Posts Tagged ‘books’

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.

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).

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.

Borrowing CDs from the radio station

Saturday, April 7th, 2001

My apologies for being utterly delinquent in updating the website. I usually refrain from giving my reasons/excuses, but I feel like whining, so here: I have three books to read, three papers to write, and two problems sets to complete, all in the next week. Plus, Yale Cup, an Ultimate tournament here at Yale, is next weekend, and it involves coordinating the activities of some six hundred athletes (some from as far as Texas or Utah) for two days and one to three nights. Hence, I’ve been busy, which is still no excuse, I guess.

My two latest borrowed items from the radio station have been The Fucking ChampsIV and Einstürzende Neubauten’s Silence is Sexy. I listened to the latter album first, while doing some homework, and it did nothing for me. IV has been in my CD player almost constantly for the past five days, though. It’s mostly instrumental guitar-rock — I hear influences ranging from punk to metal to King Crimson (a bit). It’s all electric; usually I find this sort of thing monochromatic and grating - even 80s Crimson turns me off after just one or two listens. However, for some reason I was captivated by this stuff - maybe it’s the melodicism, the complexity hiding underneath the stereotypically metal-sounding riffs. I dunno. I’m going to buy this album soon.

As for Silence is Sexy, I listened to it again, and now I find it absolutely fascinating. There’s an intriguing mix of whimsically (insanely?) bouncy, catchy stuff and subdued, muted, repetitive, subtle stuff. The former is flat-out fun: techno-ish backbeats and a sense of humor bring Höyry-kone to mind, oddly enough. The latter stuff is transcendent: a few listens to the opening track or “Redukt” really bring out very small, subtle parts of the music that are truly beautiful, stimulating, and unique. Even the spoken word piece “Beauty”, juxtaposed against a droning, almost (but not quite) static background, has a certain air of mystery and intrigue to it. The closing track of the first disc is a beautiful and appropriate ending. The only piece I really don’t get is the sole track on the second disc, the nearly 20-minute long “Pelikanol”, which features an endless interplay between laid-back vocals and what is listed as a drill. Hmm. In any case, this is an album that really rewards close attention - leaving it on as background music isn’t going to cut it. Highly recommended to those who enjoy more experimental Krautrock and post-rock.

In Rob Kroes’ book If You’ve Seen One, You’ve Seen The Mall (1996), which I am reading for a paper, he writes in his chapter on rap music:

Instead of seeking fusions and crossovers, black artists, fearing a renewed expropriation of what they consider to be their cultural property, have time and again resorted to a strategy of defiant protectionism. Thus, for example, bebop was meant to take jazz music to such dizzying heights of complexity that white musicians could no longer hope to steal and adapt it. More recently, similar trends seem to have occurred in rap music. In their lyrics some of the more notorious rap groups express a vicious sexism and racism, an utter obscenity and nihilism, whose sole aim may seem to be to erect barriers beyond which white groups will fear to tread.

I’m not sure this thesis holds up to scrutiny. Obscenity and violence, after all, have long been a big part of hip-hop - old-school gangsta-rap groups like NWA are arguably as offensive as anything out there today; this is not a new phenomenon. And the emergence of Eminem indicates that perhaps there are no “barriers beyond which white groups will fear to tread”.

Mogwai: I’m getting it (thanks to EP+2)

Saturday, December 16th, 2000

I wonder why I’m currently digging Mogwai’s EP+2 so much more than I dug their Come On Die Young when I first heard that one. I think it’s because it’s short: I can only take about half an hour of this kind of slow, dreamy, moody stuff before I start yearning for more action. EP+2 lasts, well, about a half hour. And it’s fucking great.

I’ve only read the introduction to Robert Walser’s Running With the Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music, but already I’ve come across a bunch of interesting tidbits. For example, with reference to his musicological discussions of heavy metal music:

Arguing for the worth of popular music in the terms of valuation used for more prestigious music is not without risk: jazz has gained a certain amount of academic respectibility through such toil by its defenders, but at the cost of erasing much of the music’s historical significance, its politics, its basis in non-European modes of musical thinking and doing. (Indeed, this is precisely what has happened to the many different kinds of historical music making that have been collapsed into “classical music” by our century.

I find the comment about jazz curious. I don’t know enough about jazz to know how correct Walser is (after all, that jazz class I took last semester was worthless), but I wonder how discussion of jazz in a context based on Western art-music notation has “erased much of the music’s historical significance”.

Scattered thoughts

Sunday, December 10th, 2000

Reading Bill Martin’s Listening to the Future after finishing Macan’s Rocking the Classics, I get the feeling that Martin writes uncomfortably like a prog-rock fanboy, whereas Macan seems more levelheaded. Martin just seems far too defensive about the genre as a whole, and adds in a lot of unnecessary parentheticals about how much prog has been persecuted (as well as even less necessary parentheticals about various political issues).

That one-note guitar solo at the end of Low’s “Over the Ocean” never fails to amaze me. It’s utterly perfect, heart-wrenchingly beautiful, and yet it’s just the same fucking note over and over again. How does that work? Even Fripp’s (in)famous “one-note” solo in “Starless” modulates continuously, so it’s not the same pitch over and over again (and besides, it’s the furthest thing from “beautiful”, though it’s undeniably effective). It boggles my mind how this one-note solo can be so perfectly done, evoking such an emotional response every time I hear it.

Jussi Karkkainen told me that the next Höyry-kone album will probably come out next year, though the band has not found a label for it yet (”certainly not APM”, he says - is this because of APM’s very slow rate of releasing music, or because of conflicts with Ulf Danielsson or others at the label?).

Holy shit: I’m listening now to Hundred Sights of Koenji at massive volume (now this is a bombastic album). At some point in “Ozone Fall”, a new male voice joins the chorus of demented singers and screams out of the left channel. I jumped, thinking someone was yelling at me from the commons room, which is to the left of my computer. Sheesh.

Minimalism and psychedelia

Tuesday, December 5th, 2000

I’m rereading all my progressive rock books for my music project. This, from Ed Macan’s Rocking the Classics, strikes me as a strange thing to say: “…the greatest achievement of the minimalists was to create structural approaches that successfully capture psychedelia’s acid-induced sense of timelessness.” The annotation doesn’t really help either:

The West Coast minimalists—particularly Riley and LaMonte Young—came out of the same general cultural scene as did the Grateful Dead and other Bay Area psychedelic bands, although the composers were a few years older than the band members.

All things considered, the original statement still seems to me to imply that psychedelic rock was somehow a standard for, and therefore a higher art than, minimalism. Probably that isn’t what Macan meant, but that’s what I get from it. This would kind of go along with Macan’s obsession with the effect of drugs on, well, everything (my only real complaint with the book, probably - although I can’t say that he’s downright wrong, I do think he overemphasizes it to some extent).