Thursday, October 30, 2008

Wishing it were all over

Let's get politics out the way first. I will be so glad when this election is history. Of course, I hope it turns out the "right" way, and some of what I'm feeling is anxiety that it will go the other way. If John McCain were elected, I would sigh, shake my head, and go on with my life, telling myself that he couldn't possibly be as bad the one we've got now. But it would be nice to have a president who I could be enthusiastic about. And if McCain were elected, Pistol-Packing Sarah has a 20-25% chance (according to actuarial tables) of becoming president. Jeez Louise.... What a travesty. Just when you think we can't sink any lower.... I don't even like to think about it.

On another front, the Georgia-based politician I most despise is getting a run for his money, and I find that I have mixed feelings about it. Senator Saxby Chambliss, who was elected in 2002 after a campaign that can only be described as shameful*, is currently neck and neck with Democratic challenger Jim Martin. I've always thought of Martin as a quietly effective public servant, but I'm having problems with the ads he and the Democrats are running on TV and radio. They are as misleading as any political ads I've ever seen or heard.** Part of me wants to say, "Yeah, suck on that, Saxby," but I can't help it - they're really embarrassing. Is politics really an enterprise where anything is okay if your side wins? Well, it obviously is to lots of folks, including a bunch of people who are sitting at their desks in a large white house north of here right now. Of course, I'll hold my nose and vote for Jim Martin, but I wish it didn't have to be this way.

*Chicken hawk Chambliss ran ads implying that then-Senator Max Cleland, who had three limbs blown off by a grenade in Vietnam, was somehow an unpatriotic traitor.

**One ad features a country song decrying "Saxby economics." It's a horrible piece of pandering to the dumbest citizens of Georgia, but I admit that it's got one good line: "Saxby economics, don't trickle down on me."

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Supergroup

There are several things I've been wanting to write about, but they've all been swept away by my discovery of a recording of a March, 1971 concert by Circle. Now I've got to write a few paragraphs in praise of a true supergroup of avant jazz.

Circle was Anthony Braxton, Chick Corea, Dave Holland, and Barry Altschul. The group lasted, kind of incredibly, for a year, from around August, 1970 to August of '71. I say that it was incredible that they lasted that long because these four extremely talented musicians, while they shared common areas of musical interest, were pulling in somewhat different directions. They were all interested in and adept at free improvisation - without counting minutes, I would say that about half of their recorded output is improvised without the benefit of any predetermined material. Braxton was just as interested in composition, and presumably felt somewhat limited by the free-blowing format the group often adopted. And Corea's interest in Scientology led him to direct his music energies into more accessible avenues, culminating in the Return to Forever groups.

But during its short life, Circle produced some amazing music. Their recorded legacy is pretty small, though. The best-known Circle album is the ECM Paris Concert, recorded at a February, 1971 show; this was originally released as a double album and has been continually in print since. Three August, 1970 sessions for Blue Note resulted in five and a half LP sides worth of material, released under Corea's name five and eight years later. Japanese Sony released two Circle albums: 50 minutes of a November, 1970 show came out as Live In German Concert (sic), while Gathering documented a long improvisation in a New York Studio. Then there is an obviously bootleg Corea album with a long Circle performance of "Nefertiti" from an Italian concert.

The material ranges from free improvisations to abstract versions of standards ("There is No Greater Love" was a favorite) to originals by Braxton, Corea, and Holland. Braxton's originals were complex and demanding, and it's hard to imagine that any other group at the time could have given him better performances of his music. In this respect, the Hamburg show I recently came across is very revealing. The group recorded Braxton's Composition 6F several times, but this show also includes his Compositions 6A and 6I, as well as Corea's "Rhymes," a piece the group never otherwise recorded.

What a group! Braxton was at his fieriest during this period, and Corea was at his most exploratory and interesting. It was through the Paris Concert album that I became aware of what a virtuoso Dave Holland is, and Altschul's range of percussion colors is amazing. There was plenty of doubling to increase the palette of timbres: Braxton used his full arsenal of woodwinds, from sopranino sax to contrabass clarinet; Holland played cello and guitar as well as bass, and they all doubled on percussion.

These days, Circle seems to be remembered mostly as a way station in Braxton and Corea's careers. About the only serious critical attention I have seen given to the group is in Ronald Radano's book on Braxton, New Musical Figurations. Paris Concert is the place to start checking out Circle. If you like that, search out the other stuff, if you can find it. The Japanese albums are pretty rare*, but the Blue Notes show up in used record stores pretty frequently. The Hamburg show can be found on at inconstantsol.blogspot.com. A great, detailed discography of the group is at jazzdiscography.com.

Long live the music of this short-lived group.


*Of course I have them. Don't be ridiculous.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

For the End of Time

Except for performing ensembles, the two undergraduate college courses that have meant the most to me 30 years later are my first English literature course, Introduction to Poetry (I'm embarrassed that I don't remember the professor's name), and 20th Century Composition, taught with passion and deep knowledge by Tom Wallace*. I remember Tom analyzing Varese's Density 21.5 in great detail, dissecting it interval by interval. But the greatest gift Tom gave the students in that class was his discussion of Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time. I had never even heard of this piece, but it immediately became one of favorite "classical" pieces.

It's also the subject of book I'm just finishing up: For the End of Time by Rebecca Rischin. The Quartet is worthy of a book, because its story is one of the great classical music legends. As I learned in Tom's class, the piece was written and premiered in 1941 in Stalag VIII A, while Messiaen, along with the other musicians who premiered the piece, was a prisoner of war. Rischin's book debunks some of the myths I "knew," such as the story that the cello at the premiere only had three strings and that the clarinet had a broken key. It does make clear just how much this music meant to the musicians and the prisoners who heard it. It's fair to assume that most of the prisoners didn't "understand" this complex piece, but it apparently touched most of them deeply.

It continues to touch me deeply. After studying the piece 30 years ago, I went out and bought the LP recording by the chamber group Tashi. 15 years later I replaced the worn-out LP with the CD edition. Inspired by Rischin's book, I also just ordered a CD of the first recording, with Messiaen on piano.

Messiaen's quartet is inspired by the Book of Revelation, in particular by Chapter 10, in which the seventh angel blows the trumpet which marks the end of Time. Seven of the eight movements are moving, inspiring, frightening, or otherwise quite serious, but the brief fourth movement ("Interlude") is more lighthearted. The very slow fifth and eighth movements, "Praise to the Eternity of Jesus" for cello and piano and "Praise to the Immortality of Jesus" for violin and piano, are two of the most absolutely beautiful pieces of music I have ever heard; they should be heard by every musician and music lover, even those who don't care for "modern" classical music. They really evoke timelessness and eternity, even for someone like me who doesn't believe I have an immortal soul that's going to live anywhere when I die.

The third movement is a clarinet solo, "Abyss of the Birds." On the Tashi recording, the great Richard Stoltzman is the clarinetist. His control is so amazing that there are times when you become aware that there is a note sounding, but you can't exactly say when it began - it came from nowhere and at some undefined point became audible. I was lucky enough to hear Stoltzman play this movement in concert a few years ago. By the way, one of the beauties of Messiaen's music is that he didn't just evoke bird song with a few cliches, he transcribed hundreds of bird songs exactly and used them in his compositions.

I still remember two of Messiaen's techniques which give this piece much of its flavor - Modes of Limited Transposition and Non-retrogradable Rhythms. The first refers to scales which can only be transposed a few times before they return to their original pitch set. The simplest example is a whole-tone scale; it can only be transposed once. When you transpose it up a half-step a second time, it duplicates the pitches of the original scale. These scales have a color and flavor unlike the usual major and minor scales. A non-retrogradable rhythm is a rhythmic palindrome, a rhythm that is the same when it is reversed. A simple example would be half note, quarter note, whole note, quarter note, half note. Messiaen's rhythms are much more complex, however, and gave the musicians at the premiere quite a bit of difficulty.

One of the most touching things in Rischin's book is the fact that Henri Akoka, the clarinetist in Stalag VIII A, never lost his clarinet. He kept it with him when he was captured, and even managed to hold on to it through two unsuccessful and, finally, a successful escape attempt.

To be totally honest, inspiring bits like that are mixed into an overall somewhat dry tone in Rischin's book. While I have enjoyed reading it, I don't recommend it wholeheartedly. But if you don't know Messiaen's Quatour pour la Fin du Temps, I wholeheartedly suggest you do yourself a favor and hear it.


*I still see Tom occasionally in his capacity as trumpet player with the Peachtree Brass Quintet; the group sometimes plays concerts at one of my schools. When it does, I know I'm in for it - at the end of the segment demonstrating the history of popular music from ragtime to rock, he always makes me "volunteer" to come up and do the twist, much to the delight of my students.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

48 hours later

The good thing about being a moody f---* is that, if you have any self-awareness, you know your anxiety or despair will not last. Today I found a geocache, have a full tank of gas, am semi-optimistic about the upcoming election, have finished a new arrangement for the new band****, and have been listening to some great music. In addition, my work email reveals that I am something of a hero to two sets of parents. Yesterday I responded to two kids' craziness and emotional immaturity****** with a level of patience and kindness which I didn't really feel. I guess that's okay, as long as the kids didn't know how exasperated I was with them.

*Not knowing who might read this, I'll be discreet.**

**By the way, that description of me is by my friend Robo. I will, in turn, pay tribute to Rob by using lots of footnotes.***

***Like this one.

****"Ninth Ward Dirge," my Katrina piece. Doesn't every musician who loves New Orleans have a Katrina song?*****

*****I've played this piece with a quartet, but I'm really excited to try it with five horns.

******I mean, I know they're kids, but emotionally they seem to be several years behind what would be expected.

Geocaching

I love geocaching.

What the hell is geocaching, you ask? The geocachers' joking (but half serious) explanation is that geocaching is "using billions of dollars worth of satellites to find boxes in the woods." It is an activity/game/sport/hobby that some find ridiculous and others find intriguing. Often that interest turns to addiction, as it sadly has in my case.

A cacher hides a geocache, which is a container with a logbook, and perhaps more stuff (trinkets, outdoor supplies, extra GPS batteries, etc.), inside. He/she uses a handheld GPS receiver to determine the latitude and longitude as closely as can be determined. He or she than publishes the coordinates, along with a description of the cache, on geocaching.com. Then other idiots like me take our handheld GPS receivers, find the box, sign the log, and possibly swap swag - you can take an item if you leave an item.

To many people, this sounds mildly fun. Hard-core cachers tend to become obsessed with it, though. Why? My friend Sam's explanation is simple: "It's a sickness." My sister, who introduced me to this madness, says that we have become pod people. More seriously, there is a rush involved with finding a hidden "treasure" that the populace at large isn't aware of. And better than that, caching gets you out hiking and puts you in some pretty amazing places. Just last weekend I visited the so-called "Deep Cut" railroad pass near Lake Allatoona to find a cache. It was a beautiful area, full of rather sobering Civil War history. From there I climbed Vineyard Mountain, which, while not far from Atlanta, required as strenuous a hike as any I have done in the far north Georgia mountains.

The following list involves only places I had never visited before I started caching. Caching has taken me to:

Rock Town in the northwest corner of Georgia. This is an amazing area of huge rock formations towering over the top of Pigeon Mountain. It's like an otherworldly city.

The ancient and mysterious rock wall on Fort Mountain, Georgia. And amazing spots all over north Georgia - waterfalls, trails, mountains - I won't list any more separately.

All three(!) of Robert Johnson's graves in Mississippi.

The beautiful town of St. Marys, Georgia, which is about as far as I can go from my house and still be in the state.

A spot (which I never would have found myself) which overlooks the entire town of Bellingham, Washington and its bay.

The Devil's Courthouse, in North Carolina, which has some of the most spectacular views I have ever seen.

I could go on for awhile, but I'll just relate my most amazing caching experience. It was on a cache which I DNFed (Did Not Find), but that doesn't matter. When I visited Kyoto, Japan a couple of years ago, there were only seven caches in the city or the surrounding mountains, and a couple of them didn't appear to actually be there any longer. I went after one called "Kyoto Temples and Shrines," near the Philosopher's Path at the western edge of Kyoto. I got lost trying to find my way there, and found a trail behind a temple which led up the mountain. I could tell that I was headed in the wrong direction, but I thought that at some point I might find an easier trail down the mountain in the direction of the cache. The woods were a deep green, and the light filtered through the trees in an amazing way - neither the trees or the light resembled those in Georgia. About half way up the mountain, I came upon an old Buddhist cemetery. The grave markers were strange and rather mysterious to my Western eyes. I took some pictures, then sat for quite a while in the odd light, with faint music and the smell of incense wafting up from the temples in the city below. It's hard to describe what this moment meant to me, but it was unforgettable.

Hunting the cache was unimportant and anticlimactic at that point. I eventually found my way to "ground zero," as cachers call the spot your GPS receiver points to, and searched for the cache for awhile. I only had tennis shoes, not hiking boots, and I kept slipping and sliding down the hill on the wet leaves. I eventually gave up and walked back to my hotel. Whenever someone saw me coming down the street - a large, wet, dirty foreigner - they discreetly crossed to the other side of the street.



I've never regretted my DNF on that cache.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Anxiety

As one of my friends pointed out, I'm a moody guy. So I don't know how much of this is just my nature and how much is a reasonable response to the state of the country, but I'm kind of freaked out right now. The economic meltdown, while not really a surprise, is pretty nerve-wracking, as is our elected leaders' pathetic response. And while I know that it's not related (except in tangential ways), my little corner of the world is experiencing a gasoline shortage the likes of which I've never seen before. Some pundits are comparing it to the shortages of the late 1970s, but I lived through that and don't remember anything like this. In Atlanta, about one in ten gas stations has product, and the lines often take an hour or more to sit through. I've been lucky and/or smart in my gas purchasing, so I haven't had to wait more than ten minutes, but the whole situation is unnerving.

Add to that the current freakish unpredictabilty of my job, which is teaching elementary school band. I've been teaching for 27 years, but I don't ever remember the kids and parents being this bizarre. I just never know what to expect when I correct a student's wrong note or open my email. Oh well, at least I have a job. It's looking like that might be a luxury that many Americans aren't going to have.

The soundtrack for my anxiety includes four songs by very different singer/songwriters: "American Tune" by Paul Simon, "The Day After Tomorrow" by Tom Waits, "A Few Words in Defense of Our Country" by Randy Newman, and "August 29, 2005" by Darryl Rhoades. They are not all directly relevant to today's situation, but one way or another they all have to do our government letting us down and/or our country being on the wrong path. And no, you've never heard the Darryl Rhoades song (and that might not even be the final title), but I hope you do when it is released on his new album in a few months.

And tonight I think I'll listen to "Hard Blues for Hard Times" and "Soldier's Blues" by Michael Hill's Blues Mob. A tough band, indeed - you should hear them if you haven't had the chance before now. The great Vernon Reid has a guitar solo on "Soldier's Blues" that will take the top of your head off.