finchingfield in a couple of hours time? Cancellara (in red) didn't need anything but shorts here; watch his break at about 2:20 over the pave, complete with Belgium commentary:

All this was originally going to be about David Foster Wallace and my hard-as nails late Father-in-Law, along with some observations about pictures of the beer chair... strange how things drift sideways? More a kind of dérive, I suppose

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Spacing out at this year's Monad Festival? or trying to look out of a house without doors and windows

When I'm sitting around at the piano messing about, up to no good with Seeger's ideas (not Pete, but Ruth Crawford) of dissonant counterpoint in a not-very-organized fashion, I often seem to create opaque structures that are a bit like living in a house without doors and windows when then trying to create ways to improvise over the material I compose. If I was on the case, each object would call up its own set of rules. But these bits, apart from being great for twisting the First Year's comp class heads around like in the Exorcist (I suppose that's why they hate me, at least for a bit), it usually leaves me in a strange state of suspension, like the moment of focus in doing bamboo breath when you disappear. (unfortunately, googling this phrase tends to bring up quite a bit of very dodgy New Age Music; just don't do it)

What I am usually faced with is a series of autonomous gestures; one or two bar fragments that create a tiny brittle world of their own, without much reference to outside stylistic models. In a sense, these things are art-object monads: opaque, small, self-contained totalities that contain a number of contradictions reflecting the larger world around us. (damn, did I just say that?) I know it's a bit of a cliché to refer here to the Rachel Whiteread work, but the image seems apt as I stare at a couple of bars of music, and trying to see out of it into the world beyond.

In a way, it's easy to create these things; the real difficulty arises as you try to do something with them... some kind of over-arching architecture that is so elusive, at least for me... especially one that is porous enough for improvisation. I tend to start with these frail ideas and little sense of where they're going to go. And then, I try to take Birtwistle's advice (admittedly stolen from Klee), and "take a line for a walk". But that's not enough: it seems easier to compose them out for, say, a trio or quartet reading exactly what you have written than to devise a plan that allows the gesture to inform and shape an improvisation. Life was so easy with Hard Bop: II-V's, tritone subs, IV-bVII, the occasional II-III-I or even the Trane turnaround exploiting mediant motion. (that's mediant, not deviant... oh those crazy cancrizons thirds...just do it - bust the cycle 5's butt)
See what I mean?.

So what the Hell do I do with that gesture? Just two dyads; life was simpler when the structure was supplied by a poem's narrative line, as was the case with this. we would play it, Malcolm would read, and we'd move on to the next gesture reflecting his text, ornamenting the gestures as we went. But now I'm sitting trying to turn this into something stand-alone the Riprap quartet can use without relying on a text.

Anyway, something will happen, I suppose - maybe I'll ask Mr. Chu

Other stuff? Well, it's Thanksgiving and I've just been sitting here marking and practicing all day - no turkey in sight... I think I'll make some pasta and wash it down with a strong rioja. Went out for a cycle this afternoon, and encountered a cygnet in some kind of mild distress, wandering in the middle of the road with a crocodile of cars in tow. Tomorrow I'm doing a gig with three bass clarinets to accompany a nearly silent film on the composer Scelsi, by Dave Ryan. Should be interesting; he was a very unique voice. After that, Riprap starts rehearsing next week to get ready to record the next CD, in order to have an epic push to get a few gigs in what's left of the jazz scene. Hence the composer's block.

And here's the track from Mifune and Paul recorded last Month. They did a great job on the re-written and expanded duet at the Cambridge Festival gig in October; I was really glad they decided to revisit it so I re-worked much of it and added a piano cadenza; you can hear the gig below..
Piano&violinduet by kevin flanagan

Monday, September 12, 2011

damn, it's been a long time, or, no time at all, or something

Damn - it has been a very long time for this blog, but it seems to start up just where it left off: after a summer of composing some material for the quartet, I got back home for a summer break up north in NH. Though, to be honest, that's nowhere near as far north as here at the Lazy K (51 degrees as opposed to 43-44-ish). I suppose it's a state of mind, what with the mild weather and landscape here, versus the space, hilly bits and real winters there, that still makes me think of home as up north. I suppose, because when I was young and hitching or gigging in the lower 48, the final leg of any journey would always be northeast-ward. Checking out the live Mt Washington webcam , I can already see the snow along the top of the Appalachian trail, even though the trees below haven't started to turn yet.

One of those highways would be Route 6, the one that Sal Paradise gets stuck on (although he was headed in the opposite direction) in On The Road:
"Five scattered rides took me to the desired Bear Mountain Bridge, where Route 6 arched in from New England. It began to rain in torrents when I was let off there. It was mountainous. Route 6 came over the river, wound around a traffic circle, and disappeared into the wilderness. Not only was there no traffic but the rain came down in buckets and I had no shelter.

Finally a car stopped at the empty filling station; the man and two women in it wanted to study a map. I stepped right up and gestured in the rain; they consulted; I looked like a maniac, of course, with my hair all wet, my shoes sopping . . . . But the people let me in and rode me north to Newburgh, which I accepted as a better alternative than being trapped in the Bear Mountain wilderness all night. "Besides," said the man, "there's no traffic passes through 6. If you want to go to Chicago you'd do better going across the Holland Tunnel in New York and head for Pittsburgh," and I knew he was right. It was my dream that screwed up, the stupid hearth-side idea that it would be wonderful to follow one great red line across America instead of trying various roads and routes."

Although I never got much further on it than mid-upstate New York (roughly where Kerouac maroons his protagonist), I often got stuck somewhere, late at night, in the middle of nowhere. My being there at all usually had something to do with a woman, and nothing that ever ended well. It nevertheless had the delicious (?) feel of a one way ticket to Palookville, starting and ending nowhere in particular; (Provincetown, Mass to Long Beach, California?) and religiously avoiding anything anything of note.... (much like most of my career) - a real meander through small-town America.

So back in NH for a couple weeks at the end of the summer, 80+ degree weather; this time I mainly cycled the back roads heading west every morning; as the temptation is to always ride the coast road, but in the summer it's just wall-to-wall tourist blockage - endless lines of chunky tourist couples in SUV's or Harleys (with straight pipes to advertise their presence) on a mission to sample 'real New England seafood', blatting slowly up Route 1a in between meals of over-generous portions. God bless overweight Harley owners with suspiciously shiny over accessorized bikes that only come out on sunny Sundays (..."only 3,000 dry miles..", as the ebay ad will say in a couple of years.)

"Like a siren's song, the sea beckons you to explore New Hampshire along Historic Route 1. Roll down your windows, breathe in the ocean air, and listen to the crashing waves and crying seagulls. Mingle with salty characters [such as me ed.] on picturesque beaches and in colonial villages — some of which are nearly 400 years old. Discover a charming brew of history, theaters, restaurants, and shopping."

yeah, right....they've bought into it - especially the fresh hell of olde-time-y over-fried seafood and charming sales-tax-free outlet malls; who believes this shit? Route 1 (not 1a), once a sequence of small town greens, the usual white Churches, orchards and dairy farms, is now just a long line of half-dead mall attempts, that, and as one dies, another keeps bursting out of the chest of the local landscape like the little creature in Alien. The area was destroyed by that kind of small-town-estate-agent-who-also-sits-in-the-planning-committee-greed mindset. You drive by vast empty parking lots with a dozen cars or so in them, full of boarded-up attempts at the alleged American Dream - each one a dead-end franchise someone squandered their life's savings after a high-pressure sales pitch in the hope of ' being their own boss'. I could weep. One of the ramshackle but still beautiful old farmhouses, set in orchards and rolling, stone enclosed pastures near the Great Bay that I used to live in with a loose musician's commune was bulldozer-ed for this kind of lapse of taste; a mall surrounded by 10 dead acres of asphalt which has collapsed and re-opened several times already under different guises. Once something's gone, it's gone. Historic Route 1?

So instead of the tourist-choked coast roads, heading west from my folks house rapidly takes me into quiet, wooded back roads. I love it that you can still find a few village stores in the small towns with porches with a bench, squeaky screen doors and cold sassafras-based root beer to allay the stifling heat when you stop after a couple of hours, hot and mildly lost.

So I sat on the back porch, listening to music and reading in the afternoon, beer in the evenings with friends. The shoulder (damn torn rotator cuff, since you asked; weird and painful - no, I had never heard of it before either) is getting better, and I've been been doing more than a moderate amount of composing.

I re-wrote my piano-violin duet, which just had an excellent performance. (youtube link soon) And then started work on a choral setting of the Diamond Sutra. I've also now got most of the material done for the next album, modifying about a dozen sketches for the poetry events and turning them into full-blown-stand-alone pieces. The main problem there was converting dozens of sketches and individual gestures making up the poetry settings into viable quartet instrumental numbers without the structural crutch of a spoken narrative. The whole project has been hanging for the last 5 months, waiting for Russ's back to get better, but we're going to start rehearsing in the next couple of weeks. I'll stick more of the usual cheesy synth-ed samples up soon, but here's one I made earlier....Sighting the Tiger

And finally, I had a busy-ish summer gig-wise, and along with that there's a general feeling of returning to 'player' status (no, not that kind of player, as shown here in the Def Jam trailer). The cycling is recovering, and with that my general mood; although I lost out about 2 months of training through bad scheduling, attitude and weather. - I'm only just now returning to something like the form I had this spring, which is not saying much; and chickened out of the Mildenhall 200k, as the shoulder was freezing up after 3-4 hours, but that seems to be going.

Last week, back in Blighty, a huge cloud of swallows milling noisily over the meadow announced the end of the mild weather, and eventually disappeared to the south; back to work.