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Archive for the ‘Paper’ Category

Music books!

Monday, January 7th, 2008

I got a bunch of music-related books from my brother for Christmas: Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music by Derek Bailey, A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane’s Signature Album by Ashley Kahn, and (perhaps most excitingly) Music and the Creative Spirit by Lloyd Peterson. I’m about halfway through Bailey’s book and, after finding it a bit of a slow starter (the sections on improvisation in Indian music and flamenco are interesting, but coming as they do at the very beginning of the book, it was a little unclear to me how they fit into a larger thesis), am starting to get really engaged. I’ll have more comments once I’m done with the book, but the ideas that Bailey presents about the effect of formalized notation on the history of music are fascinating. There is also some interesting material about how the systematized version of improvisation present in “traditional” jazz essentially kills the improvisation’s vitality and capacity for progress — this is where the sections on Indian music and flamenco come in, as Bailey stresses in these sections that there is absolutely no way to learn improvisation “by the book” in the context of these musics, as opposed to in trad-jazz.

On another book-related note, a few months ago I read Lords of Chaos: The Bloody Rise of the Satanic Metal Underground by Michael Moynihan, but forgot to write anything about it here. In short, I found some of it a fun read, but it doesn’t read so much like a book about music as it does a true-crime kind of book. In fact, there’s a pretty disappointing lack of analysis about black metal itself, and instead the author chooses to talk endlessly about the twisted ideologies of the major players in the Norweigian black metal scene. I suppose the title should have warned me about that, but I was let down nevertheless. I guess I’m going to have to pick up a copy of Albert Mudrian’s Choosing Death: The Improbable History of Death Metal and Grindcore and hope that it does a better job of sating my appetite for intelligent commentary on the actual music being made in these extreme-metal scenes.

Going deeper into the world of metal

Tuesday, October 30th, 2007

On a whim, and because lately I’ve found myself listening to more and more metal of all kinds, I just subscribed to Decibel Magazine. I’ve never actually even read a single issue, but I know Adrien Begrand writes for them and I like his work, so there was at least some inkling that I might like this publication. Also it was way cheaper than paying import rates for Terrorizer. Anyone a fan (or not) of this magazine?

More concert reports will be coming soon; I still need to write about Yo La Tengo, and last night I saw Robert Fripp, and tonight I’m going to see Alarm Will Sound (a 20-piece chamber group that plays interpretations of, among other things, some techno artist that named a song after a Mr. Bungle piece, Aphex Twin, and more expected things like compositions by Ligeti and John Adams), and tomorrow I’m going to see Bill Frisell. Whew!

One quick note about my current listening: the new Om album, Pilgrimage, is completely and utterly kicking my ass. Doom/stoner metal at its best. Can’t wait to see them live with Grails — I’m more excited about that show than I have been about anything I’ve seen in the past few months.


Friday, August 24th, 2007

A month or so ago, I ran across an interesting-looking UK magazine, Rock-a-Rolla, covering various forms of experimental rock and jazz, but with a strong slant towards drone, ambient, doom metal, and that sort of thing. I ordered their latest issue (big feature articles on Sleepytime Gorilla Museum and Sunn O)))), and liked it enough to take them up on a special offer they have that ends today: subscribe and get four free back issues. While it’s a little pricy for those of us outside Europe ($70/year for six issues plus the four back issues), there are few enough quality publications covering this kind of music that for me it’s worth it.

What I like about this magazine is that they are not afraid to be critical. I’ve always respected a reviewer who will straight-up tell you if he doesn’t like something (without being needlessly negative or disrespectful), and the folks who review for this magazine all seem to have that capacity. Looking forward to seeing more of their work.

Progcrit boneheads

Tuesday, March 27th, 2007

It doesn’t seem particularly appropriate for me to identify myself anymore as a “prog fan” in the sense of a fan with a single genre focus — that stopped being true four or five years ago. Yet I still perk up whenever I see prog mentioned in non-prog media, and such was the case when, in reading the new issue of Signal to Noise, I ran across a very provocative review by Mark S. Tucker of Ed Macan’s new book, The Endless Enigma: A Musical Biography of Emerson, Lake and Palmer. This is a fun review that includes things like this:

[Macan's] Rocking the Classics offered much-needed relief from silly magazinic “What is prog?” maunderings and it alone may explain why authors like Jerry Lucky and sites like Gnosis have remained completely irrelevant… as a platform from which to consider aesthetic questions, Endless Enigma is hardly being touched by progcrit boneheads… The book is a high-water mark in progrock literature, and I’m afriad we’ll see little of its like in the future.

It’s an article about prog in a non-prog publication, so there has to be some dissing going on. But Tucker isn’t poking a stick at prog fans per se, the way most non-prog media does, so much as he is doing so at prog critics. “Progcrit boneheads” is a pretty great phrase that I wish I could use as a Ground & Sky subtitle; but alas, I think Tucker might actually like this website, or at least applaud our general refusal to treat with the whole “what is prog” nonsense. Other than that one thing, actually, it’s not really clear why he considers prog critics to be “boneheads” and “completely irrelevant,” but tossing around such perjoratives sure does make his article more fun to read.

Of course, the rub is that Tucker is actually a pretty “true” prog fan, whatever that means, having written for such publications as, uh, Exposé and Progression (what makes these magazines more “relevant” than sites like Gnosis is unclear to me). In this article he namedrops Porcupine Tree, Univers Zero, and Henry Cow, and in reviews elsewhere in this issue of Signal to Noise alone he mentions Tasvallan Presidentti and 5uu’s. This makes his critique of prog critics, such as it is, much more interesting than it would be if it had come from a total outsider. In any case, he spends a lot of column-inches lauding Macan’s analytical style mostly through trashing progcrit boneheads (and Chris Cutler and Dave Kerman for their “weirdly perjorative” takes on prog as a genre), and pulls off a near-miracle in getting me actually interested in reading this book. Considering that I hate ELP with a passion and basically regard them as concretizing everything I don’t like about prog, that’s quite an achievement.

Musique Machine: good reading

Thursday, September 14th, 2006

A recent discovery of mine is Musique Machine, a website with a large archive of short but very well-written reviews, covering all kinds of avant-rock, indie-rock, jazz, metal, and some prog and even prog metal. They seem to review almost all Cuneiform and lots of Tzadik releases, among other stuff of interest. Cool articles too, with some unexpected stuff like an interview with Ron Jarzombek of Spastic Ink, in which the interviewer actually asks good questions and holds his ground when Jarzombek disagrees with him on stuff like the artistic merits of hip-hop. Highly recommended browsing and one of my new favorite music sites.

Also recommended reading is Julian Cope’s Krautrock book from 1995, Krautrocksampler. But wait, you say, it’s long out of print and impossible to find! Well, true. Except I just found that the vast realm of the Internet happens to include in its domain a freakin’ scanned PDF of the entire book! I don’t condone intellectual property theft (for the most part; don’t ask me about pharmaceutical patents!), but if it’s literally the only way to get your hands on it…

Thoughts on Eric Nisenson’s Coltrane book

Thursday, February 16th, 2006

I just finished an excellent book — Eric Nisenson’s Ascension: John Coltrane and His Quest. Most impressive about this book is the fact that while Nisenson is clearly a huge Coltrane fan, he doesn’t let his adoration of the man and his music blunt his critical edge. I am also a big fan of the general thrust of this book; rather than trying to be a comprehensive biography, it focuses on what Coltrane was trying to accomplish with his music, describing the constant progression that embodied Coltrane’s oeuvre and trying to explain where that impetus for progress came from. If anything, I wish Nisenson had delved deeper into Coltrane’s spirituality, because obviously that spirituality is at the center of Coltrane’s “quest.” Perhaps that would be an impossible task, but maybe not — after all, Alice Coltrane is still alive and well, and as Nisenson says himself, shared her husband’s spiritual journey. Why the author apparently conducted no interview with Alice Coltrane is mystifying to me; it seems that, given that she holds a celebration of her husband’s life and work each year, she would be more than willing to talk about him.

Nisenson’s discourse on Coltrane’s body of work itself is excellent. He doesn’t go into in-depth analysis of any given album or performance, but manages to touch on all the major works in the context of Coltrane’s broader stylistic phases. His writing is compelling readable, moreso than most overviews of this sort that I’ve read. My only real gripes are with the final chapter, “After the Trane,” in which Nisenson gives his thoughts on the state of jazz post-Coltrane. Nisenson’s insistence that no truly pathbreaking jazz flagbearer has emerged after Coltrane’s death is probably spot-on, but also probably misses the point. After the 60s, after all, jazz fragmented into all sorts of new directions (Nisenson touches on fusion but little else), making it almost impossible for a real “flagbearer” to come into existence. The time of the standard-bearing jazz icon is past, but that doesn’t necessarily say anything about the state of jazz today other than that “jazz” itself has become a more diffuse concept. (Hello Wynton Marsalis.)

Also, Nisenson has a weird attitude towards rock. He acknowledges that some of the musicians that have best carried on Coltrane’s spirit have been in rock (namely, Jimi Hendrix). He acknowledges that some rock bands use improvisational techniques that follow on the jazz tradition in general and Coltrane’s legacy in particular. He says that he is a fan of much pop/rock. But then, in his discussion of fusion, he turns his nose up at rock and exhibits a kind of snobbish genre superiority so unfortunately common among fans of musical forms that have pretentions of “seriousness” (i.e., jazz, Western art music, and, yes, progressive rock). Finally, he says nary a word about much in the way of avant-rock (which is understandable) or the modern wave of avant-jazz (which is less so, although in this book’s defense, it was written in the mid-1990s, when it was probably much less clear that there were very exciting contemporary things going on in underground avant-garde “jazz”).

Regardless of these faults, this is still a book I highly recommend to anyone even remotely interested in Coltrane. He’s a fascinating figure and this book does his legacy justice.

Bill Martin is not a very good writer

Monday, January 9th, 2006

Amazon finally delivered my copy of Bill Martin’s book Avant Rock: Experimental Music from the Beatles to Björk, which I mentioned buying in an earlier entry. I’m about 50 pages into it and while it’s not exactly compellingly readable, it’s interesting to me thanks to my insatiable interest in the subject. Martin’s writing style is awful, though — the organization of this book is pretty much impossible to follow (if indeed there’s any rhyme or reason to it at all), and he has an annoying habit of name-dropping esoteric Western philosophers at literally every turn. While I am enough of an academic at heart to be interested in how avant-rock relates to Derrida, this is just a little much. I almost get the feeling that Martin just included every single connection between music and philosophy that came to his mind while writing (let’s not even start on his weird chess analogies). This guy needs an editor, bad.

None of this is stopping me from reading, of course. Just… be warned if you’re expecting an easy-to-read overview of avant-rock, because this sure isn’t it. Avant Rock makes Chris Cutler’s File Under Popular look like a children’s book.

Good books on avant-jazz or avant-rock?

Wednesday, November 30th, 2005

Does anyone know of any good books on the modern avant-jazz scene, say, from the mid-1980s on, or even from the 1990s on? I can’t really find any. Hell, it’s hard to even find anything on the free jazz scene from the 1960s on. Ted Gioia’s History of Jazz, as close to a canonical text in terms of recent jazz histories as there is, has a nice section on what he calls “postmodern” jazz, touching respectfully on various folks such as John Zorn, but only in a fairly abbreviated fashion.

I’d love to read a full-fledged text about the “downtown” NYC free-jazz scene, or even better, a broader history that also touches on possibilities for “avant-jazz” in the future, given the proliferation of cross-genre pollination in recent years — ranging from the Blue Series hip-hoppy stuff to more oddball, unclassifiable material on labels like Cryptogramophone or Nine Winds. There’s a rich history here, with plenty of fascinating biographies and musical trends to draw on (just based on the scattered interviews with various prominent figures that I’ve read), and I’m sure there’s plenty of interest. I guess it’s only a matter of time before something shows up on the shelves. It seems like this is too self-conscious a scene for something not to turn up.

On the other hand, a good book on avant-rock seems like a total pipe dream, unless Chris Cutler ever feels like writing another book. I did just order Bill Martin’s Avant Rock, but I don’t have very high hopes for it, and it doesn’t seem like he really talks much about RIO or the contemporary avant-rock scene, instead focusing on the more well-known likes of King Crimson, and um, Yes. Well, I guess that shouldn’t be surprising… we already know he’s a Yes fanboy.

I’d love to write such an avant-rock history myself, but as of now I certainly lack the large-scale perspective and experience to tackle such an effort, to say nothing of the fact that I am musicologically illiterate (perhaps irrelevant, but probably not).

You should read Signal to Noise

Tuesday, September 20th, 2005

If you enjoy the sort of avant-rock, avant-jazz, free improv, and other “new musics” (post-rock, various more experimental kinds of indie rock, hip-hop, electronica, and so on) that I enjoy, I implore you to check out the second-best publication in the English language that covers these kinds of music (behind Exposé, of course!): Signal to Noise, the “Journal of Improvised and Experimental Music.” Much more accessible to folks like me than the sometimes inscrutable The Wire, Signal to Noise is a real joy to read and reviews all kinds of stuff we like. The latest issue, for instance, has reviews of Charming Hostess, lots of Cuneiform releases (Machine and the Synergetic Nuts, John Surman, Radio Massacre International), Birdsongs of the Mesozoic, all the latest Cryptogramophone releases (Scott Amendola Band, Mark Dresser/Denman Maroney), Fred Frith, and a big feature review of Miles Davis‘ forthcoming Cellar Door Sessions.

Best of all, they offer the best deal in magazine history — $50 for a complete set of back issues, which is nearly 40 magazines. Jump on it. I did.

The singular genius of Miles Davis

Monday, December 1st, 2003

I mentioned this neat little tidbit in a conversation with a friend yesterday, and I was inspired to go look it up: from Paul Tingen’s book Miles Beyond: The Electric Explorations of Miles Davis, 1967-1991 -

The results of this session were compiled… in the first track on Jack Johnson, called “Right Off.” It begins with [guitarist John] McLaughlin, [bassist Michael] Henderson, and [drummer Billy] Cobham grooving along on the “boogie in E,” with McLaughlin’s inspired comping at times bordering on solo guitar. At 1:38 the guitarist takes down the volume, and at 2:11 he modulates to B-flat to heighten the dramatic effect of Miles’ entry. However, Henderson misses McLaughlin’s modulation, and carries on playing in E. In the middle of this clash of tonalities Miles decides to make his entrance, at 2:19. He starts by playing a D-flat (C-sharp), the minor third in B-flat and the major sixth in E. It is an ingenious choice because the note is effective in either key. Miles then plays twelve staccato B-flat notes, phrasing them on the beat to drive the band on, and also as if to nudge Henderson towards the B-flat tonality. Henderson gets the message, comes into line by modulating to B-flat at 2:33, and Miles carries on, giving one of the most commanding solo performances of his career, with fast runs reaching into the higher register, and a loud, full, powerful tone.

Writer Stuart Nicholson rightly called Miles’ entry in “Right Off” “one of the great moments in jazz-rock.” It is also one of the most impressive examples of the “there are no mistakes” adage that Miles learned from Charlie Parker in the 1940s. Most musicians would have regarded the point when Henderson and McLaughlin were clashing with two such incompatible keys at E and B-flat as an embarrassing mistake and would have either stopped the band or instructed to producer to remove the section during editing. Very few would have considered, or have had the courage, to come in at such a moment. And even fewer would have been able to make it into a resounding success.

The passage continues on and cites a common quote usually attributed to Miles: “If you play a note you didn’t intend to play, what determines whether it sounds like a mistake or a moment of inspiration is the note you play after it.”

Incidentally, this is a great book. Tingen gives a great overview of Miles’ fusion output during the latter part of his career, going into great detail about each recording while still managing to keep a momentum throughout that keeps the entire book fascinating. I would easily recommend this book to anyone interested in this phase of Miles’ career - which should be many of you reading this site. I actually meant to post a full review when I initially read it, but it was in the middle of exams last spring and so I never got around to it. If and when I reread the book, I’ll be sure to write about it then.