RighteousGIRLS (feat. E.J. Strickland, drums) team up with sound designer Matt McCorkle (Audio from Space/CDZA) for a full-length improvised set to McCorkles field recordings of fire, water, rain, and NYC night life. McCorkle places RighteousGIRLS and their audience at the heart of his sonic landscape.
This week, Guy Blakeslee (who records for Thrill Jockeyas ENTRANCE) released a single titled “Not Gonna’ Say Your Name.” The song protests Friday’s presidential inauguration (lyrics below). Proceeds from downloads and streams benefit Planned Parenthood.On Valentine’s Day, he will be playing on a benefit concert for the organization (details below).
Blakeslee penned an article for Talkhousein which he discusses the genesis of the song. It also includes a well-curated playlist of protest songs that you can hear in full on Spotify.
by Guy Blakeslee
There are people who say
we oughta give you a chance
but there’s not a chance in hell
we’re gonna sit back and watch you try to turn back the clock
and just sigh and say “oh well”
No, we’ll fight you every step of the way
you’re playing a losing game
and you’ll be the one with nothing to say
but I’m notgonnasay our name
I’m sick of yourname,
I’ve heard it enough
I’d rather not hear it anymore
but you’re wrong if you think we’re gonna look the other way
while you kick our friends to the floor
Though it’s hard to accept you’re really here to stay
I know our culture is obsessed with fame
I might have to see your face a hundred times every day
but I’m notgonnasayyourname
you let yourname
be a symbol of hate
and you never said a word
anything you say now is too little too late
it’s pathetic and absurd
now the voices of hate are getting louder each day
(80 North 6th Street), composer and toy pianist David Smookewill celebrate the release of his New FocusCD Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death. Joined by album personnelloadbang, Karl Larson and Michael Parker Harley, Smooke will also perform and improvise on the toy piano. I recently caught up with him and discussed the new recording, compositional approaches, and some future plans.
What attracts you to composing for and performing on the toy piano?
The sound of the toy piano evokes an idealized childhood, the sort that no one I know actually enjoyed and yet many of us possess as a shared mental experience. I love having that association underlying my explorations of disturbing and unusual sounds. In addition, it’s relatively easy to travel with one—certainly compared to a cello—and I like that there’s a basic keyboard interface alongside all sorts of other ways to interact with the instrument. When I first started playing live, it was also a huge selling point to me that there isn’t a standard performance practice with the toy piano, so I could do what felt comfortable to me without feeling like there was going to be someone in the audience shaking their head at the way that I hold my hands or where I place my feet. I keep thinking that I’ll move on to other instruments, and have plans to build some original ones, but then I keep finding other things that I can make this little box do.
Did the macabre image of the title provide a jumping off point for the winds piece or was it incorporated latter on?
When I first discovered that the Nutshell Studies existed, before I even saw them in person, I knew that I would have to eventually use them as the title for a major toy piano piece. They are a remarkably close analogy to what I do with the toy piano in that they take something associated with childhood (dollhouses in this case) and treat them in a very adult manner. And even though they portray an extreme fascination with death, they are actual tools that are used to assist people studying forensic science, and so are not sensationalist or exploitative. So the title sets up the exact expectations that I want for the piece.
What microtonal tunings do you use in the wind ensemble piece? How did you manage to detune the banjo? What other tunings appear in your music?
Like you, I do enjoy lots of different temperaments! Since every toy piano is tuned differently from each other, and none of them are in anything close to equal temperament, I tried to place the toy piano within an environment where its unique scale wouldn’t sound too wrong. From the very first conceptualizations of the piece, I knew that I needed an instrument to link the toy piano to the ensemble, in this case, the banjo. Two strings of the five-string banjo are one quarter-tone sharp of their regular tuning, and in writing the part I was very specific as to which notes were played on which strings. And so we I created a continuum from the aleatoric tuning of the toy instrument, through the professional instrument with folk associations tuned in order to make it sound somewhat distorted, into the more standard concert instruments. In that piece, concert instruments use quarter tones as well. Some Details of Hell also uses a lot of quarter tones, in that case in order to explore resonance off of a single low pitch. In A Baby Bigger Than Up Was, I compose out the vowel formants from the repeated text, which required a more systematic approach to mictrotones, using naturally-tuned thirds and sevenths in addition to quarter tones.
Your text-setting often takes a deconstructionist or fragmentary approach. Tell us a little about how you view writing for the voice and texted scores in general.
I love words and writing! I love them so much that sometimes I can feel hamstrung when I try to set a text. And I think that the human voice remains the absolutely most beautiful and expressive instrument that we have yet created. So, for several years I avoided text entirely while writing for voice. Some Details of Hell is the last piece in which I took a published poem that I love and tried to set it as clearly as possible. In that case, I spent months analyzing the poem, including its line breaks, and figuring out exactly how I could do justice to Brock-Broido’s incredible sensitivity to language. A Baby Bigger Grows Than Up Was is my most recent work for voice, and marks my return to the idea of text setting. But the text for that piece is unique in that it’s a story with all of the hallmarks of a narrative but published in alphabetical order, beginning with 19 iterations of the word “a” and ending with nearly an entire page of punctuation. So, every word is set exactly as it was published, but the text itself is organized in a non-narrative manner. The excerpt on the CD brings us from “a” to “breathing” in five minutes, but the entire piece is nearly an hour long—it all gets pretty intense when we reach the ms and the 72 statements of the word “mom” and 442 of the word “my”!
The idea of looping appears in two different guises on the album: down.stream where you use a loop pedal on your toy piano and the overdubbed bassoons on 21 Miles to Coolville (bonus points for that title, by the way). Obviously, your music eschews a conventional approach to minimalism. But irregular sorts of repetitions prove to be a throughline, from your vocal settings to the aforementioned looping structures. How do you deal with repetition in your compositional language?
We never experience true repetition. Each time an event is encountered, we perceive it within a context, and any previous contact with that idea or similar ones colors the new experience. I’m fascinated by that idea and also by nature, where near repetition is quite common, but true repetition is almost unimaginable. I think a great deal about listening to the interaction between various bird calls, or predicting ocean waves, or watching rivers where the water is forever changing and forever the same. In my music, I try to play with these concepts by having ideas or words or motives recur but generally subtly changed. 21 Miles to Coolville (and thanks!) is completely written out, and has been played by four bassoons and also by Michael Parker Harley as a solo with prerecorded Harleys. The only difference in how I created to that piece from any previous compositions is that the quarter note pulse remains constant throughout. And my approach to looping pedal in my solo performances is a bit different from most people in that I generally am using it to create drones and sustained sounds, which are otherwise incredibly difficult to produce on the toy piano, and to allow for the buildup of more orchestral textures. When I was in high school, the music of the minimalist composers was one of my first entries into the classical music world, and I still adore minimalist and post-minimalist music and art. So, I feel the influence of that aesthetic very strongly, and try to be patient in my own music, allowing ideas to remain in place for as long as necessary, and I do sometimes enjoy unadulterated recurrence.
Tell us about the gig! How did you come together with National Sawdust to present a portrait concert? Who is playing and what will be on the bill?
With the new CD, I wanted to launch in New York, where so many of the performers live, as well as in my home of Baltimore. I’ve been hearing so many amazing things about National Sawdust, and I was fortunate enough to have them agree to host this concert. We’ll be presenting four of the six tracks from the CD, all performed by the players on the album: loadbang, the pianist Karl Larson, the bassoonist Michael Parker Harley, and myself. In addition, loadbang and I will improvise together to close out the show. I’m very excited to have this opportunity to share the stage with such amazing people and players!
What’s next for David Smooke? What projects are in the pipeline?
I’m going to be playing live quite a bit more than usual over the coming months, with shows in Boston on the Opensound Series on February 11 and in San Francisco at the Center for New Music on February 24, among others. And I’m working on a piece for the Baltimore-based Sonar Ensemble right now that uses a recording of a run on a nature trail near my home as the ground layer over which the ensemble will perform.
After some one-off studio LPs for a variety of imprints, composer Steve Reich found his first label “home” with ECM Recordings (his second, Nonesuch, came after this triptych of recordings). Initially known primarily as a jazz label, ECM had decided to diversify its offerings to include classical artists such as Reich and Meredith Monk. The first of Reich’s ECM recordings, Music for Eighteen Musicians, sold more than 100,000 copies, which certainly encouraged producer Manfred Eicher to continue to take on ambitious classical projects, ultimately starting the New Series in 1984 to present Tabula Rasa, the first recording in a long term collaboration with Arvo Pärt.
The Reich reissues contain an informative set of liner notes by Paul Griffiths, who helps to provide valuable context for these works as part of Reich’s output. Music for Eighteen Musicians is a totemic Reich work, and the performance here is authoritative, lively, and dramatically paced. Its successor, Music for Large Ensemble, luxuriates in an expanded sonic palette with a greater number of winds and strings. Violin Phase is a holdover from Reich’s early style of patterned “phase music,” while Octet hews close to Music for Eighteen, providing a taut sound world filled with contrapuntal excursions set against Reich’s ubiquitous ostinatos. Whereas Violin Phase is a backward glance, Tehillim looks forward to Reich’s many texted works of the 1980s and beyond. That said, its use of canonic drums and clapping also bring it full circle to the composer’s early experiments. Another connection: the titular psalm texts are rendered by four sopranos, put in a similar register to that of the singers in Music for Eighteen Musicians. While also sustaining substantial growth and departures, Reich’s repertoire is filled with connections such as these. The ECM box may not tell the full story of his music, but it sketches the outlines of its trajectory in admirable fashion.
The trio I Am Three, consisting of alto saxophonist Silke Eberhard, trumpeter Nikolaus Neuser, and drummer Christian Marien, interpret compositions by the late Charles Mingus on their debut release for Leo Records (Eberhard has previously recorded for the label with different configurations). Mingus is, of course, a totemic figure in jazz. But he was a musician whose work can be seen from many angles, ranging from the neo-traditional – blues and early jazz signatures abound in his work – to modern jazz and the “Third Stream” experiments of the 1950s and 60s. All of this coexists in a mélange of stylistic plurality that still retains an individual stamp.
Thus, one might rightly think that Mingus would be a difficult composer with whom to grapple. While at first the muscularity of some of his best pieces would seem to indicate a durability that would allow for an open approach, artists who distort or exaggerate one aspect of his compositions’ multifaceted nature do so at the peril of unbalancing his nearly inimitable sound world. That is, in part, what makes I Am Three’s interpretations of Mingus so remarkable. The group manages to capture the spirit of piece after piece from his output with detailed touches that show careful study of the originals. At the same time, they bring original flourishes to the table, mostly by pushing Mingus’s music a bit further “out” than its original conception might have been. All of this is accomplished without a bassist.
For example, if one places I Am Three’s rendition of “Orange was the Color of her Dress, then Blue Silk” alongside Mingus’ various recordings of it, in solo piano and full band settings, the sense of homage is clear. The syncopated chordal refrain is kept intact, as is the chirping treble register interjection – here by Neuser instead of Mingus’s piano – juxtaposed against a loping swing saxophone solo by Eberhard. All the while Marien alternates between accentuating the refrains in unison with the horns and pushing the beat slightly ahead of them to better underscore the laconic character of the solos. This all eventually devolves into a tutti passage of free jazz howling, ironically capped off by a return of the refrain in slow swing time.
“Better Get Hit in Your Soul” loses the inimitable bass and piano parts. I Am Three dispenses the tune without imitating them, focusing instead on the enwrapped horn lines and revelling in the tune’s lively groove. Neuser’s growling muted trumpet intro is a memorable feature of “Fables of Faubus,” as his succeeding polyrhythmic duet with Eberhard.
On “Self Portrait in Three Colors,” Marien’s drumming takes on an almost rock-like heaviness. After a blistering upper register tutti, once again the horns play independently minded yet intertwining solo lines. “Canon” provides a natural album closer, demonstrating Mingus’ ability to employ rigorous compositional procedures while simultaneously placing them firmly in a traditional jazz vocabulary. Mingus, Mingus, Mingus was my favorite jazz release of 2016, one to which I continued to return with great pleasure for fresh insights. Recommended.