Wednesday, October 31, 2007

In Rotation: Dracula

What? Dracula by Philip Glass, performed by Kronos Quartet

Why this? Why today? Check the date.

I realize this is the first TiOM post about classical music, and I also realize that, as a topic, classical – even contemporary classical – might be off-putting for some. Well, fair warning: I’m listening to a lot more of this stuff these days, especially string quartets, so expect more like-themed posts. The good news is that I’m starting with what amounts to pop-classical. It’s a film score written by a popular (if not populist) composer, and performed by the rockstars of the string quartet world.

Philip Glass, frequent film composer and reputed “minimalist,” was approached to provide a new score to a deluxe DVD of the classic Browning-Lugosi Dracula film. He assented, thank goodness, and soon the Kronos Quartet released this stunning music.

With a level of theatricality appropriate to Halloween, Glass gives us high tension strings – bowed, plucked, strummed, pummeled, cajoled. Ranging from just 40 seconds to four-plus minutes, these 26 pieces are perfect in their brevity, Glass’s “repetitive elements” held in check as a result of the length of film scenes. They are snapshots representing a grab-bag of musical possibilities. “Journey to the Inn” is all forward energy, hellhounds on your tail. “Excellent, Mr. Renfield” is rigid restraint, a fright withheld. “Lucy’s Bitten” is suitably erotic.

I don’t have the DVD, and I’ve never seen it. The closest I came was watching F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu on while listening to this on my Sansa, and that was plenty creepy. But the strength of this music is independent of its filmic roots, ranging as it does from Romantic gusto to more characteristically Glassian subtlety; it stands alone. It conjures this season perfectly. You can see the gargoyles grimacing in the coming dusk, feel the cold wind, hear the bare trees knocking together like bones. You can feel the Count’s presence in the hair raised on the back of your neck. But this doesn’t just come out in October – it’s far too beautiful to relegate to seasonal duty.

Do yourself a favour: forgo the drugstore Scary Sound FX CD and locate a copy of this. Don a cape and fangs, turn the stereo up loud, and wait for the doorbell to ring. The kids might not get it, but you’ll have a ball.

Happy Halloween.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Chromatics, "In the City"

The single of the year - so far - has a video. Enjoy.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

"Lateral Intelligence"

ON THE TWIN and not-so-coincidental occasions of, firstly, the ninetieth anniversary of the birth of Thelonious Sphere Monk, and second, a radio program dedicated to the compositions of this musical giant which I had the good fortune to co-host (alongside fellow Improvised Music Collective members Ron and Jim), let’s spare a few meagre paragraphs to consider the man’s monumental import.

That phrase – “lateral intelligence” – is one applied to Monk by Gary Giddins, and it seems to me a tidy summation of what I’m grasping at here, namely Monk’s unique sense of tone and harmony, his innate take on a tune, which seems to approach it in the conventional manner, only a few degrees to the left.

His stamp: notes and tempi peculiarly askew, imbued with an angularity, a cockeyed but unmistakably authentic way of looking at the world. The tradition (blues / gospel / stride / barrelhouse/ swing / bop) refracted. Melodic narrative as image carved from negative space, leaving the listener to infer the line, a task which, once one is familiar with the pianist’s dialect, he or she never fails to do. It seems that once shown the method, the particular way of squinting into this light, it stays with you for life. You don’t simply hear Monk for the first time, you get initiated (indoctrinated?).

The question of whether or not the term “genius” truly applies is misdirected. First off, as a query it’s problematic at the best of times; we’re almost certainly not dealing with the same definition. I have no clue what the man’s IQ might have been. But whether Monk was vastly more intelligent than 99.9% of composers, or just a uniquely strange individual is a distinction not worth debating. The irrefutable answer lies in both his modestly sized but incredibly important songbook, and in his peerless piano technique. At one point in time, the accepted line on Monk was that he was a hell of a composer but a speciously equipped player. Horseshit. Listen to his recordings of “Blue Monk,” or “Epistrophy.” Listen to “Rhythm-a-ning.” Listen to the piano alone. Surely those examples are enough to squelch debate. Such personalized invention, such offhand beauty and unmistakable individuality are rare in this world. Monk is like no one else. No one is Monk. To hear a half a chorus by his hand, as well as by his pen, is to know right off who you’re listening to.

He straddled several epochs of jazz, by virtue of his age, and as a result he was subject to a harsh progression of criticism. When he debuted, he was too far out. As time wore and jazz changed, he wasn’t far enough out. But the truth is that he was ever in an orbit all his own.

This clip shows Monk and his quartet playing his “Evidence.” It was that tune which I chose to use to illustrate the point that, while many play Monk compositions, nobody plays ‘em like Monk. After airing a version by Monk and a quartet similar to the one pictured above (Rouse on tenor again, with Larry Gales on bass and Ben Riley on drums) from the ’64 Monterey Jazz Festival, I played three other versions of the same tune: one by Monk’s pal Bud Powell and trio from 1962; another by Steve Lacy and Don Cherry from an album of Monk tunes (Evidence, 1961), and; a take on the tune by ex-Police-man Andy Summers, from a Monk tribute album he cut after that "English reggae" band called it quits, but before the current reunion tour. Those artists pull off their versions with varying degrees of success, but they all speak to the same essential fact: Thelonious Monk graced the world with a singular and endlessly playable catalog of compositions, but he didn’t spawn a legion of sound-alike players. His style is simply too distinctive, too idiosyncratic, too signature. Anyone attempting to sound just like Monk would be (and should be) shouted off stage.

Was his a self-conscious modernism? Did his off-kilter rhythms and plink-plonky phrasings (his wife, Nellie, called him Melodious Thunk) speak his thoughts on life in the Atomic Age? Did he mean the weather beaten romance tucked behind each and every note to express his anxiety concerning (or indeed to combat) all that uncertainty and dread?

I tend to think not. I think Monk saw himself as a musician in the tradition of James P. Johnson and a composer in the vein of Ellington, or perhaps, more modestly, Count Basie. He wrote tunes, many of them based on the changes or melodies of other songs. And he played them, using a technique which blended many of the sounds which preceded him. But he had such an innate individuality, a downright delightful strangeness about him that couldn’t help but come out in his playing. His sound was all his, and it surfaced at a pivotal moment in jazz, at the half-lit early dawn of bop. He was celebrated by those whose opinions mattered most, and derided by others, both of which stoked the fire in his belly. And by the time anybody outside of Harlem knew his name, he was forged in stone, fully formed and never to change, the musician we now know from our backward-looking vantage. The incomparable. The individual. Monk.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

It Was a Strange Time in My Life **UPDATE

In the continuing vein of grab-bag (read: lazy) posts, presenting this week’s five most-accessed files on the TioM Sansa:

1) Jens Lekman, Night Falls Over Kortedala – New quirkpop longplayer from Swede who, I think, now scores Volvo commercials (isn’t that him singing “The Wheels on the Bus” in that commercial where the couple in the stationwagon pick up the hikers?**). You’ll be hearing him in Starbucks real soon, but don’t worry, you’ll like him. He’s good. Like Stephen Merritt, but straight, And, okay, not quite as brilliant as Stephen Merritt.

2)Beirut, The Flying Club Cup – I think I like Beirut for the same reason I like travel writing. Okay, yes, I can see getting tired of the schtick after a while. But not yet. So far it’s a love affair.

3)Archie Shepp and the New York Contemporary 5, s/t – Tunefully skronky. My wife hates this stuff.

4)Thelonious Monk, Live at Monterey 1964 – I’ve been listening to this in preparation for tomorrow night’s show (plug!) wherein several of us will play both Monk performances and others performing Monk compositions. To state the obvious: Monk’s own version of “Evidence” is vastly superior to the one by, say, Andy Summers.

5)Sam Cooke, Live at the Copa – An old standby that recently saw duty as background moodsetter to a Thanksgiving weekend brunch at the TioM HQ. Lovely.

(**UPDATE - It's not Lekman in that commercial; it's Stephen Merritt! I mistook the teacher for the student. How gauche.)