Thursday, April 29, 2010

Party Tips




If you happen to find yourself at some sort of party this weekend, here is some advice from Andrew WK.

PARTY TIP: Do something you haven't done before.
PARTY TIP: Think about what you love. Forget about what you hate.
PARTY TIP: Do what feels good.
PARTY TIP: Rinse and gargle with Mountain Dew. Then spit it into a magazine and throw the whole mess in the bathtub.
PARTY TIP: Your life is a movie. You're the writer, director, & star. So you better write yourself an amazing script.
PARTY TIP: Whenever you eat a banana, tell Andrew W.K. about it.
PARTY TIP: Go to an all-girls college and talk to them about partying.
PARTY TIP: Don't be mean today.
PARTY TIP: Write down 2 things you want to do in your lifetime. Then pursue them with a vengeance!

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Wednesday, April 28, 2010

2 pianos, 1 ring modulator


Tonight marked the close of the Urban Alchemy concert series at the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts in conjuction with the exhibition of collected works of Gordon Matta-Clark. The program featured Karlheinz Stockhausen's 1970 work Mantra, written for two pianos, electronics, and sparse percussion. The crux of the work is perhaps what ties it most closely to the exhibition in the surrounding space. As Matta-Clark re-envisioned spaces and interior-exterior relationships, Stockhausen here reformulates the two-piano classical form by addition of a novel element: the ring-modulator circuit.

It was popular in the 19th century, before recorded media, to reduce orchestral works to two-piano versions that could be played in your luxe foyer at the mercy of your caprice, bypassing the need to round up your cadre of orchestra-types (heavy drinkers they are). Here Stockhausen not only reworks an established form, but in my opinion he makes a parodic jab at the idea of 'reducing' musical works. Near the close of the lengthy Mantra, Stockhausen notates a lightspeed summary of everything that occurred in the piece up to that point.

But back to the new element: the ring-modulator. Though the 'ring' in the name is often erroneously traced to the bell-like tones that the circuit is able to produce, it derives from the typical structure of the analog circuit: a ring of diodes. (Pull out your Schaum's physics outline) SLSO Music Director David Robertson started to explain the operation of the device in the pre-concert lecture and a way that was totally understandable and almost fun, which I will try to replicate. The ring-modulator multiplies the input signal (piano) by a 'carrier' signal [that's convolution in the frequency domain] so that the resulting output contains tones at the sum and the difference of the input and carrier frequencies. For you acoustics buffs that means that the ratios between these new processed signals can be very un-harmonic. This is the means by which many ring-modulator outputs sound like bells (metallic overtones are often not harmonic). See also: Arvo Part's 'tintinnabular' period of composition, where he explicitly notates such overtones played on other instruments to create this rare quality.

The result is a vast continuum of timbre from the very limited starting material of two pianos and a circuit. For example, there is one segment of the piece where piano chords seem to waver in an out of audibility, like a tremolo effect on a surf guitar (awful analogy). I am fairly sure this is acheived if the carrier frequency is set very low, so that sum and difference tones generated are relatively close, creating the pulsating 'beat' heard here. When high-register tones are played with this carrier frequency, the beat is so fast that it generates its own buzzing 'undertone'.

Why doesn't every Steinway come with a little ring modulator and internal speaker? Listen to about 20 of the 70-ish minutes of Mantra and you'll understand how this component fell out of present-day favor from its heyday in electronic/computer music composition of the 60s-70s. The ring-modulator is now that guitar effect you never use, or more scathingly, it is a textbook space-age noise used for creating specific imagery. During one segment of the piece where a single chord is sustained while the ring-modulator's carrier freq. knob is turned up and back down again, I had to cover my mouth to keep from shouting "BLAST OFF!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"
Such is the fate of a "new" sound -- in an effort to subvert the expectations associated with 'traditional' music eventually it, too, lends itself to imitation and overuse.

If you are unfamiliar with the music of Stockhausen, Mantra is an excellent place to begin, since new listeners might find his prior chance-inspired works aimless or boring, and his early serialist pieces overcomplicated.

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Monday, April 26, 2010

Album Review: Various Artists, "Afro-Rock"


'60s/'70s afro-funk from all over the continent. Not exactly new territory, a lot of overlap with other comps, but still solid stuff. What distinguishes this comp from others is a slight focus on the more psychedelic jams. Play all, but especially:

1+++ and 2+++ (funky!), 3++ (love this flute), 5++ (12 min long jam), 8+(gitdown!), 10+++(funky harmonica? Oh yes.)

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Miracles...damn....

DAMU THE FUDGEMUNK - HOW IT SHOULD SOUND VOL. 1 & 2
This is a collection of previously unreleased instrumental beats from Washington D.C. producer Damu the Fudgemunk.
In my opinion, this is the best hip-hop producer to emerge in the last couple of years. (I say that in terms of straight-up hip-hop beats, as opposed to more hybridized hip-hop forms, like you see in guys like Flying Lotus.) This man continues the finest traditions of crate digging, layering dope soul/funk/jazz samples with all the technical skill of Pete Rock or Premier. His beats are absolutely good enough to be listened to as instrumentals, the sign of any truly dope producer, and are intricate enough to keep you listening and not come off as repetitive. In addition to all the really dusty samples, he has the unique talent of taking recognizable samples used by his 90s predecessors and flipping them in totally new ways. So you get that "oh shit, I know that!" factor but it's still very fresh at the same time. For some reason, Damu hasn't absolutely exploded in the underground. (I asked Sadat X if he knew this guy, and we was like "Damon Fudge-who?" and I was like that's really depressing.) Changing his lame-ass name would certainly be a good start towards fame.


A taste:

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Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Album Review: Kings Go Forth, "The Outsiders Are Back"


Vintage soul sounds from Milwaukee, but don't think Daptone. These guys have a lush early 70s Chicago Curtis Mayfield sound, occasionally venturing into a mid 70s Harold Melvin float or even freaky "Here My Dear"/Shuggie Otis experimentation. This percussion section is the best I've heard in a long time. Definitely give this a listen.

Play: 1+++ and 2+++(wow, driving!), 5++ (nice Philly feel), 6+(neat cover), 7++ (downright disco), 8+ (ska horns)

P.S. Artwork by Mingering Mike! (the art on the actual cover, that is)

Monday, April 12, 2010

SLSO Bloggers' Night or how I learned to stop worrying and mythologize the bomb.

Late last week I spied a lone gem glistening in the rough of my inbox--an invitation to blog about the Saint Louis Symphony's April 10 program in exchange for a pair of tickets. Though I consider myself a fairly regular SLSO attendee, capitalizing on their community initiatives (See Student Tickets and Fifty Free), I waffled on attending Saturday's concert prior to the blog bribe. I had already seen the premiere of John Adams's Doctor Atomic Symphony, and I tend to dismiss Sibelius as occupying a space in 20th Century music analogous to that which Kenny G occupies in jazz.

I resolved that evening to release my simplistic grasp on the music of Sibelius and Prokofiev, and, meeting indeterminate success, I was surely aided by the incisive pre-concert lecture by David Roberston. Without exception I enjoy hearing Roberston speak. His lectures are a dense mesh of academic tangents, which is both praise for his scholarship and the reason I wouldn't engage him in conversation when I'm late for a bus. He gets credit for making the sole remotely on-color reference to Nabokov's Lolita I have ever heard. But what I really took away from the talk was a new way to frame the music of 20th century composers, like Sibelius, who clung to the pillars of tonality while the Second Viennese Samsons felled them.

The continuum from consonance to dissonance in composition does not linearly correlate with the timeline of the past century. More modern does not mean more dissonant. The push to inject music with a newly-envisioned take on tonality was greatly regionally-dependent in its inception. I don't intend to say that Järvenpää, the birthplace of Johann Sibelius, was a quaint backwoods villa, but it probably wasn't the epicenter of ideas that would upend the arts. Sibelius's symphonies generate "newness" through a nuanced mastery of the form rather than overhauling the unities of style that predominated the 19th century. Bearing this in mind, I found my way to GC G41. It was just inside the door near the water fountain whose faux-alabaster glory makes me feel like I am fulfilling Ponce de Leon's quest with every well-pressurized sip.

The evening began on a light note with a performance by a line of area schoolchildren involved in one of the many educational programs offered by the SLSO. Put bluntly, I found the performance far inferior to the New York Philharmonic's rendition of "Pepperoni Twinkle Star", but I suppose you have to start somewhere. The first scheduled work on the program was Rapture by Christopher Rouse, an appropriate jumping-off point since Rouse, and this work in particular, still engenders tonality in a modern context. The opening of the piece is a primal lilt between two whole tones in the low end, while winds arc above. This figure seemed to me uniquely American, almost hymnal, abetting the spiritual connotation of the title. A trumpet then leads a march through a cycle of diatonic chords that flirts with unorthodoxy but leads the ear seamlessly from one to the next. Then, the entrance of harp and chimes speaks to Rouse's command of the sonic breadth of the orchestra. This sentiment is compounded at the finale when cascading horn lines spiral over gong blasts that swell and dampen quickly. It reminded me of the unnatural dynamics of hearing a tape reversed. This led me to ponder the hypothesis that present-day symphonic composers infuse their writing for traditional instrumentation with sound qualities drawn from the modern worlds of musique concrete, Moog synths, and Pro Tools. I also wonder if there had been any dialogue between Rouse and ideas in bebop and post-bop jazz. One part of the piece featured a clarinet soaring above the orchestra in pentatonic lines in a related but not equivalent key, and I could have sworn I saw the visage of Coltrane winking above the stage. On the whole, the piece was commendably entrancing.

To put in a few words about the Prokofiev, I was taken in by the physicality of violinist Gil Shaham. In the opening of the first movement, the lilting call and response of the minor theme breaks as the violin doubles its pace, bolstered by percussive bass. I recall Shaham stalking around in an almost predatory crouch as if to pounce on the accelerating passage. The second movement of the work seemed so spare and harmonically conservative that it, possibly intentionally, made the quick odd-meter dance rhythms of the third all the more engaging.

I really was disappointed by my mental conduct during the Sibelius. With firm intent, I tried to enjoy his Symphony No. 7 in C Major. I invoked Schoenberg, "There is still plenty of music to be written in C major." But I wasn't able to access it in the way I had hoped. I couldn't help but think that during a time when much of the art sought to "epater la bourgeoisie", Sibelius was writing "music to purchase capital and trade commodities to". I now recognize that Sibelius will take repeated exposure and informed reading to appreciate. Or I could just attribute my lack of focus to pangs of regret over leaving the maraschino cherry in my Manhattan unconsumed during intermission.

The figurehead of the program, the Doctor Atomic Symphony, had a more dramatic impact on me this time around. It compiles much of what attracts me to John Adams's music: rhythmically complex instrumental lines that interweave with one another to yield a fabric that is at once chaotic and entirely listenable. In line with my current reading, I draw a parallel between his music and the aesthetic of the nouveau roman of Robbe-Grillet. Here the reader/listener is bombarded with such a quantity of detail and narrative entanglement that he or she is forced to pick and choose among the vast array to construct his or her own subjective account of the novel/symphony.

I find it particularly appropriate that Adams of all composers takes as subject the construction of the atomic bomb. The way in which the fragmented musical lines collide and spiral off one another is not entirely unlike the straying of neutrons in a nuclear chain reaction. This metaphor could be extended, with reservations, to the swath of repercussions nuclear proliferation would have on the political framework of the latter half of the 20th century. An interesting feature in this work that I had not heard before in Adams was bowed cymbals, which produce an eerie humming. This sound comes less from the touch of a musician and more from the resonant material properties of the metal itself. It suggested to me the equally eerie connection to waning humanity and compassion as the bomb is constructed in the machine-driven technological age. The finale of Doctor Atomic is perhaps the most unnerving part of its historical reflection. A driving percussive string figure marks the approach of zero hour. Then a softer, contemplative segment follows as if it were music heard from afar, watching the detonation from the white sands around the Trinity site. Then the jarring percussive figure returns, like a resignation. There is no turning back; man has been made destroyer of worlds.

Is this work is an important piece of the collective memory of the gravity of this event? Or is it part of a process to cope with a dark moment in American history? When history is transmuted into art, I feel it cannot help but absorb some of the fictive quality of the art. An emotional context forms that would never have sprung from the primary sources. It is obviously important to disentangle the expression by Adams from the factual events. Could you attempt to tell the story of Hiroshima strictly with Penderecki's Threnody? It is a chance to remind ourselves that, along with artistic artifact, we must remember in ways more real and whole.

Many thanks to Eddie Silva with SLSO publications for facilitating this event.

--
Thomas is a DJ on KWUR 90.3-FM. Hear more bombast Monday evenings from 10pm-12am on "The Copium", a program of 20th Century music.

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Sunday, April 11, 2010

Album Review: The Tallest Man On Earth, "The Wild Hunt"

A reductive comparison one could draw to this record is that lord of Folk himself: Mr. Zimmerman. And such a comparison was drawn over and over to The Tallest Man On Earth's last record, Shallow Grave. But Kristian Matsson, aka The Tallest Man..., is so much more. There is a vocal similarity, to be sure, but less than on the last album. Here, we find Matsson further exploring his upper register and utilizing guitar skills ol' Bob only wishes he could possess. There's a bit more overdubbing with the instrumentation, but it's done in a subtle way that adds nicely to the musical background - as evidenced by the banjo on Track 2 and just a little electric guitar on Track 9. Track 10 sees Matsson move from the frets to the piano, and it's a beautiful move. Lyrically, it covers your general folky tropes but in a nicely poetic way.

In addition to the flat-out greatness of the songs is the excellent production. It gives the whole album a magnificent sense of space (despite seeming so intimately recorded). But that's really what this album evokes - expansiveness. There's just something that moves in this music, and makes everything seem so limitless. This one is for the road, especially when travelling solo. Even the album cover makes such expansiveness (and road-worthiness) pretty clear.

Seriously, this album is fuckin' everything a modern folk album should be, especially when it's just a guy and his own solo instrumentation.

Play all and any tracks!!

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Album Review: Jónsi, "Go"

Jón Þór Birgisson, Jónsi, is best known as the lead singer of the dreamy, bombastic, (adjective) post-punk band Sigur Rós, out of Iceland. This album isn't really a tremendous deviation, simply because, even though it's so much more, Sigur Rós's sound is inextricably linked to this man's voice. I mean, DAMN. It is beautiful. Here, he's aided by composer du-jure Nico Muhly and it's a great fit here. The orchestrations only enhance the joy coming from Jónsi, here singing in English. But the star, of course, is that voice.

You really ought to play all.
Track 1 is like the peak of a great Sigur Rós song, sustained for 4 minutes. Track 2 - would be fitting in a happy montage, if it weren't already joyously tripping over itself at such a wonderful speed.
3 - gorgeous, building. 4 - "the world goes in flutter-by;" sparkling. 5 - great. 6 - nice build, triumphant. 7 - spinning, lovely. long orchestral outro, though. 8 - like one of the ballads from the last SR album but actually going somewhere. 9 - gorgeous, slow

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Saturday, April 10, 2010

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Album Review: Mark Sultan, "$"


Forget the Black Lips, forget even King Khan–Mark Sultan (aka The BBQ Show) is the unsung hero of the gritty garage-soul sound. This album, which deftly combines messy, distorted steel guitar sounds (straddling the same border between Jesus and Mary Chain + garage as The Raveonettes) with Sultan's distinct, plaintive doo-wop wail, may be that sound's best manifestation yet. This album sounds like finally making out with the best friend you've always had a crush on. PLAY ALL!

Especially: 2+++(yah! yah!), 3+++(gorgeous doo-wop), 4++, 6+++(awesome, rockin'), 9+++(better version of King Khan and BBQ Show song)

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Album Review: Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, "I Learned The Hard Way"

With this fourth album from this legendary Brooklyn soul revival group, Sharon Jones' Muscle Shoals style gutbusting vocals are a given. The real stars here are the Dap-Kings, whose ability to perfectly capture the sounds of 60s/70s soul blur the line between soul revival and a long lost dusty Atco record. No other band in the world can do what they do, play all!

But esp: 1+++(perfectly smooth Philly fanfare), 2+++(hottest shit ever), 3++(nice 'n' laid back), 4++, 6 (instr.), 7+++(just great), 12+++(Sharon Jones is the star here)

Sunday, April 04, 2010