Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Open The Door!

The Virago Modern Classics series so consistently pleases me that it makes the well of the world's good books seem quite bottomless. Part, though not all, of their stock in trade is the elegantly written bildungsroman by someone who then never quite equals her debut, from a time when people somehow made good writing seem a lot more effortless. Catherine Caswell published only one other novel after 1920's Open The Door!, but remained a woman of letters, writing two biographies, most significantly one of D.H. Lawrence of whom she was an early supporter in her role as newspaper critic, and a correspondent to the tune of several hundred letters.
The story itself traces 12-year old Joanna Bannerman to age 30, through a young widowhood and eventual happy remarriage; though it is not a quest simply to get herself hitched, rather a detailed and compelling accounting of her emotional and intellectual awakening generally. Raised in Glasgow in the late 19th century in an evangelical Christian family (a term which carried somewhat different connotations then than now, but still involved a rather narrowly circumscribed worldview and a lot of preaching to the benighted), her father has just died at the outset, an eventuality that then, as in modern American sitcoms, seemed to trigger a more difficult but also somehow more "interesting" time for the children. In 1890s Glasgow, the first order of business is to get to the more cosmopolitan Edinburgh, whence eventually to London.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

My Jazz Weekend

I have all these records and from time to time I feel I should justify that by listening to them. Accordingly, I attacked the jazz shelf, reaching not for the canon, but rather for the sentimental favorites culled from the rather unstructured way one found about things in the pre-internet era with the limited pocket money of a teenager.

First up was Weather Report's Tale Spinnin'. I imagine there are purists and rejecters of "fusion" who won't have much to do with them, and their sole hit ("Birdland" from 1977's Heavy Weather) does feel a bit gimmicky. However, on this record, the sheer exuberance of the playing (particularly of trap drummer Leon "Ndugu" Chancler, poached from a Santana session at the studio next door) and the rhythmic complexity, far from any plodding funk moves, is something I've always found kind of dazzling. Also I think the integration of the electronic sounds with the more conventional jazz instrumentation puts it on the same shelf with Herbie Hancock's landmark Sextant.

Following that was Return to Forever’s Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy. I don't know if the science fiction title reflected Chick Corea's Scientology involvement but to a kid who read nothing but Michael Moorcock for a year, LP titles like that were not off-putting. I have always considered the record itself their own perfect fusion moment. Falling between the Brazilian Flora Purim and Joe Farrell phase of Light as a Feather (which I love) and the "progressively" more noodle-y releases of the Al Di Meola era, this one owes a lot to the comparatively unsung guitarist Bill Connors. Hyper-complex rhythms played at hyper-speed, timbres continually exploding with ring modulation and wah-wah – I wouldn’t begin to know how to sell someone on this any further, but have never tired of it myself.

I should think mention of The Paul Winter Consort must mostly evoke yawns and slight shivers of discomfort, as visions of comfortably Episcopalian New Age events at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and Saving The Whales, present themselves. I can't help you with that, but will periodically return to "Africanus Brasileiras" which closes the group's 1970 live album Road where the pan-cultural stylistics implicit in the song title do not result in some kind of lumpy porridge; there's a lilting intro, derived from a Ugandan folk melody, which leads into a roof-raising take on Luis Gonzaga's "Asa Branca" with everyone in the group singing harmony. The result quite transcends the original, itself a lovely and key piece of the north Brazilian forró style, which we can hereby credit Winter with disseminating 20 years before David Byrne.

I have many shelf inches of 1950s vocal records of jazz standards and can't always reach past them for the more esoteric stuff. Last night, perennial favorite June Christy's first solo LP (after her Stan Kenton years), Something Cool (1955; yes, I have the 10" release from the prior year as well) was the perfect way to treat my neighbors, sometime after midnight, to the sound of me hollering along with her takes on "I Should Care", "Softly, As In a Morning Sunrise" , "This Time the Dream's On Me", "I'll Take Romance" and so on. Christy was for me an adult discovery, in part because of my probably not atypical impatience as a young person with the perceived corniness of standards. However, these are melodies I love and they carved formative neural grooves, owing to the up-tempo, instrumental be-bop versions, sixteenth notes overflowing, through which I first discovered them all (working my way back to actual country music via the Flying Burrito Brothers and Grateful Dead along a similar axis). Hearing them actually sung with words, and learning to appreciate the elegance of that style of lyric writing has been a fantastic benefit, unforeseeable at the time.

The June Christy record (to my surprise, as I glance at the credits) has a song called "Lonely House", co-written by Langston Hughes and Kurt Weill. Now I imagine I know everything, especially about mid-20th century America, but could certainly not have told you those two collaborated (look up the somewhat forgotten Broadway musical Street Scene for more info!). This morning’s breakfast platter was the title track from Gary Bartz's I've Known Rivers and Other Bodies , which has lyrics adapted from one of Langston Hughes' best-known poems. Bartz is not that polished a singer which lends the whole thing a quality I admire. The record is from the double-LP Live at 1973 Montreux series that also gave us McCoy Tyner's superb Enlightenment; this is music that made me what I am and now it may be slightly rubbing off on you!

After listening to that, I briefly addressed Oregon, continuing the Paul Winter theme. They have also perhaps not aged that well, and interestingly the track I return to most frequently, Canyon Song from the record Distant Hills, is uncharacteristic because Colin Walcott is playing a drum set instead of his customary tabla drums - so they’re kind of trying to rock out with 12-string acoustic guitar, acoustic bass and oboe, which gives it a charm I've never quite managed to summarize – listen for yourself.

Finally, as laundry reared its dreary head, I put on Cannonball Adderley's Things Are Getting Better, from 1958. I've never quite "gotten" jazz vibraphone (Milt Jackson on this one) but I consider that my failing. Adderley's tart alto is supported by Art Blakey, who automatically makes a record good, and some characteristically fine piano from Wynton Kelly. This is a thrift store find of the past decade, but the 1970s association is with NRBQ's second album, Scraps, on which they do a medley of the title track from this record and the Mercer-Allen 1944 standard "Accentuate The Positive" - nice to finally understand everything that was going on in Terry Adams' head at the time.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Air Above Mountains

One of my formative musical experiences was seeing a Cecil Taylor solo piano performance when I was 17 (in Helsinki,no less!). There was no possibility of following individual notes or harmonies in the deluge coming out of the piano - instead it seemed to call for a new way of listening, something like seeing the fractal patterns of coastline seemingly too irregular to make sense of from a closer vantage point. Currently recreating the experience by listening to the two-part Air Above Mountains, recorded around that time. I've been on Taylor binge the past few days, including such famous ensemble works as Unit Structures, but something about his solo work provides the real transcendent experience.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Notes on London Review of Books, February 3, 2005 (Volume 27, Number 3)

Linda Colley on N.A.M Rodger: the superiority of British Sea Power is a mid-19th century construction, not consistently supported by the actual history of the preceding three centuries.

Joyce’s “Stephen Hero” is a reference to “Turpin Hero” – Dick Turpin, a highwaymen and folk-hero, subject of ballads and broadsides, was probably really just a thug.

Context for “Godzilla” - not only were Hiroshima and Nagasaki still fresh in the Japanese public mind but even more recently, 1954, a boatload of tuna poisoned with radiation by US Bikini Atoll hydrogen bomb experiment had been sold in Japan before the hospitalization of its crew with radiation sickness was known. The Emperor himself stopped eating fish.

Emma Richler (daughter of Mordecai) has written two books, Feed My Dead Dogs and Sister Crazy about growing up in a big, eccentric E. Nesbit-styled family. This turns out to be more psychologically complex in real life than in Y.A. novels but the books sound charming all the same.

White Mozambican Mia Coutu, who writes in Portuguese (hence lusophone) sounds well worth reading. The Last Flight of The Flamingo and Sleepwalking Night, at least, have been translated into English.

Mendelssohn a fascinating character, must listen to more of his music. Wagner’s anti-semitism partly originates in personal rivalry with Felix, from whom he (Wagner) stole quite freely.

Documentary film Mondovino is “substantively about the world of wine and taste, but formally it’s skilful agit-prop against the forces of globalisation.” (Steven Shapin)

Alfred Wegener’s 1915 “The Origins of Continents and Oceans” posited the existence of the Pangaea supercontinent which was not commonly accepted until the late 1960s. Also beneath Yellowstone Park is a “supervolcano” whose effects, should it erupt, would be much more cataclysmic than most of the things we worry about. It is 40,000 years overdue for its cyclical eruption.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Comedians and Hoofers

Rainy February Monday nights are hard to salvage, but all travel should be as painless as a fast 3 train to Bergen Street and the two block walk to Freddy's Backroom. Freddy's is ordinarily a bastion of bar-band rock, but the creative furnace known as Mother Earth (Kyle Clyde and Dylan Hay) moved their base of operations from Port D'Or (their own living room) for one night only. I arrived a bit late, regrettably missing Ramble Tamble (whose name and MySpace tracks both get lots of points for future exploration).

First up (for me) was a trio called Try Cry Try. The lead singer, intriguingly cross-dressed in black leather pants, stiletto heels, halter top, scarf and hairpiece (the latter more of a prop than transformative wardrobe element), has a kind of psychodramatic vocal style (picture someone screaming "don't tell me to calm down!" repeatedly), while the bassist and guitarist, in black and white doom metal face paint, play black and white doom metal, but with a lo-fi edge accentuated by the "drummer", a hand-held cassette player with a vocal mike taped to it. The show climaxed with some smashing of cement blocks and overturned tables, all strobe-lit by artist Jessie Stead.

Following that was "Charlie the Singing Dog" whose name is accurately descriptive - a couple of humans accompanied on singing and hand drum. Charlie sat on a drum stool with a microphone and at the end of his set, he sort of scurried around to all four corners of the stage, as if securing the perimeter.

The old vaudeville admonition that you never want to follow an animal act was put to rest by Mother Earth, whose own psychodrama (more Maya Deren than Artaud) is extraordinary. The two times I've seen the duo, they start at opposite ends of the performance space, and work their way towards each other (using portable amplification devices to make some sounds on the way), ending in a sort of yin-yang clash/reconciliation - a stylized wrestling match, wrapping one another in plastic and so on. One of the most visually striking moments this time was the plastic wrap being stretched between them as they strained about 8 feet apart, like a visual representation of gravitational bonds. They typically end by hustling "offstage" (out of the room) in a whirl.

My other favorite Kyle Clyde performance that I've seen so far was a piece for electric guitar and fluorescent light tubes in which the latter, besides being visually compelling, are used to induce all kinds of hum and feedback in interaction with the guitar, with results quite different from the many other ways of playing the instrument.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Hip and Well Read

It is no secret that performances attended via advance tickets and weeks of anticipation are often less exciting than those attended on the spur of the moment. As such, the AC/DC show at the Meadowlands center in New Jersey (we'll omit the name of whatever corporation currently owns the arena) on July 31, tickets purchased that day at 5 pm, was more exciting than the one 10 months earlier at Madison Square Garden.

Similarly (though of course there are always other factors) not having been aware that Japan's Yura Yura Teikoku were playing at the Music Hall of Williamsburg until that day (9/18/09) certainly contributed to what an unexpectedly awesome show it proved to be. I have heard a handful of their records but those never had quite the impact as some of their more stylistically highly focused contemporaries (High Rise), so I went with medium expectations and left feeling it was one of the best performances I'd seen in my life (up there with The Ex at CBGB in 1992 and other such obscurities). Set and setting being what they are, I may not succeed in conveying much of the excitement, but I'd urge anyone to see them anytime.

There is a certain loosely defined Japanese power trio aesthetic of the past few decades, many of whose practitioners I have managed to see (the aforementioned High Rise plus Fushitsusha, Minimokoto, Green Milk From the Planet Orange, Overhang Party et al.). Yura Yura Teikoku are on that spectrum, but some of their most thrilling moments were not the psychedelic noise-guitar freakouts but the motorik extended two-chord trance-inducing segments, reminiscent of course of Germany's Neu and some of their latter-day inheritors (e.g. Washington D.C.'s Unrest). At times the guitarist abandoned his instrument and accompanied his keening tenor vocals solely with a pair of maracas, while the rhythm section maintained a tightly wound skeleton. A bass-player of unwavering patience is required to make this kind of thing work, which it did.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Catafalque and Quincunx

For me and my friends, and presumably others of that approximate generation, an essential part of the mid-70s/mid-teenage quasi-counterculture canon was the illustrated writing of Edward Gorey. Though we may have sensed his linguistically extravagant, at times absurdist, mock-horror was perhaps not precisely a lost continent from the map of early 19th century Gothic literature, I’m not sure we quite realized he was living and writing in New York City at the same time Television and the Patti Smith Group were playing at C.B.G.B. – at the very least he seemed to be some obscure and chronologically displaced pre-War New Englander like H.P. Lovecraft.

In any event, Gorey’s love of arcane words continued to intrigue me for many years as I gradually found out what they all meant, but I somehow missed the derivation of "Amphigorey", with which he titled a pair of collections of his work. Lazily conflating the prefix "amphi-" (meaning "both" or "double") with "anthology" and thinking it a portmanteau word with no other reference, I was surprised recently to find the French word “amphigouri” in the pages of Le Rouge et Le Noir and accepted my Larousse de Poche’s gloss of it as “gibberish”. A week or so later, I immediately stumbled upon it again, in an English translation of Raymond Queneau’s Witch Grass. Thinking the translator might have allowed herself a bit of liberty, I turned to the O.E.D., to find that “amphigouri” and “amphigory” are both accepted in English usage. The derivation is uncertain but perhaps related to “category” and “allegory”.

As for Queneau, his French title is Chiendent (dogtooth). Though "Witch Grass" may be the North American plant name for the exact species which that French name refers to (Dichanthelium boreale), it seems like the pun or multiple meanings of the title could have been echoed in translation with a little less botanical fidelity. How about "Hound's tongue", of the genus Cynoglossum, part of a family which includes wild comfrey, a Native American medicinal plant of uncertain relationship to the old World comfrey (Symphytum officinale), or "horehound" (brothels are a persistent theme in the book), a folk term for a flowering plant of the Lamiaceae family, which includes mint?