Thursday, September 26, 2019

Concert Review: A Braxton Spectacular At Miller

“Music is not just that which happens on stage. Music is part of the vibrations that happen between people.” - Anthony Braxton

There likely would have been a sense of occasion - and a packed house - at the Miller Theatre last Wednesday night no matter whose music was being featured. It was the opening concert of their 20th season of Composer Portraits, an event worthy of celebration even in the abstract. But an evening of music by Anthony Braxton is also not as common as it should be so I welcomed the opportunity for immersion. 

A glance at the program and a read through Lara Pellegrinelli's typically incisive and captivating notes promised a well-conceived evening, moving chronologically from 1968’s Composition No. 1 to Composition No. 358 from 2006. Also, with Either/Or and JACK Quartet involved I knew there would be no question about the excellence of the players. But there was much I didn’t know, as when Melissa Smey revealed that after performing the first three pieces in sequence, the final six works would be played simultaneously. Without understanding exactly how that would work, I settled in, alert to whatever may come. 

Richard Carrick, director of Either/Or, assayed the first piece, which was for solo piano. A fragmented shuffle or palimpsest of lyricism and cacophony, with the barest hint of ragtime, it kept me on the edge of my seat. Knowing that Braxton often uses unconventional notation, I kept an eye on Carrick’s iPad Pro to see what the sheet music promised. The boldest gesture there - a giant black X across several bars - was equally bold on the keyboard as Carrick crossed his hands to continue an especially dazzling run. Some of the big block chords spoke to me as exemplars of the frustration Braxton may have felt in 1968, whether with the state of the world or his need to break free of free jazz. In any case, this fully formed piece draws quite a line in the sand as Braxton’s first numbered composition and promised great things ahead. 

Next up was the JACK taking on Composition No. 17 from 1971, which offers much freedom to the players as far as which part is played by each instrument and for how long. With subtle hand gestures from violist John Pickford Richard to keep them on track, three distinct movements emerged encompassing various levels of wooziness, static, and turbulence. Whether it was the JACK’s approach or built in, there was a sense of structure that was at least adjacent to the string quartet literature making for a very satisfying and adventurous piece. 

Either/Or then took the stage, expanded to 11 players with the addition of two of Braxton’s close collaborators, James Fei (saxophone) and Chris McIntyre (trombone). Both of them, especially the latter, had a lot to do in Composition No. 46, which occasionally mingled Boulezian elegance with suspense straight out of a Lalo Schifrin score. As it went on, I found my mind drifting and wondered if the piece wasn’t a bit aimless. This led to thoughts about what it means for music to have an “aim” in the first place. Was such criticism more about me than about Braxton? Was it actually criticism at all, or just acknowledgement? Before I knew it the piece had ended. 

Then, after a brief reset of the stage, came the piece de la resistance, one of those “only at Miller” blockbuster experiences that will have people saying “I was there” for years - and some of them might be lying. Yes, it was THAT incredible. Either/Or, now boasting a seriously tricked out percussionist, and JACK filled nearly the entire stage and sallied forth into the breach to play (deep breath): Compositions No. 17, 18, 40(O), 101, 168, and 358, spanning 35 years of work from 1971 to 2006. My impressions were as follows:
  • Brawny swagger, led by the reeds and brass, mallets on bongos lending a faint whiff of 50’s “exotica.”
  • Furious flute and bassoon jam (maybe No. 168?) with stunning playing by Margaret Lancaster and Sarah Schoenbeck, respectively. Other sounds faded away. 
  • Most of JACK having a great time, gesticulating with bows, pointing at each other’s music stands to stay focused (unclear if this was staged behavior, especially when they began shouting in unison); cellist Jay Campbell looked miserable for a few minutes, like a teenager forced to play poker with his parents, but soon brightened up. Many glissandi, swooping up and down the necks of their instruments.
  • Cubist strains of Gershwin-esque melodies kept seeking air above the clamor, with a glorious lack of success.
  • James Fei taking command once in a while on alto or soprano sax, the collective blend unable to hide his obvious brilliance.
  • Muted trumpet galore, played beautifully by Jonathan Finlayson, but not the cool, airy Miles Davis mute, more like Louis Armstrong 1920's mute, all sharp commentary.
  • Playful, even pranky at times, with echoes of Joseph Byrd's balloon music, or a Pere Ubu song about walking or feet.
  • Occasionally able to zoom in from the totality and pick out an individual work, like Composition No. 101 (1981) for piano and trombone, Carrick and McIntyre synching up beautifully.
  • Bassist James Ilgenfritz and percussionist Russell Greenberg driving things ever onward, with the latter equally facile on the side drum, the vibes, or those delightful bongos. They had me tapping my toes and dancing in my seat a little.
  • Devolved into insect sounds, everyone seemingly on the same page, making dry, rustling noises, eventually going quiet. The end.
The audience caught their collective breath and then issued forth a long ovation. As we stood, a woman to my left asked if I had heard it before. "No one has," I said, nearly crowing. "Well, you were tapping your fingers..." "It had a pulse," I responded, smiling, "and I reacted accordingly." I'm still not sure if she was annoyed or a little bit jealous. On my way out, I shook Miller director Melissa Smey's hand and congratulated her on a spectacular start to the season. Get to this page to find out what the rest of the series looks like and make a plan to be there.

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Sunday, September 15, 2019

1983: Dancing About Architecture

Note: I went to SUNY Purchase and there came a time when my group of friends decided that an arts school should have an arts magazine, so we created MOA: Magazine of the Arts. My role was as an editor and music critic and I started a column called Dancing About Architecture. This is one of those columns, reproduced here exactly as it was published 36 years ago.

Radio is in a pretty bad state. It's conformist, commercially dependent, and, with few exceptions, blatantly racist.

Among offenders there are degrees: worst is WLIR-FM (92.7), ignoring all but the most homogenized black music. Contemporary Hits Radio (CHR) stations are little better, giving more airplay to black music, but only if it's already making a lot of money. The only stations with integrity are the "Urban" stations (WKTU, WBLS, WRKS, all FM, 92.0, 107.5, and 98.7, respectively), who set their own criteria for what they play, independent of sales.

I'll start with WLIR, the supposed "New Music Station." WLIR's programming policy translates: White/English - YES, Black/American - NO. WLIR justifies its "new" title by playing songs that are a hit in England, while ignoring new American music, especially if it's black. When questioned about the intimated racism of their programming, WLIR directors responded: "We play what fits our format - we play music that's good." One could argue that WLIR is "making a statement" by not giving airplay to "Thriller," but if the issue is quality, why does the station keep "Undercover," the Stones latest, on the air? Evidently, in the language of WLIR, "good" means "not black."

The same thinking informs the 24-hour cable music television channel, MTV. When an MTV executive was asked why his channel did not play more black videos, he replied, "We play rock'n'roll." One might ask then, what is R'n'R? Is it, as the people at WLIR and MTV would have us believe, a rootless dance music played by white people, mainly on synthesizers, exclusive of black performers?

The latest alternative - CHR - offers a definition-by-no-definition: they play anything that is a hit. However their programming policy affect the consistency of their audience (if it has any consistency), CHR stations do at least participate in breaking down racial barriers. For instance, during the time CHR stations were playing Culture Club's "Do You Really Want To Hurt Me" and Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing," WLIR played only Culture Club and wouldn't touch the latter. Of course, CHR's motives in this case were purely profit-oriented, a fact which becomes less relevant when one's concern is getting as large an audience as possible to accept a variety of music. What is relevant is that these stations are very popular. In fact, Z-100 was for several months early this year the Number One station the New York listening area.

The predictable irony is that CHR stations and WLIR suffer from the same problem: across-the-board mediocrity. The fact that the "new music" WLIR plays is on the charts is not a triumph for new music, but rather, a defeat for The Music. There's nothing "new" about Duran Duran that wasn't new about Herman's Hermits. What WLIR has done, simply, is to fool the public into thinking that the same old thing is new - and has done so without taking any risk. There will always be pop, and it will always have its listeners - many, many listeners.

Not every "New Music" station in the past has had such narrow programming. A few years back, WPIX-FM, 101.9 (now playing love songs, nothing but love songs), was one New Music station that dared quite a bit. They played the Specials before they signed with the Chrysalis label and even played the B-52's "Rock Lobster" from a demo tape. WPIX also contributed to the success of lesser known bands like XTC, whose album "Drums and Wires," as a result of continual airplay on WPIX, resulted in that band's largest following ever. The temptation is to conclude that we have entered into a period of musical mediocrity, an error that amounts to "blaming the victim." There is lots of good music now; for example XTC's new album "Mummer," which receives no airplay. The radio stations are at fault.

There are a few innovators, the "Urban Stations" - WKTU, WBLS and WRKS - who play anything, as long as it fits their criteria of quality. The difference between these stations and CHR is that whereas CHR plays what is a hit, Urban stations are a major force in making the hits. This is where the innovations are happening, in so-called "Black Music." As a musician, I find most of the things that catch my ear are on 12" dance singles, like the great, crunchy synthesizer sound in "You've Gotta Believe" by "Love Bug" Starski, or the huge drum sound in Shannon's "Let The Music Play." Not to mention Scratching (rubbing the needle on the record to create literally a scratching sound), which is something really new - using the medium to renew itself, like making a collage out of the Mona Lisa. This is what distinguishes Urban stations from all the others: they act on the music itself - making new mixes, scratches, etc. Some of the D.J.-made hits are so good that they have become airplay hits and are eventually released as records themselves.

What emerges from all this is an essential difference in black and white attitudes towards music. To overgeneralize: blacks view music more as a medium while whites treat it primarily as a commodity. Of course, this hasn't stopped white musicians from borrowing heavily (I'm being kind) from black artists - How many people talked to Bo Diddley before using his beat? - but when it comes to repaying the debt, they can be remarkably selfish. Recently Sugarhill Records approached 99 Records for use of a Liquid Liquid bassline and were refused. When Sugarhill asked if it was possible to buy a percentage of the rights, 99 said flat out "No. We own 100% of the song and we will continue to own 100%." Sugarhill used the bassline anyway (promising royalties to 99) and created a better song - "White Lines,"  by Grandmaster and Melle Mel. White musicians should learn to give a little with all that take - let's face it, they didn't invent the funk.

Despite all this, there is hope. By the sheer quality of the music, Urban Stations are managing to convince other stations what's good. Recently, WLIR picked up "White Lines," making it the first black record to receive steady airplay on that station. Although radio's basic premise is still to reach as large an audience as possible, I believe better radio could be a reality; radio that's less racist and more confident, that can introduce to the American public some really new music. A change like this could only be accompanied by other, bigger changes. The supposedly revived music industry would have to start signing and promoting young, fresh artists, and even, perhaps, using some good, old-fashioned power politics (such as CBS allegedly used to get Michael Jackson's videos on MTV) to get their music played on commercial stations. Musicians would also have to cooperate and try, on both sides, to bridge the still-yawning racial gap. I don't know if this will happen in my lifetime, but I am sure, as an interested party and working musician, that it is up to us to lay the foundations for radio's hopefully brighter future.

(Jeremy Shatan, a junior at the State University of New York at Purchase, plays bass for Susanna and the Elders.)

Susanna and the Elders
(l-r: Andrew Berenyi (Guitar), Joe Leonard (Drums), Verushka (Vocals), Jeremy Shatan (Bass)

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