Archive for November, 2010

EARS WIDE OPEN 2

Posted in Bill Laswell, David Bowie, Evan Parker, Fred Frith, George Lewis, Keith Richards, Lester Bowie, Robert Wyatt, Rolling Stones on November 25, 2010 by candymachine

In my previous post,  I suggested that musicians tend to be wide open to the musical universe while listeners en masse are inclined toward a narrower focus. Today, I’d like to offer a follow-up illustration.

In the previous post, I used three references to three musicians to suggest this openness. Those musicians were Keith Richards, George Lewis and Robert Wyatt.  At first glance, these three musicians – titans in their respective fields – might seem like a wildly incongruous mix of musical characters. In a sense, they are. And yet, even though they are at home in  different genres, they turn out to be close neighbours.

I like the notion of ‘six degrees of separation;’ that any 2 individuals can be linked together via 6 other individual contacts. I think we can take this notion and map it onto the world of musicians and indeed link any 2 individuals through 6 (or 5 or 4 or 3) others.  Let’s take a closer look at our seemingly incongruous three musicians above. Keith Richards might seem light years away from Robert Wyatt to some, but Richards’ Rolling Stone bandmate Charlie Watts also runs the Charlie Watts Big Band, which lets Watts indulge his love of jazz.  Radical saxophonist Evan Parker has been a part of Watts’ band, and Parker has also appeared on record with Wyatt, most notably on Wyatt’s great ‘Shleep.’  That makes for a separation of merely 2 musicians between Richards and Wyatt. In fact, I’m sure there is an even more direct connection between the two musicians that I’m not aware of.

How about George Lewis?  Lewis has played with Evan Parker too, so he is situated on the same line we just traced. I know Lewis has also played with Fred Frith and Chris Cutler, who in turn have both enjoyed a long, friendly history with Wyatt.  As for connecting him up to Richards, off the top of my head I know that Lewis has worked with bass maverick Bill Laswell, who also produced one of Mick Jagger’s solo outings. Jagger has, of course, an acquaintance with Richards.

We could do this all night.  How about George Lewis and late 60s/ early 70s teen idol David Cassidy of Partridge Family fame? The AACM seems light years from old schlocky TV sitcoms.  However, David Cassidy once tried to shake off his candy floss idol image and stake a claim for himself as a reputable musician by hooking up with Mick Ronson to produce a solo album. Ronson, of course, had been a guitarist with David Bowie’s band, circa Ziggy Stardust, and Bowie had invited his namesake Lester Bowie (of the Art Ensemble of Chicago) to bring his trumpet along to Bowie’s ‘Black Tie, White Noise’ sessions. In 2006, Lewis released a recording, titled Sequel, which was dedicated to the late, great Lester. So, that’s just 3 musicians separating George Lewis and David Cassidy.

We could do this all night.

EARS WIDE OPEN / EARS WIDE NOT

Posted in George Lewis, Keith Richards, NOW Orchestra, Robert Wyatt, Spool with tags , on November 22, 2010 by candymachine

1st vignette:

 In his newly released memoir, titled “Life,” Keith Richards writes:

 “They [schoolmates at art school] sometimes got at me because I still liked Elvis at the time, and Buddy Holly, and they didn’t understand how I could possibly be an art student and be into blues and jazz and have anything to do with that. There was a certain “Don’t go there” with rock n’ roll, glossy photographs and silly suits. But it was just music to me.”

 2nd vignette:

Up until a few short years ago, I was involved with the CD label Spool. We were in the midst of putting together a CD with trombone great George Lewis and the NOW Orchestra (The Shadowgraph Series: Compositions for Creative Orchestra). At the time, Spool was running three different music series, loosely divided into improvisation, contemporary composition, and the rather vague new media / new form series. I was explaining to George the differences between the three series with respect to where the Shadowgraph CD was going to end up. I remember vividly the questioning stare I  was getting from George as I broke down the classifications. It wasn’t that he didn’t understand what each series was about. Rather, he couldn’t get why all the music would warrant three different series. To borrow from the Richards reference above, it was all just music to George Lewis.

 3rd vignette:

Robert Wyatt, one of the greatest vocalists singing in the English language, was asked what kinds of music he liked, to which he replied –in true Wyattesque fashion –  that he only knew of two kinds of music: good music and bad music. He liked the former. For Wyatt too, it was all just music.

What these vignettes point to, I hope, is the general tendency on the part of musicians to be wide open to the musical spectrum. It’s a big musical universe out there, and musicians find it friendly. Sure, there are some musicians who don’t follow this tendency, but generally I find it to be true.

But here’s the rub, I would suggest that the opposite tendency holds sway among  music fans / listeners. Most listeners insulate themselves into niches and pigeon holes. They carry the torch for specific genres in contraposition to other genres. We all know the jazz or classical snob, the head banger, the folkie, the punk, the Prog Rocker, Hip Hop heads, etc. Here too, I am generalizing; there are listeners out there who have a voracious appetite for a wide range of music, but they are vastly outnumbered by the listeners who plow a narrow field.

 Why should this be the case? What makes listeners, generally speaking, narrowly focused on music? I think a lot of it comes down to self-identity formation. I think a lot of people use music as a way of stating who they are, what they are about. In its worst form, it’s part of an exercise in  prefab ‘life-style choice.’  Music becomes an accessory, a constituent element of personal brand.

 Which actually just begs the next question, why do we need to do this? Why do we use music in this way? Is this music’s primary use value? It’s true that the music one likes and gravitates to says something of who one is, but at worst music also becomes a commodity used to articulate the persona we want others to see us as.  A lot of this ‘need’ to ‘self-identify’ –  the need to be ‘me’ through a barrage of commodities, including music, is driven by commercial interests through media, of course.  If we could get past the music-as-image and music-as-me aspects, perhaps we could get to Robert Wyatt’s place and be left with just choosing between good music and bad music.

SUBLIME BEAUTY WITH A JAGGED EDGE

Posted in Art Bears, Carla Kihlstedt, Chris Cutler, Cosa Brava, Dagmar Krauss, Dave Kerrman, FIMAV, Fred Frith, Jewlia Eisenberg, Kristin Slipp, News From Babel, Rock in Opposition, Skelton Crew, the Norman Conquest, Winter Songs, Zeena Parkins with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 14, 2010 by candymachine

Part Three of Three: The Art Bears Songbook in Victoriaville, May 2008 and in Carmaux, Sept. 2010.

When I heard that the Art Bears Songbook would close the 25th edition of the FIMAV festival in May 2008, I immediately phoned Victoriaville to secure a ticket and booked a flight for Quebec. After all, it had been more than 25 years since the Art Bears called it a day. The very idea was audacious. The bar had been set so high by the albums! How could the performance do anything but disappoint? Hopes ran as high as the expectations.

Much work had been done in rehearsal time leading up to the performance, which took place, I believe, in a closed-down wing of the Colibri Hotel. I suspect that the job of writing the material into concert-ready form fell largely on the shoulders of Fred Frith, although I equally suspect that the final form of things was crunched out by the group on the rehearsal room floor. I saw Frith and Cutler, and Dave Kerman too, sitting in the lobby of the Colibri Hotel, sheet music spilling over a table, ironing out last details. A friend and I took the opportunity to drop off a few bottles of wine to the table, for the band, as a (silly?) kind of thank you gift for everything that had come before.

But, as is well known now, the band delivered a performance for the ages at FIMAV, one that rose even higher than the high hopes and expectations of those in attendance. For me, it was not only the highlight of the festival, but my own favourite concert ever! I was so enthralled that afterwards I said I’d travel anywhere to see it all again. Hence, in September 2010, I found myself in Carmaux, France, at the Rock in Opposition festival, where the Art Bears Songbook would take the stage for a second time.

The performance in Quebec had the cachet of being the first, but the show in Carmaux would have something the FIMAV show didn’t – Dagmar Krause would join the band in France! In Victoriaville, Jewlia Eisenberg, Kristin Slipp and Carla Kihlstedt did a very fine job handling the vocals. They didn’t attempt to emulate the stylings and delivery of Krauss, but rather played to their own considerable strengths to set the songs. Eisenberg was ill and could not participate in Carmaux, which set the stage for Krauss to join the group. And she was in fine form. The singing that left you breathless when listening to the albums left you breathless live as well.

There were some technical difficulties to be overcome in the beginning stages of the show; the vocalists seemed to be having some trouble with getting the right balance in their monitors and may have had trouble hearing themselves, but this was not an issue out front in the audience. We were too busy being awe-struck at how the band pulled off performing parts of songs that were originally studio constructions. The instrumental sections of Rats and Monkeys, for example, were jaw-dropping. If you weren’t at either concert, go listen to this piece (from Winter Songs) and imagine that being rendered live. Or, what do you do with something like the backwards / manipulated vocals that begin First Things First? (from Winter Songs) You could bypass them altogether and do something different, or just play a tape alongside the band, as some groups would, or if you’re Dagmar Krauss and Kristin Slipp, you learn to sing the backwards / manipulated vocals in real time! And that drumming? If you thought that Chris Cutler’s drum kit sound could only exist in a studio, you were wrong. The sound, the tension, the breath and space, the rhythms, the colours – it was all there in real time, right before our ears. Zeena Parkins and Carla Kihlstedt are essential too. I can’t imagine the band without them. Both (as well as the Norman Conquest) are members of Frith’s Cosa Brava, and the time, energy, and fun, that they’ve poured into playing together is clearly audible. (Parkins, of course, also played with Frith in Skeleton Crew and with Cutler in News From Babel, as well as many other groupings, improvised or otherwise, over the years).

And what more can be said of Fred Frith? He continues to be where he has been for close to 40 years now – at the forefront of cutting new music. He bounced from electric guitars to bass to piano and also provided some vocals, and at the end of the night he probably breathed a great sigh of relief and, I hope, a great smile too. I certainly did. This was the best concert I’ve seen since the last time I saw the band in Victoriaville. It’s not so often you see a show end with the audience standing, clapping, hollering and then booing the stage crew when they start dismantling the stage. This crowd wanted more, and I hope they get it. The Art Bears Songbook is a wild, artistic success and I hope their day is not yet done. 

Photo courtesy of FIMAV.

These two very cool images from the Carmaux concert were taken from a blog called The Clock That Went Backwards

SUBLIME BEAUTY WITH A JAGGED EDGE

Posted in Art Bears, Carla Kihlstedt, Chris Cutler, Dagmar Krauss, Henry Cow, Hopes and Fears, Jewlia Eisenberg, Kristin Slipp, Marc Hollander, Peter Blegvad, the Norman Conquest, The World As it is Today, Zeena Parkins with tags , , , , , , , on November 8, 2010 by candymachine

Part Two of Three: From the Art Bears to the Art Bears Songbook

Once upon a time, in the 1970s, there was a seminal and superb band called Henry Cow. Fred Frith and Chris Cutler were members of that illustrious band.  In early 1978, they set upon the task of writing some new material for the next Henry Cow album. What they wrote were songs, which were recorded by Henry Cow, but subsequently considered to be unsuitable for the band.  So, Frith and Cutler  – and Henry Cow’s inimitable vocalist, Dagmar Krauss – took the songs and worked the material into an album that would be released under the banner of the Art Bears.

 So, in a sense the Art Bears came into existence as an organic outgrowth of Henry Cow. In fact, the other members of Henry Cow, Lindsay Cooper, Tim Hodgkinson and Georgie Born, can all be heard on the first Art Bears album, titled Hopes and Fears (1978). Two more albums followed before the Art Bears called it a day: Winter Songs (1979) and The World As it is Today (1981). There was a short tour of Europe in the spring of 1979, with Marc Hollander (Aksak Maboul) and Peter Blegvad (Slapp Happy/Henry Cow) along as guests.

 Their three albums still stand as high water marks of so-named avant rock / RIO / progressive music. Let’s put aside these labels and just call these albums three of the most compelling, unflinching and breathtaking recordings yet to be released by homo sapiens sapiens! Make An effort to seek out these recordings if you are not familiar with them!  Then, almost as fast as they had come, they were gone. They called it a day in 1981, but in short order, the Art Bears acquired legendary status in their field.

 Fast forward more than two decades and a young and frighteningly formidable violinist by the name of Carla Kihlstedt and vocalist extraordinaire Jewlia Eisenberg were playing in a band that included Art Bears songs in their repertoire. They asked Fred Frith to join them, which he did, once. The results prompted Eisenberg to invite both Frith and Chris Cutler to participate at a later gig. The intent was there, but the gig never happened. Still, the seeds for the Art Bears Songbook were sown here. A few years later, the idea re-emerged and then the 25th edition of the Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville provided an opportunity.

 But the FIMAV performance was not intended to be Rock in Opposition’s version of an Eagles Reunion. This was to be a contemporary revisiting of the Art Bears’ work, an approach to the material that would move forward as it looked back. To this end, an enhanced and expanded line-up would take to the stage in Victoriaville. Nobody likes the phrase ‘supergroup ,‘ but let’s face it – Zeena Parkins (keyboards, accordion), Carla Kihlstedt (violin, vocals), Jewlia Eisenberg (vocals), Kristin Slipp (vocals) and the Norman Conquest (sound manipulation), in addition to originals Fred Frith (guitar, bass, piano) and Chris Cutler (drums). The Art Bears’ original siren / singer, Dagmar Krauss, did not participate at FIMAV.

 

 

 

 

Art Bears audio samples can be heard at  ReRMegacorp.com

Next time: The Art Bears Songbook in Victoriaville, May 2008 and in Carmaux, Sept. 2010.

Part One of Three: The Art Bears n’ Me

Posted in Aksak Maboul, Art Bears, Art Zoyd, Etron Fou Leloublan, Fred Frith, Henry Cow, Rock in Opposition, Samlas Mannas Manna, Stormy Six, Univers Zero, Western Culture, Winter Songs with tags , , , , , , , , on November 4, 2010 by candymachine

Discovering the Art Bears’ Winter Songs (1978) and Henry Cow’s Western Culture (1979) was a ground zero experience for me.

Back in the late 70s, I had on occasion come across Henry Cow in print and they always sounded interesting. They were on my list of groups to check out — if I could ever find one of their records. I had never even seen one before. I had also heard of the Art Bears. They were an offshoot of Henry Cow and one of their albums received a 5 star review in Downbeat magazine. They were also on my list of groups to check out — if I could ever find one of their records.

 I was living in Victoria, BC in the late 70s, but would occasionally take the ferry over to Vancouver for some record shopping. On my very first expedition to the legendary, but now extinct, Black Swan Records, I walked away with both the Art Bears’ Winter Songs and Henry Cow’s Western Culture.  Hearing these two records was nothing short of a revelation. So dramatic was my reaction to hearing these two records that I started carting off most of my record collection to the local used record store in Victoria. At a stroke, I turned the page on a lot of the music I had been listening to. The Art Bears and Henry Cow killed my record collection!

 Shortly after buying the albums, I learned of their involvement in Rock in Opposition, a collective instigated by Henry Cow and which also included bands Samlas Mammas Manna from Sweden, Univers Zero from Belgium, Etron Fou Leloublan from France and Stormy Six from Italy. It was later expanded to include the Art Bears, Art Zoyd and Aksak Maboul. The Rock in Opposition groups existed outside of the recording industry and its marketing and distribution networks. (No wonder I could never find any of their records). Their uncompromising approaches and refusal to fit themselves into market-friendly musical forms virtually guaranteed that the industry would not be interested in them. They therefore banded together and created their own network to help each other set up tours, release records and find new audiences. Through learning about Rock in Opposition, I developed a greater understanding of the political economy of the recording industry, and of the consequences for groups who were unable to, or chose not to, work within the parameters of the industry. Discovering the Art Bears and Henry Cow, then, led to a politicization of music for me. As a direct result, it wasn’t long before I left my job at a major record retailer just because I didn’t want to be a cog in the workings of the industry. I also shifted the bulk of my record shopping to independent record shops and labels.

 As well, my interest in philosophy and history developed as a result of being engaged in these social and cultural issues. This eventually led to attending college courses and going on to university. The music and working examples of these two bands, and then the other bands involved in Rock in Opposition, affected my ideas of the social world and my place in it.  Life itself became different after the Art Bears & Henry Cow. When I look back and contemplate this time of my life (from a comfy armchair, espresso in hand), I sometimes think of George Bailey in It’s A Wonderful Life. Where would I be today if I never heard Winter Songs or Western Culture? Who would I be?

The above is an excerpt from the forthcoming book, Music Is Rapid Transportation …from the Beatles to Xenakis, available soon from Charivari Press

The Art Bears, back in the day, (photo source unknown, sorry).

 

 

WELCOME TO CANDY MACHINE!

Posted in Art Bears, Fred Frith with tags , , , , , on November 1, 2010 by candymachine

Welcome to Candy Machine.  I took the name from one of Fred Frith’s titles. You can find it on the CD (or DVD), Step Across the Border. Actually, you can hear the piece ‘Candy Machine’ on the cd, but you can also see the actual machine that the piece is named for on the DVD. If you don’t know who Fred Frith is, you will after visiting this blog a few times. He’ll show up frequently. Better yet, make an effort to check out his music. It might change the way you listen to the world.

 A candy machine is also one of those ‘machines’ you often see in the foyers of supermarkets or shopping malls (in North America anyway) which look like over-sized gumball machines, and which will dispense a treat – after you first shove some money into it. I liked the idea of the candy machine as a metaphor for gaining access to music. It’s oddly appropriate for today’s download music culture. I also love the piece by Frith.  I even used it as the intro music to a college radio show I once hosted many years ago. So, the title offered itself, and I took it.

 What will you find here? Mostly celebrations of music that I enjoy: musings, meanderings, meditations, reflections, explications.  So, this is my first post, but really it just serves as an introduction and handshake. The actual inauguration begins with the next post….the first of a three-part look at the Art Bears and the Art Bears Songbook!