My review of The Legendary Pink Dots at Knitting Factory Brooklyn 9/30/16:
— George Grella (@gtra1n) December 7, 2016
My review of The Legendary Pink Dots at Knitting Factory Brooklyn 9/30/16:
— George Grella (@gtra1n) December 7, 2016
I wrote a piece about sound artist Roarke Menzies for the Fall 2016 issue of Musicworks Magazine. Read it in the print edition or online here: musicworks.ca/featured-article/material-soundscapes-roarke-menzies
“…and that’s where I went, almost as if it was a form of musical amnesia, where you not only allow yourself to get lost, but enjoy being lost.” My conversation with Alvin Curran in The Brooklyn Rail…
— The Brooklyn Rail (@TheBrooklynRail) May 11, 2016
— George Grella (@gtra1n) December 10, 2015
Dan Joseph on The Hypnotic Harmonies of Low https://t.co/Vr4bEgtLDQ
— George Grella (@gtra1n) November 6, 2015
— George Grella (@gtra1n) July 17, 2015
Today I received a box of newly printed copies of my 1987 tape music collection Morpheus that has been handsomely re-issued on CD for the first time in a re-mastered and hand-numbered edition of 200 by the Belgian label Forced Nostalgia. The 30 or so copies I received are my compensation for agreeing to allow Fré De Vos, the label's director, to re-publish this nearly 30-year old work. Though it's a bit of a questionable undertaking to release anything on CD at this moment in history, it's gratifying to have a reiteration of an early work, especially one which at the time I felt so strongly about. The discs however, look and sound great! Fré contacted me about this possibility nearly ten years ago, and for various reasons it has only now come to fruition. Though we have never met in person or even spoken on the telephone, I am very grateful to Fré for his interest and perseverance.
The recording is representative of the work I produced during the latter half of the 80s while I was immersed in the international cassette music underground, a period during which I self-released three full-length works on cassette, as well as a split tape (with Cyrnai) and contributed to numerous compilations. Those years were arguably the heyday of the cassette trading period, when a vast international network of homespun labels and distributors vigorously traded artifacts of every description among its artist-participants. The audio cassette naturally ruled the day, lending itself as it does to self-production. We all had our own dubbing decks (a dual cassette deck that facilitated copying tapes) and typically made our own covers and packaging, often making each copy unique in some way. Visits to my PO box in Adams Morgan (Washington, DC) were almost always thrilling for what might turn up – a box of tapes by other artists I ordered in trade for my own; letters and postcards from Japan, England, Tennessee, Switzerland, Austria, Seattle! Unsolicited tapes, chain letters, fanzines, catalogs and other often un-categorizable miscellany, arriving sometimes daily.
It was a stimulating time, though also isolating in its own way. I was still living in DC then where I spent a number of years active in the local punk scene. Retiring from bands at 19 and having dropped out of two different universities, I was eagerly searching for a sustainable musical identity that didn't involve dysfunctional families, drug addictions, drunken brawls or broken eardrums. With my cassette four-track recorder and any instrument I could get my hands on, I dove in head first.
For several years I did little else apart from supporting myself as a waiter and bartender, producing hours and hours of recorded works in what might be described as ambient-industrial, dark ambient, noise, new age or soundscape. This idiom, such as it was, contained equal parts Eno, Throbbing Gristle and Cage and had a great many adherents throughout the world. Some of those with whom I engaged in regular correspondance included Robert Rich, Jeff Grienke, TS Vickers, If Bwana and Zoviet France. Sharing our impressions and trading tapes created a sense of camaraderie and community, though it was largely an imagined one. This musical practice had little performative potential and little local presence, and though I did develop a regular live project at that time with the cellist Rogelio Maxwell, the world of homemade tape esoterica ultimately left me more alone with my music than I cared to be. By 1989 I abruptly dropped the whole enterprise and begin a period of formal composition studies that would, by 1991, take me to California to study at CalArts, and then on to a career as a more conventionally formal composer.
When I completed Morpheus I remember feeling completely satisfied, as though were I to never create another musical work, I would be ok with that. I had been struggling to find a voice for some time, and at that moment this was it. It was well received among friends as well as in the network through which it travelled. Having sold out of the first batch of 100 that I had mass-produced, I re-printed another 200, of which I still have a boxful. The covers were hand set and printed separately, a process directed by my friend Henry Adams (aka Warwick) who lived nearby at the time and worked in graphic design. All told, Morpheus was about as successful as I might have reasonably expected a self-produced cassette of dark and mournful subterranian soundscapes to be.
Which brings us to 2015. My musical practice today is not much closer to the mainstream than it was in 1987, but it has a lot more people in it and includes a far greater diversity of activities. I have traversed many different musical questions, communities and modes of productions in these years, and while I rarely look back to my former selves, I also don't renounce them. In recent years I have found many different ways in which my musical past informs my present, and that includes my industrial self which finds expression at times in my electroacoustic work for hammer dulcimer. Also recently, I have had the unexpected opportunity to reconnect with some of my contacts from this period, notably Al Margolis ("The Cassette Godfather") who currently runs a number of experimental new music labels including his own label Pogus, and Ken Montgomery founder of the famed East Village cassette music store and gallery The Generator. I have also re-connected, virtually at least, with Zoviet France, the amazing and enigmatic collective from Newcastle upon Tyne who for me represent the highest achievement of this particular branch of the underground family tree. I regularly tune in to their weekly one-hour radio program and podcast A Duck in a Tree that features music of this type, both current and historical, as well as a wonderful variety of field recordings made throughout the world. I am very happy to be plugged-in to this community again, and very happy to see Morpheus have a second life!
This Thursday's Musical Ecologies concert by Chris Mannigan and Danny Tunick includes the premiere of my new piece Underground Suite. It was commissioned by this saxophone and percussion duo in 2013 and is part of a larger commissioning project they've undertaken over the last five years that also includes composers Drew Krause and Rich Woodson, both of whose commissioned works will be included on Thursday's program.
Underground Suite is now the second piece in a row I've written that's based on direct quotations of other music, the previous bieng last year's Satellite Canons. It's a relatively new direction for me, though much earlier in my musical life I explored various kinds of appropriation, all in the context of tape music in which I employed various kinds of primitive sampling.
But outside of my own work I have long had an interest in musical quotation, a practice which of course has a long history in various traditions. However, as recordings and sound manipulating technologies have proliferated, so have musical forms based on appropriation – Pluderphonics, mashups, re-mixes and many other variations – all of which I have avidly followed. (A favorite is the Illegal Art Exhibit complilation that was given away for free at Stay Free!'s Illegal Art exhibition at CBGBs 313 Gallery in 2002).
My use of appropriation, however, has no political agenda. My reasons for borrowing other music has more to do with a growing sense that my musical practice is increasingly becominging a form of musicology. The broader conditions that have brought about the mashups etc. are only intensifying, and as an engaged participant, fan, student and presenter, it seems that the incredible abundance of music, recorded and otherwise, in our midst today calls for a different kind of musical practice that takes into account more directly all the listening we are all doing.
In my case I've been listening to a lot of "underground' music. That is where I come from – the underground, though it's not so easy to say what excactly that is. But my piece, with it's specific collection of quotations (see below) offers one vision of a musical underground. I'm of course a big fan of all these artists and tracks and it was fun and instructive to transcribe them all (and many others I did not ultimately use) and try to figure out a way to make a new piece out of them.
And I've always been attracted to the idea of a suite. In this case I've constructed one in five movements that includes three distinctly tune-based movements (I, II and V) separated by two "etudes" based largely on simple non-quoted rhythmic material. This process has certainly had its challenges, and while I'm not totally satisfied with the resulting work, I think it ultimately works. Come hear for yourself, tomorrow night (Thursday March 12th, 2015)!
My life as a music person is punctuated by periodic grand epiphanies (grand on a personal level that is), where seemingly out of nowhere a set of connections are suddenly made that bring into focus a particular artist or musical project in a way previously unseen. While I have smaller such epiphanies nearly on a daily basis, these larger episodes develop in the background, over many months or years before suddenly clicking together in an audio-chemical flash. The Detroit-based band His Name is Alive is the most recent artist to capture my attention in this way, culminating in my checking out a live set last Tuesday at Rough Trade NYC in Brooklyn [February 10, 2015].
I'm not sure I ever heard anything by His Name is Alive before some time last year when, at a local branch of the Housing Works thrift store chain, I found a copy of their 2nd CD Home is in Your Head for $1 (the things I find at that thrift store is perhaps a topic for another post). I had become curious about the band after reading Facing the Other Way: The Story of 4AD a recently published book by Martin Aston that recounts the entire history of that famed record label. Throughout the early to mid-eighties I was somewhat of a 4AD fanatic, devouring pretty much everything I could find on the label. To this day I still own a significant portion of the catalog up until about 1987, including many rare 7" singles, most of the essential LPs and EPs and a few special edition rarities. But my fascination with the label began to wane as my general musical interests went in new directions, coincidentally right around the time that 4AD signed its first American bands. I pretty much lost track of the label and a good deal of other alternative music throughout the 90s as I focussed on my studies and eventual career in new music only occasionally becoming interested in something that connected with my teenage years, most of which I spent as a musician in the DC punk scene of the 80s.
Things began to change however, sometime after moving to New York (May 2001). With my student days long behind me I gradually began to re-connect with my rock and alternative roots, rekindling old friendships, checking out the occasional show, and buying a CD here and there – basically reclaiming that part of my self. At some point in the mid aughts 4AD started to find its way back on my radar. By the middle of the decade it became apparent that a number of bands I had recently become interested in were now on the label's roster – Deerhunter, Stereolab, Gang Gang Dance, Blonde Redhead and the then Brooklyn it band TV on the Radio among them. While I was vaguely aware of 4AD's trials and tribulations over the years and the fact that original mastermind Ivo had long ago sold it, it seemed then that the label had somehow succeded in reinventing itself in its own original image. I've been following again ever since (though I can't say I'm very excited about many of the recent signings). When I discovered a slightly damaged copy of the aforementioned book [Facing the Other Way: The Story of 4AD] on the shelves at The Strand bookstore for $6 I snapped it up and promptly devoured all 650 pages within the week.
Which brings us back to His Name is Alive. The band's name as well as that of it's creator Warren Defever comes up again and again in Facing the Other Way, and as I learned what an important part it played for the label throughout the 90s as well as the outsized significance it apparently held for Ivo, it piqued my interest more than any other band I was not yet familiar with that the book discussed . (A few other interesting bands I also learned about for the first time reading this book, some of whom were never on 4AD but might have been, Low for example). Over the last year I found their first two CDs Livonia, and Home is in Your Head and their fourth, Stars on E.S.P. each for $1 also at the Housing Works thrift store. From the start I could hear the kinship with old-school (or maybe "late early") 4AD, at least with the first two records. Had I heard them in 1985 I would have been instantly hooked, and even now I found them beautifully bewitching. The enigmatic forms, textures and moods set amid unpredictably fluid tempos, and the predominance of haunting and beautiful female voices put them very much in line with earlier 4AD staples Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance and the This Mortal Coil franchise….but with a few interesting twists. Importantly, I was surprised that this music came from the USA. Yes, 4AD began working with American bands in the late 80s, but those, and many to follow were more conventional, albeit great, rock bands, without much of the ethereal, existential, gothic-esque signature of the core European artists of the label. And then, as I began getting to know the later Stars on E.S.P. album (this happened only a few months ago) I discovered that there is so much more to His Name is Alive than 4AD could ever hope to contain.
His Name is Alive is not a band per se, though it seems to periodically become one, and very convincingly so. It's really a studio project (of Warren Defever’s). The records are all very sophisticated studio efforts that endlessly explore unique sounds, forms and juxtapositions, often exploring a musical idea in multiple versions, and as with much of today's bedroom pop, it has to be reverse-engineered for the live setting. The recording is the original, and live is the copy. With the recent concert I attended, as well as time spent exploring the extensive history to be found on YouTube as a reference, when His Name is Alive goes live, it works, both as a convincing evocation of the original recorded work, but also as an autonomous interpretation. In any case, this is increasingly how things work in today's musical ecosystem. In this way, it seems His Name is Alive was somewhat ahead of the curve, by a decade at least.
But the things that really stand out for me, what makes His Name is Alive unique and compelling, are really three qualities. The first is the ever-present sense of restless experimentation. No two songs or vignettes are alike, each one a unique proposal of what a piece of music can or might be, both in the instrumentation (which is almost always interesting and unconventional) and in the actual sounds. Each track is a soundworld unto itself. The second is a rich underlying musicality that grounds even the most abstract and minimal pieces, a musicality rooted it seems, in acoustic folk and roots music. There are even some tunes worthy of being considered part of the “Great American Songbook,” namely the wonderful This World is Not My Home triptych that frames the entire Stars on E.S.P. album. And lastly, there is a magical sensibility that pervades His Name is Alive, a mix of childlike wonder, nature spirits and folk mysticism, and maybe a little LSD! It’s similar to the kind of magic that characterized some of the classic 4AD artists, but that was arguably a much darker magic. His Name is Alive has its darkness, but there’s a greater joy and wonder here, and lot of good tunes. I'm looking forward to getting to know the rest of the catalog.
Last Tuesday at Rough Trade the band played through the majority of its newest album Tecuciztecatl, a self-described “rock opera depicting an epic struggle between identical twins, reflective in nature, and mirrored in twin science, secret language, and mythology.” It would seem to be a radically new direction for the group, sounding more like some kind of classic 70s Rust Belt psych-rock. About a similar live set a few days later one DC-area tweeter quipped “@hisnameisalive was kinda in medieval heavy-psych mode tonight @blackcatdc, damn.” I think that nails it, damn. But is it really that new a direction? As with many of the great rock visionaries – think Bowie, Eno, Reed, Zappa (and maybe Ariel Pink?) – whatever the setting or concept or sound world they happen to be inhabiting at any given time, their underlying vision and personality always comes through. Suffice it to say, Tecuciztecatl is an excellent record!
P.S. Oh, and who's ever heard of the Detroit band Viv Akauldren? Defever mentions them in YouTube interview…I saw them at DC Space in the 80s, maybe twice – what a cool band, I had totally forgotten!
My piece on professional courtesy published on NewMusicBox.org:
— New Music USA (@NewMusicUSA) December 11, 2014
Satellite Canons for brass sextet, 2014
Written specifically for this Music for Contemplation concert (11/1/14) featuring Affinity Brass, Satellite Canons is a six-part un-coordinated, un-conducted canon. Each part is played independently of one another, with each player using a silent metronome set to a unique tempo. The material for each player is simple and repetitive, and in concept and design the work is part of an ongoing series of works I call Periodicity Pieces. The idea behind these pieces is to set in motion a number of un-related cycles of repetition at very slow tempos and see what happens. While I have, through trial and success, arrived at what I feel is a satisfying composition using these simple phrases and tempos, this realization could be considered merely as an “arrangement,” with many other versions possible that would retain the underlying idea and identity of the piece.
What gives the work it’s distinctive identity in whatever arrangement, is the particular pitches, which are drawn form the first three bars of Lou Reed’s Satellite of Love from his 1972 album Transformer. Over the last several years I’ve been experiencing quite an immersion in the music of Lou Reed, and at the time of his death last year was particularly in the grip of Transformer, with a particular fondness for Satellite. It also happens that in my recent compositions I’ve been exploring the use of quotations as a primary element, so when the opportunity to write this work for brass came up, also last year, it seemed an excellent opportunity to work more in this way. It didn’t take me long to figure out what to quote – not only is it an obvious tribute to this important and quintessentially New York artist, it’s also a vehicle for contemplation, of life, death, time, New York City, music history, brass instruments, counterpoint, chords, intervals, timbre, breath…
But it’s also, for me at least, an opportunity to contemplate the making of music in a church, a setting I have long been ambivalent about, and often outright resisted. My religio-spritual identity, like many Americans, has always been fairly confused, and if I identify with anything, it’s my Jewish heritage. But even with that limited sense of identification, I have never felt comfortable in places of worship, despite their obvious charms. In this way, contemplating Lou Reed in a church in Williamsburg, Brooklyn seems an appropriate way for me to explore this extra-musical issue in my life.
And to add one additional layer: Both the generously spacious layout of the Church of the Annunciation as well as the idea of the satellite as expressed in both the quotation and the cyclical nature of my musical lines, suggested a circular arrangement of the performers for tonight’s performance. In this way the moving of the musical lines around the room and their entrances and exits, suggest a group of satellites moving around the earth, each on their own individual path, and each sending their own signal of love…or something like that!
During the summer of 1986 I hosted a weekly radio show on WMUC, the radio station of the University of Maryland, College Park. I wasn't a student there, but my friend Dave McDuff was the station manager and during the summer there was a chronic shortage of DJs. At the time I was living at 14th and Church Streets in NW Washington, DC and working at the nightclub/bar/restaurant/art gallery DC Space. Having spent the early 80s playing in a string of local bands including 9353, Crippled Pilgrims and Troubled Gardens, I was very much still in the thick of the DC music scene.
I recorded most of my radio programs on an in-studio cassette deck and I recently discovered several of these cassettes. This set of DC-area bands was somewhat of an anomaly, as most of my sets were dominated by the British and European post-punk, goth and industrial groups (4AD, Laylah, Les Disques du Crepescule etc.) I was then obsessed with. But all of these tracks are by bands I had a personal connection to (with the exception of Jad Fair), and all were active at that time. I played with some of these musicians in other projects, and all of them I heard live many times. Some are barely known today and I assume most of the tracks are out of print, but these were all great bands and offer a more or less representative slice of the DC scene at that time. Many of these records I no longer own (whoops!), so I'm completely thrilled to have this time capsule!
A shout out to Sharon, Colin, Alex, Roger and Charles of Bloody Mannequin Orchestra, to Joey and Malcolm of Grand Mal, to Monica, Eugene, Danny and Norman of Madhouse, my then bandmates Jason, Bruce and Vance (RIP) of 9353 and Jay, Scott and Mtich of Crippled Pilgrims, to Jeff, Dante, Steve and Mark of Grey Matter, to Alec, Chris and Mike of Faith, and lastly to the recently departed Dave Brockie whose early comedic-punk trio Death Piggy still stands as one of my all-time favorite bands of the region and period.
More about the DC days here: http://danjoseph.org/dc
While collecting some writing samples for a proposal for a new article, I happened on this piece I wrote nearly two years ago that remains unpublished. I had nearly forgotten about it, but it contains some lingering questions that come up again from time to time as the discourse around silent music continues to grow. Feel free to offer your comments below!:
Listening To Silent Music (March 2012)
Among the many innovative and revolutionary ideas put forward by John Cage, our most influential musical thinker (currently in his 100th year), the use of silence as a musical material has had perhaps the most significant impact on current practices. With the composition 4’ 33’ (1952) and later works, a new understanding of music, sound and consciousness was reached, the implications of which are continuing to unfold through many varied strands. In this emergent field of so-called Silent Music, which can take the form of a notated work, an improvisation, electronic or electroacoustic sound art, a theoretical inquiry or a set of prose instructions, silence, as both an idea and a material becomes the central focus. Much as Schoenberg liberated the dissonance, and in doing so set in motion the atonal revolution, Cage liberated silence, and in doing so pointed the way to the democratization of music.
Tiny music, lower-case sound, minimal acoustic music, minor musics, non-cochlear sound – these are some of its guises. With 4’ 33” Cage wanted the focus to be on the sounds around us, to the “music” that surrounds us. Later, with her Sonic Meditations and her practice of Deep Listening™, Pauline Oliveros turned silence inside out, teaching us to also listen to our own silence, the sound of our inner world. With the composers of the Wandelwieser Group, a transnational collective of composers that share an intense focus on the structural potential of silence, silence is decidedly a material, for use in a composition, considered and measured in varying proportions to a range other sonic materials, instrumental and otherwise. For an international community of improvising musicians, sound artists and acoustical ecologicians, silence is more a political statement, a form of humility and passive resistance.
To listen to silent music is a complex act that for some can be intolerable, for silence is not what we expect to encounter at a concert or when we listen to a record. But silence is also an opportunity, an invitation, an opening, a catalyst. Imagine you are comfortably seated in a concert hall or club among a diverse group of fellow concert goers. The musicians you have come to hear take the stage and begin to play, offering what seems to be a familiar enough sounding work of contemporary music; a few pitches, a discernable rhythm, a distinct tone or an interesting electronic sound – yes, this sounds like music. But suddenly and without warning a remarkable thing happens: SILENCE. In some such pieces, a silence of this type might last ten minutes or more, before something resembling familiar music returns, if it returns at all. Whether you are outraged or pleased by this dramatic imposition on your otherwise very reasonable expectations, something interesting, even transformative has happened, and usually this will be good.
To share an experience in public with a group of people, such as at a concert, has it’s own magic of social connection and interaction. To share a silence in such a context is a more deeply intimate experience, and every bit as magical and interactive. A concert of silent music can be like a religious experience, a shared observance, like a prayer. Not surprisingly, in an early description of his still gestating “silent piece”, Cage referred to it as Silent Prayer. It has also been noted that a related work of visual art that was to influence the creation of 4’ 33”, Robert Rauschenberg’s white paintings, also contained a kind of religious impetus. Cage is also well-known to have been influenced by the more contemplative varieties of eastern thought, most notably Zen Buddhism, and no silent music can be completely removed from some connection to oriental philosophy.
But there is more to silent music than religiosity and contemplation. To make of silence a creative work, and even a performance, is to empower the audience to share in the work’s realization. For when silence descends in a work of art, the listener immediately becomes an active participant on an entirely different plane than when the music is without silence, when it is fully supplied by the performer or composer. Silent music invites participation, whether with thoughts, ideas, sounds or visions; listening to silent music is a form of composition. Composers I know have spoken of listening to music that makes them hear music of their own invention, that inspires composition, while listening to music. Silent music takes this phenomenon to a new height, for not only are we hearing the “music” around us (Cage) and the sounds of our inner world (Oliveros), we are also composing our own music while listening to silent music, and this represents a fully democratized music.
But there can also be a darker side to silent music, for silence is not always healthy or welcome. It is perhaps not surprising for example, that among the known practitioners of silent music there are few women, for why would women who have for so long been heard less in serious music than their male counterparts want to practice silence in their work? Whatever the sex of the composer, to choose silence, to remain silent, cannot always be good. Perhaps in the increasingly controlled, media-dominated public sphere we are practicing a form of self-censorship when we compose silent music, unconsciously internalizing the very same corporate-controlled agenda we so consciously resist.
Silence can also be an expression of exhaustion. Perhaps Cage felt this to some degree in 1952, but it wasn’t much later that the wider musical culture clearly reached exhaustion, as the hyper expansion and invention of the modern and post-war eras overwhelmed the very creators that drove it and begat a crisis. Many a music student from, say 1975 and on must have felt this, at least to some degree. With so many choices, languages, styles and technologies available, a period of retrenchment took hold. In this context silence is a form of negation and rejection, a way of saying no.
But much as someone in crisis may seek refuge and healing in a monastery or hermitage, so has music sought a silent rebirth. Thus silence can be a new beginning, a tabula rasa. If, as has been suggested by Attali in his classic work of music history, Noise, music is prophetic, is a herald, what does the emergence of a silent music portend? It is both frightening and exciting to imagine our musical future, and some would no doubt suggest that silent music represents the end of music, and this would not be unreasonable. But to look, and listen, to the wider world of music today is to witness a veritable explosion of music, often traveling at the speed of light through the infinite global networks and from all corners of the planet. It would seem in this context then, that music is becoming fully liberated and democratized, that silence has heralded a roar!
On Ten Years Alive and The Afterlife…
There is nowhere in New York City that I feel more at home as an artist than Issue Project Room, and it's great pleasure that I bring my ensemble to the new Issue space today for an encore performance of Tonalization (for the afterlife). The work is dedicated to Issue's visionary founder Suzanne Fiol who's sudden and tragic demise unfolded during the months I was composing the work. It was eventually premiered at the Old American Can Factory space in March 2010, six months after her passing and performed a second time in February of 2011.
Suzanne was a strong supporter of my music, as she was for so many of us, and she invited the ensemble to perform at each of the previous spaces – East 6th Street in April 2005, and the Carroll St. silo June 2006. Taken as a whole the Issue performances have been far and away the most memorable of all Dan Joseph Ensemble concerts, and it is in large measure due to her open-minded and nurturing spirit that the ensemble has continued to devlelop.
And so it is that Issue Project Room continues to develop, following her vision and keeping alive the flame she ignited, and now celebrating Ten Years! Thank you Suzanne and thank you Issue for being a home to those of us who need you. Today I pay tribute to the past while also looking ahead to the future, to Suzanne's "afterlife" on the Infinite Plain." ♡ ∞
Images from past Issue performances by Chris Woltmann, Kevin Ryan and anonymous.
Last week I attended a belated memorial service for the late Borah Bergman who died last October at the age of 85. Led by violinist Jason Kao Hwang who organized the event, many friends, colleagues and family members gathered at Saint Peter’s Church on Lexington Avenue to pay tribute, both through musical performances and speeches, some addressing the gathered remotely via Skype. I knew Borah for only the last eleven years, so it was fascinating, and illuminating, to learn more from the many speakers who knew him through all the stages of his life.
My first encounter with Borah was via the telephone. I had moved to New York City, from California, only a few months earlier and was on my second day of a new job working for Thomas Buckner as the Coordinator of his acclaimed new music series Interpretations. While every conversation I ever had with Borah was notable, this one was particularly notable, not only because it was our first, but for the fact that this day happened to be September 11, 2001. Having emerged from the subway at 28th and Broadway only minutes after the first plane hit, I spent the rest of the day in the Mutable Music office at 109 West 27th Street with my colleague Gladys Serrano trying, like everyone else in the city and the world, to figure out what was happening and what we should do. Thus it was amidst the terror, chaos and confusion of that morning that Borah, who was scheduled to perform on the series in the upcoming season, called from his north-facing studio apartment on West 73rd Street to check-in one some details about his concert.
I don’t recall the exact time of the call, but I think it was at least two hours after the crisis began. I had been on and off the phone with numerous friends and family members updating them on our situation, and when Borah called it took me a minute or two to understand that he was actually unaware of what was happening. He was asking me questions about the piano at Merkin Hall (I think) and other ordinary details about his upcoming concert, and when I interrupted him to explain what was going on, he thought I was kidding. It didn’t take long for him to get it though, and in a voice suddenly deadly serious, he told me he was turning on his TV and abruptly hung up.
Thus, Borah and I were now acquainted. In the months and years that followed we became friends. In addition to assisting him with his concert that season (he did perform solo as scheduled on January 10, 2002), I enjoyed many casual phone conversations in the office about various things musical and otherwise, as he, like many other musicians in Tom’s circle, often called in about various things. At some point I started helping him with his email and computer issues, often over the phone, but increasingly at his apartment where I would sometimes visit after work. This aspect of our relationship continued steadily throughout my tenure at Mutable Music which ended in 2007 and became less frequent after that. As other friends know, computers were not easy for him, but I was able to help him manage his email and documents, sometimes simply just typing and sending messages that had been pending for weeks if not months. In one instance, while helping him with his press materials, he explained that the year commonly printed as his birth year was in fact incorrect, and he sent me to the library in search of an earlier version of The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz that, in addition to being a well-written and accurate bio, listed his correct date of birth. In any case, he was always happy and appreciative for the help and, while I was ostensibly there to help him work, he always played the piano, and we would talk about music and musicians, sometimes scandalously!
At some point, I think fairly early on, he took an interest in my music and I gave him a copy of what at that time was my only CD. It was a duo recording titled trancepatterns that I made in 2000 with saxophonist John Ingle in California. The music was as close to jazz or creative music that I had ever come in my own work and Borah liked it. He was very complimentary, particularly about the rhythmic aspect of the music, something I was largely responsible for as the hammer dulcimer half of the duo, a role that was comparable to being the drummer of the group. I had indeed been a drummer as a teenager and rhythm continued to be my focus, and it was gratifying that Borah, an artist who possessed an astounding command of the rhythmic domain, appreciated this quality in my music. Over these years I attended as many of his concerts as I could, though I can’t say that there were many. I remember at least one other as part of the Interpretations series and just a handful of others, at The Stone for example, and what I believe was has last concert in New York, at the Abrons Arts Center as part of the Vision Festival in 2010. I loved hearing him play. But he also attended some of my concerts. The one I remember most was a solo concert I did at the Cornelia Street Café as part of Frank J. Oteri’s “20th Century Schizoid Music” series that took place there one Monday every month. This was late April 2008, a beautiful spring night and he came with Tom Buckner, and while this was a memorable evening in a number of ways, it was a particular thrill for me to see the two of them in that tiny basement concert space enjoying dinner together while listening to me.
At some point he began suggesting that we play together, even do a concert sometime, and while I was concerned with how our sounds might mesh, I nonetheless expressed my enthusiasm. We continued to talk about it over some weeks and eventually had a tentative plan for a concert that might include bassist Adam Lane who was a mutual friend, but for some reason that didn’t happen. I also began a conversation with Issue Project Room about hosting him in some configuration, and while they were definitely interested, this too never materialized. But we did get together to play at his apartment, twice, the last time on March 4, 2010 when the picture above was taken. I also recorded these jams, something musicians do routinely, but I think my motivation had more to do with knowing that I would probably not be seeing him for much longer and I wanted to have some record of our friendship. Our playing together had it’s moments and it could quite possibly have developed into something, but we never had the opportunity to continue.
It was about this time that I learned from Gladys that Borah had moved to Massachusetts. Things had been unraveling for some time and it had been clear that something was going to change, so it was not a surprise. Not long after that, Borah came down from Massachusetts to play what I assume was that last New York concert, at Abrons. It was a wonderfully moving and contemplative set played to a very appreciative audience that concluded in a long standing ovation. While he played at times in his usual attacking style, the set consisted mostly of his songs and meditations, the former he had composed earlier in his career (I think) while the latter where characteristic of his recent recordings for Tzadik. The one piece I remember most was a song called Through a Green Wood, a simple haunting chord progression that he ornamented ever so sparsely. Greeting him backstage afterward I asked if I could see the score, a one-page hand-written lead sheet with only the barest of notes and chord symbols. In his hands at the piano earlier the piece spoke to me in a profound way of something deep in Borah’s inner world, and it remains the most enduring memory I have of him and his music. Rest in Peace Borah.
My response to Daniel Asia's mean-spirited Huffington Post commentary on John Cage published in NewMusicBox.org:
— NewMusicBox (@newmusicbox) January 10, 2013
My piece on Generation X composers and their relative absence published by NewMusicBox.org:
Dan Joseph is talkin' 'bout his generation – http://t.co/PEFAsmW9
— NewMusicBox (@newmusicbox) December 5, 2012
[This post was written in advance of a one-off concert at the Old Stone House March 10, 2012 and is the first time I contemplated the idea of Musical Ecologies which would later become the name of a monthly series that continues today, also at the Old Stone House]
I am looking very forward to the concert this Saturday with Glass Bees, Ranjit Bahtnagar and Andrea Williams. It's an event that has come about more or less spontaneously, if not entirely by accident. But a series of happy accidents to be sure, and the result of the interaction of multiple threads. As such, it makes for an excellent starting point to my new blog: Musical Ecologies. What are musical ecologies? For me they can include, musical communities and lineages, geographies of sound, families of instruments, tools, and media, and musical economies. These are the ideas I will explore here, and I have been working up to this for a while, writing short prose pieces here and there, in each one trying to understand why I am so crazy about a piece or artist or sound, and how any of it could have possibly come about.
But back to the concert Saturday. Andrea is the one who initiated this and it is part of a string of events she is doing while visiting from the Bay Area. It's a recurrence of a prior collaboration between her and Glass Bees that, in at least one instance also included Ranjit. That event took place at Barbes (also in Park Slope) and by chance I was in the audience. It was a fun event and, if I am not mistaken, was occasioned by a previous "Instrument-A-Day" project of Ranjit's. I think some NPR program covered it. And since Andrea and I recently enjoyed a successful collaboration in Sausalito, she invited me to join them. That I was able to book the event at the Old Stone House is a result of both my neighborhood relationship to the organization as well as my wife Claudia's employment there as the Garden Educator. I have performed at the House several times and the space is perfect for small familial gatherings.
Although I have barely met Ranjit, I have enjoyed encountering his work a number of times. Most recently I marveled at his large-scale scans of produce and other finds from the Grand Army Plaza Farmer's Market that were exhibited at the Central Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library. Adding to that my familiarity with his Instrument-A-Day project, in past incarnations as well as the current iteration, and I have developed a very favorable impression of him as a fascinating and diversely creative individual. I believe he also lives in Park Slope. And the Glass Bees I have also heard more than once and find their experimental approach to sound exciting and refreshing. Suffice it to say I am happy to be part of this.
Tom Johnson was happy to be in New York last night. The occasion was his first performance at Experimental Intermedia since just before he left New York, in 1983, for Paris where he has lived ever since. His happiness was attributable to, as he explained, a recent improvement in his relations with the United Sates as affirmed by an uptick in invitations to speak and perform his work stateside, and a renewed sense of pride of being an American in the era of Obama. As a major figure in the Downtown minimal music movement since its inception, a movement nurtured in no small measure inside these same four walls of XI, there was a sense of triumphant return. Appearing on this night by himself, he mixed solo text-based performances with recorded excerpts of recent works and recordings, coloring the evening with stories and anecdotes about his work and personal history. As such the evening took the form of an informal lecture-demo with an emphasis on oral history. He began with a live performance of Music and Questions, a radio piece composed in 1988 that methodically proceeds through the 120 possible permutations of five notes, which he played on five tuned bowls, asking a self-reflexive question after each phrase. As a typical Johnsonian systematic process piece, the experience was somewhere between a math exam and a political address. It most certainly would have made for intriguing radio. What followed where several recorded examples: of a recent string quartet, an ensemble arrangement of his 1982 Rational Melodies and a new arrangement of Organ and Silence (2002) for solo piano. Johnson concluded with a very entertaining reading of his ingenious spoken work Lecture with Repetition wherein the speaker (Johnson) begins by repeating each line of the piece three times. As he moves through this prepared text that is itself an explanation of the piece (self-reflexive again), these statements begin to invite audience participation by for example, proposing that an audience member "may ask me to stop," or to repeat "more." Before too long the audience was driving the piece by asking for "more" or to "stop." There was much cheering and laughter. It was a lot of fun……
Last night I attended a concert of new works by Travis Just performed by his ensemble, Object Collection at the Issue Project Room. Based in Brooklyn, Just is an experimental composer in the Cageian tradition known for mixed media music-theater works, often in collaboration with the writer/director Kara Feely. The first half was dominated by two rather long table-top guitar quartets that had the performers striking the amplified guitars with marimba mallets, applying e-bows to the strings, and other non-traditional playing techniques. The score in both cases was proportional and much cueing was done by the composer. While there were some exciting sounds occasionally, the works suffered from a lack of organization and form. The performers also seemed somewhat removed from the sounds they were making.
Separating the quartets on the first half was a far more interesting mixed quartet of percussion, piano, guitar and "objects,' the latter including, as I later discovered, a Moog synthesizer. The work had a much stronger sense of form and space, and the sounds were a lot of fun, particularly those coming from the Moog (notably a persistent single-note tremolo effect that added a zany otherworldliness). This piece was far too short in context, and frankly I almost left at intermission.
But the second half came quickly, and it was definitely worth staying for. The remaining piece, Everybody's Everyone, an apparent reference the the Cage/Joyce mantra "Here Comes Everyone," brought to life the "object collection" theme, as the piece used for its sound material a large collection of objects tethered to long strings all stretched out over a large section of the venue's floor. The objects included mostly non-music related things – rocks, RAM chips, trophies, crumpled plastic bags, and various other miscellaneous objects from everyday life. Thus, the actual performance consisted of the four performers slowly, and with no apparent coordination as an ensemble, dragging the objects from one end of the floor to the other as they reeled in the strings to which they were tethered.
Lasting for roughly twenty minutes, the piece was as much theater as it was sound. The sounds in fact where far less interesting than they might have been. They were very quiet and largely indistinguishable from one another. Some light amplification might have opened up some interesting sound worlds, and the performers actually made more sound unintentionally (I presume) with the movements of their feet, which I found distracting. I might have had the group wear soft padded kung-fu slippers from Chinatown – they always work for me when I perform quiet music. Nonetheless, Everybody's Everyone was enjoyable as a kind of performance art, a visual process piece as it where.
I also still have the image of the grid-like arrangement of the tethered objects before they were rearranged in the course of the performance, suitable for a standalone gallery installation. As an added visual detail, the strings also had attached to them what appeared to be strategically positioned colored tapes which I assumed had something to do with the timing of the performer's dragging of the strings which often stopped and started when each player arrived at a sequence of the colored tapes in the course of their reeling in the strings. Overall, it evoked for me the detritus of a fisherman, a collection of flotsam brought to land with pieces of the netting still intact. Fun stuff….
Recently I have been obsessed with Yoko Ono and her Plastic Ono Band. I was of course already aware of Ono and the Plastic Ono Band project for years and even own one of the early albums. But I never took any of it seriously. Not until earlier this week when, on the occasion of the group's two concerts at BAM, WFMU's Brian Turner dedicated a big chunk of his program to the Plastic Ono Band, part of which included a recent interview with Yoko. Turner played a number of tracks for the newest album "Between My Head and the Sky" and, to put it simply, something clicked.
This sort of thing happens to me periodically – the sudden "discovery" of something that has been in my midst – and I am grateful when it does. The discovery of Ono's playful and quirky silliness, her willingness to sound ridiculous (to some), and her overall positive message charms me. And the vocal sounds she comes up with! Growls, purrs, clicks, howls etc., I am sure these have been described better elsewhere…..it all makes me laugh with joy.
I later downloaded the aforementioned album and I love it. Working with an ad hoc band of downtown freelancers under the direction of her son Sean Lennon, the album has the feel of an improv jam band, with a measure of funk and post-punk. My favorite track by far is actually a "house" dance number called "The Sun is Down." It's a great groove and Ono is in fine form riffing on the sun, the moon – "where the stars?" – and her mirror (she doesn't need it anymore; she's gonna throw it in the river). Definitely check this one out…..