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