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.