Friday, February 5, 2010

Threadgill the Innovator: Zooid and its Intervallic Language

zo⋅oid /ˈzoʊɔɪd/[zoh-oid] Biology
1. any organic body or cell capable of spontaneous movement and of an existence more or less apart from or independent of the parent organism.

Musically, we live in a strange time. There is more musical diversity than ever before in history, but paradoxically, there's also a pervasive feeling that there is little true innovation occurring in modern music. This feeling is especially prominent in popular music, but even within each niche genre it often seems like
there are only many gradations of the same basic thing. The long and storied history of music seems to leave little room for anything genuinely innovative or never-before-heard.

But innovation certainly exists. Often the most creative musicians toil away in obscurity, their ideas and experiments too abstract or rough-edged for widespread acceptance. But their ideas do find a home in the annals of music theory. It may be more difficult to search out in the 21st century, but new ground can be broken.

Henry Threadgill is a musician that has been unfairly marginalized for much of his career. His stature is huge among those who have played with him or know his music well, but his ever-shifting, idiosyncratic approach to music making has always occurred in the shadow of larger trends in jazz and creative composition.

Late in 2009, Threadgill and his Zooid ensemble released This Brings Us To, Vol. 1, the first full-fledged realization of a compositional and improvisational language he and the band have been honing for nearly a decade. (The new language made its first recorded appearance with the Make a Move band on a few tracks from 2001's Everybody's Mouth's A Book, though).

Threadgill refers to his musical language as "the System," and describes it as a "serial intervallic language." There's not a lot of information currently available about the intricacies of the system, but after consulting a few articles and online sources, I've been able to get a general picture of how Zooid operates.

Zooid uses series of intervals as a basis for both composition and improvisation. These series are generated using three-note chords, which Threadgill refers to as "cells." Once an initial chord is chosen, Threadgill determines the interval relationships between each note in the chord, and using those intervals, generates several more chords (in what Vijay Iyer calls a "closed family"). Each chord is related to the others, all derived using the same small set of intervals. Guitarist Liberty Ellman explains:
"if there’s a minor second in the first chord, you can take the top [note] and go a minor second from that, or you can take one of the bottom notes and go down a minor second. All of those chords share the same interval set...if you have one bar of music with four chords, all four chords are going to have the same interval relationships."
In performance the band uses lead sheets with a set of bracketed numbers near the chord progressions, indicating the series of associated intervals.

These intervallic series dictate everything: the melodic line, voice leading, harmonic interactions, you name it. As the band moves from series to series, notes must be selected using the allowed intervals. Ellman uses an example series that contains a minor second. When moving from a D chord to an E-flat, it is permissible to move the half-step up, which is a minor second. But moving down from D to E-flat would require an interval of a seventh, and if a seventh is not in the interval set, the movement can't be made. Even though both notes are the same pitch, both are not allowed in the given scenario. Interval sets are used for as little as one bar of music to as much as an entire piece, though Threadgill states that a set and its related chords are usually used for about two measures.

Most of Zooid's pieces are contrapuntal, each member producing a unique train of musical ideas within the intervallic series. The balance of the counterpoint depends entirely on each member's adherence to the rules of the system. This is particularly crucial when members are comping, as the musicians are gliding over ambiguous harmonic ground. As long as everyone sticks to the allowable intervals as a piece progresses, the music surges to life. If someone falls out of the language, everything collapses.

Threadgill's approach forces musicians to be creative. Traditional jazz methodologies don't work within the context of the system. Scales and arpeggios and harmonic tactics that are used in major/minor (and even modal) music just don't fit. When Ellman first started playing with Threadgill, he found using a jazz vocabulary didn't sound good at all. In the obscure harmonic atmosphere of Threadgill's language, tried-and-true jazz licks and patterns are useless. It's all about the intervals. And Threadgill is well aware of this. "Real creativity needs to occur not by playing something that you been playing over and over again and playing some variation of it, but to create something in the moment, right in the moment. That's creative improvisation. To be able to approach a musical terrain and you've got all these solutions for it, I don't consider that creative at this point."

But what does it all sound like? Zooid sticks to acoustic instrumentation: Threadgill on flute and alto sax, Ellman on acoustic guitar, Stomu Takeishi on acoustic bass guitar, Jose Davila on tuba and trombone, and Elliot Humberto Kavee at the drums. Kavee's contribution is massive: his propulsive drumming lends a funky, upbeat air to the group, despite an overall lack of strong beats. There's a lively pulse, but it can't easily be counted out like James Brown-style funk. Over the drums, counterpoint rules. Each instrument unravels its own melodic lines, and quickly the distinction is blurred between composition and improvisation, comping and soloing. The sound is complex and at times prickly, a stew of harmonic interaction that's difficult to pin down. There's no tension-building or resolution, just an exciting, taut feeling that betrays the delicate balance of the intervallic interactions. It sounds like a bustling jazz band, but something is distinctly different. Even it can't be adequately articulated, you can
feel that Zooid is something musically new and untamed. It's the System.

Take a listen:

"To Undertake My Corners Open" from This Brings Us To, Vol. 1

"After Some Time" from This Brings Us To, Vol. 1

Further reading:

Pi Recordings: This Brings Us To, Vol. 1 album page
The Wire: Unedited interview with Henry Threadgill
New York Times: Master of the Mutable, feature on Threadgill
The Gig: Regarding Henry, with a discussion with Liberty Ellman
Roulette: Event page for "All the Way Light Touch" commission
SpiderMonkey Stories: A to Zooid, Taylor Ho Bynum's take on Threadgill

Photos: Claudio Casanova, All About Jazz; Richard Kamins, Hartford Courant

Friday, April 17, 2009

Live Performance: Alvin Lucier: Glacier for Solo Cello

Date: April 17, 2009
Location: Crowell Concert Hall, Center for the Arts, Wesleyan University, Middletown, CT
Performed by: Lucy Strother, cellist

It was nice returning to Wesleyan's Crowell Concert Hall, one of several unremarkable concrete buildings that comprise the university's Center for the Arts. It had been several years since the last time I attended a performance there, seeing faculty member and famed jazzer Anthony Braxton perform with a small ensemble of his graduate students.

Also among the faculty at Wesleyan is Alvin Lucier, a noted experimental composer. Lucier is well-known for his explorations of the physical properties of sound, and most of his work involves investigations into varied acoustic phenomena, including the resonance of performance spaces and natural reverb, the interactions of closely-tuned pitches, and phenomena involving auditory perception. And so it was, with a brief, soft-spoken introduction by Lucier himself, that his 30-minute piece Glacier was performed by Wesleyan student Lucy Strother.

A single sheet handed out at the door read as follows:
"During the course of a half hour performance of Glacier, a cellist slowly sweeps downward, tracking a graph of the mean mass balance of 30 glaciers over a 24-year period, from 1980 to 2004. Glacier was commissioned by Feet to the Fire, Exploring Global Climate Changes from Science to Art and was written for Lucy Strother."
Lucier implored the audience to listen very closely, reiterating that the piece was very slow and straight-forward, and that at various points during the descent of the pitches, certain subtle acoustic phenomena could be heard as the notes resonated within the performance space and the cello itself. Strother began slowly bowing an E on the cello's A string, drawing the full length of the bow across the string and again pushing back in a painstakingly slow, precisely controlled rate, sending a reedy, insectile drone into the concert hall, punctuated only by the changes in the direction she bowed, like brief pauses between deep in- and exhalations. Over the next 30 minutes, Strother would almost imperceptibly move her fingering down the strings, bringing the pulsing drone down not just through the chromatic notes but also touching upon many pitches in between. Upon reaching the open note on a string, Strother would deftly switch between the open string to the fingered note on the next lowest string. She continued in this fashion until she ended on the cello's low C.

And subtle the phenomena were. The slow descent was at times almost trance-inducing, the long notes wavering ever-so-slightly due to uncontrollable changes in the pressure with which Strother bowed. A few times she would find a note that was discretely doubled by the room, a higher-pitched tone riding with the deeper tone of the bowed note, producing an effect kind of like the ringing trail-off of electric guitar feedback. This was particularly noticeable as Strother bowed the open note on the G string, as the extra ringing tone immediately vanished as she shifted to a fingered G on the C string. At several points, though admittedly very briefly, I experienced what seemed to be an additional Tartini tone produced within my ear, though I'm not sure what accounted for the differing tones I would have to have heard if it was in fact a Tartini effect I was experiencing.

In the end, it was a pleasurable, hypnotic performance, though many audience members were noticeably fidgety by its end and a few rudely left in the middle. A few words must be said of Strother's impressive showing. Glacier is deceptively simple, and though the actual musical elements involved are basic, the stamina and concentration required on Strother's part to complete the piece was impressive. Maintaining the appropriate posture, bowing speed, and pressure must have been extremely difficult. Both taking and exiting the stage, Strother was smiling, almost bashful. During the performance, her face began to contort in concentration, and at times she almost looked pained, as though with the slow descent of the cello she was also descending into some dark, unspeakable subterranean depths. It's unfortunate that some of the more impatient audience members probably aren't in a position to appreciate just what it takes to perform what they find so boring. For those who took Lucier's advice and did indeed listen closely, boredom was an alien concept for that brief half hour.

Other Resources:
Alvin Lucier wikipedia entry
Alvin Lucier's website
Wesleyan University's Center for the Arts

Friday, April 10, 2009

Album Review: Fly - Sky & Country (ECM, 2009)

A decent amount of hype has surrounded the release of Fly’s latest, Sky & Country. It's the first album the group’s done for Manfred Eicher's ECM label. The trio consists of Mark Turner on tenor and soprano sax (a player who is endlessly described as "underrated" by the critical community, which invites the question: if enough people say you're underrated, can that ever contribute to you actually being overrated?), backed by bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard, two players who are very much in demand in the contemporary jazz scene and who comprise the muscular rhythm section that currently backs pianist Brad Mehldau (among many other big-name associations). The band would balk at my claiming that Grenadier and Ballard "back" Turner: the group is a self-described "leaderless" ensemble, and all three members share writing credits and take equal solo time.

Sky & Country is a laid-back affair. The band rarely turns up the heat, preferring to take the slow, soulful route to their musical ends. It's the sound of a band that's content, enjoying the journey. The title track epitomizes the band's comfortable pace, with Turner playing a relaxed series of melodies over a straight, steady beat and Grenadier's slow but ultra-funky, double-stop adorned groove. Occasionally, Turner and Grenadier will converge on a brief snippet of melody, an effect that subtly tightens the pieces and strengthens the impression of a shared, leader-free vision. Still, at times it seems as though the rhythm section is just barely containing itself. Grenadier and Ballard are versatile, confident players, and their attempts to vary tempo are usually quashed by Turner's tendency to stick to a middling speed. This is odd, because there are mellow moments when Turner actually sounds a little lost, as though he's not quite sure where to take things without a roiling tempo to scoot him along. I've read speculation that Eicher "tamed" Turner, reining him in to keep things close to typical dreamy ECM-fare, but I can't say I've ever really heard Turner play in a more extroverted fashion. And really, this isn't a typical ECM album, either. It's a bit more mainstream; more rooted in post-bop and not as esoteric or drowned in reverb.

While there's always a time and place for a relaxed, whispery jazz session, with Sky & Country it can be tad frustrating. The musicians talented and well-respected players, and having heard them let loose in other contexts can make Sky & Country sound like an exercise in building tension. One waits for a funky groove to really open up, or for Turner to release a flurry over Ballard’s amped up beat, but the catharsis never really comes. Things do pick up with the last three tracks, and it is here that one feels as though they've finally got a taste of what the band is truly capable of. The 42 minutes it takes to get to those tracks is a little pricey, however, especially for those entering the proceedings with an expectation of fireworks. But I should be clear: Sky & Country contains some excellent jazz, and overall is a most worthwhile listen. It's just a little more subdued than perhaps was expected. And maybe that's a strength, in a way. Defying expectations is the way artists continue to challenge us. I’ll give it some more time. I was admittedly underwhelmed on first listen, but it wouldn’t be too surprising if Sky & Country had inched itself up to a respectable position on my list at the end of the year.

Track Listing:
1. Lady B
2. Sky & Country
3. Elena Berenjena
4. CJ
5. Dharma Days
6. Anandananda
7. Perla Morena
8. Transfigured
9. Super Sister

Mark Turner: tenor and soprano saxophones
Larry Grenadier: acoustic bass
Jeff Ballard: drums

Fly performing "State of the Union" (from a previous album) in Paris:

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Terry Riley's "In C"

"No one had done anything like this before-- where you just had a piece built all out of patterns, and the first concerts of 'In C' were kind of big communal events where a lot of people would come out and sometimes listen or dance to the music because the music would get quite ecstatic with all these repeated patterns."
-Terry Riley

As one of the "founding fathers" of minimalist composition, Terry Riley has spent much of his career demonstrating the ways simple, repetitive musical figures can be arranged to create sophisticated, dizzyingly complex, and wonderfully disorienting compositions. One of the most famous of these (in fact, arguably the first) is In C, originally recorded in 1968 and to this day a popular performance piece for progressive-leaning musical ensembles.

In C is in some ways an aleatoric piece, meaning that some elements of the composition are left to chance, i.e. the discretion of the performer. The sheet music for In C is accompanied by two pages of instructions from Riley which outline a few essential performance rules, as well as the portions of the composition in which the musician is permitted to vary their approach based on the developing mechanics of the music as the ensemble moves through the piece. In C is composed of 53 short musical patterns, to be played at any tempo and usually over a steady, eighth-note pulse of C notes (many times produced by a piano or a mallet instrument, though I've seen at least one classical ensemble employ an iBook). The piece can be played with any combination of instruments. Riley suggests a group of 35, though more or less performers can still render it effectively. (The original had 11 musicians, while one performance featured 124!)

Now, what makes In C such a landmark composition is its central rule, or lack thereof: though each instrument moves through the same 53 patterns, the duration a musician spends on each is not set. Each pattern is designed to not only be played in unison or canonically (think singing rounds) with itself, but also with the several patterns that surround it. It is here that In C dramatically comes to life: the polyrhythms and hypnotic shapes that emerge as patterns clash and merge and intertwine are fascinating. Generally, players are supposed to stay within three patterns of each other, a restriction that does little to hinder the variable nature of the results and lends an air of slowly transforming, over-arching development to the entire performance.

At least 20 recordings of In C exist, of which I've heard three. The best of the three is a 1998 live performance by the ensemble Bang on a Can, followed by Riley's original recording, and then Acid Mothers Temple & the Melting Paraiso U.F.O.'s 2003 attempt, which is very much in the spirit of the piece, but seems to spend a large part of the time disregarding some pretty essential elements (e.g., failing to have multiple instruments functioning polyphonically by varying patterns; much of the time it sounds like two guys playing the patterns in unison, in order, though admittedly it's difficult to tell underneath the several layers of shrieking, swooping synth drones). Still, AMT do sort of incorporate a few variations that I would be interested to try when performing In C. The first is abandoning a steady, time-keeping pulse of C notes in favor of a sustained drone (or even a very slow, droning "pulse" independent of keeping time). I envision a slightly distorted, noise-style drone in the neighborhood of C rather than a clear, sustained note using something like an organ, for example. Time keeping duties are then handed over to a drummer or percussionist, something permitted by Riley in his original instructions. With steady established rhythm and a drone acting as a pedal point to anchor the rest of the instruments, an ensemble comprised of typical jazz instrumentation (maybe an alto and tenor sax, clarinet, Fender Rhodes, guitar, bass, etc.) could churn out a pretty impressive reading of In C. Many ensembles seem hesitant to stray too far from the basic sound of Riley's first recording, which in my opinion leads to an occasionally dominating vibraphone or piano that draws undue attention to the eighth-note pulse instead of the evolving patterns.

But discussing In C can only take you so far. In many respects it's fairly simple, but it's also high-concept in its own unique and history-of-music-changing way. It's difficult to imagine via mere description, so take a few minutes to listen to some of the clips below.

Here's an excerpt from the performance of In C in Los Angeles with 124 musicians. It's just audio, and you should stick with it at least until the two minute mark, as it takes a little while for some of the patterns to really pick up. (In situations with an extremely large ensemble like this, a lot of the patterning decisions are made by a conductor, lest the whole thing devolve into a buzzing mess).

This is a brief excerpt from a performance by the Liminal group, showcasing a slower tempo:

And for those interested/intrigued/excited, you can download a .pdf file of the score to In C, complete with Riley's instructions, as well as listen to an excerpt of Riley's original 1968 recording at Other Minds:

Some Notes On What's To Be Found Here

I've been toying with the idea of writing about music for quite some time now. In college, I spent a year writing album and concert reviews for Delusion of Adequacy, an experience that was interesting and novel for a while, but eventually led to my disillusionment with music writing for several years.

There are many trends in modern (and especially online) music reviewing that are unseemly and unhelpful, tendencies that I certainly found myself caught up in when I first started writing (re-reading some of the first things I had published makes me cringe). It's true that music is difficult to write about. Most elements of music don't translate well into words, and many times technical descriptions of composition have little meaning to the large number of music appreciators that haven't extensively studied theory (I'm looking at you and your jazz reviews, Thom Jurek). Perhaps even more important, the ways that music can make someone feel are often beyond articulation, and anyway are completely independent of the technical aspects of the music. It's one of the most complex, awe-inspiring examples of "the whole" being "great than the sum of its parts." With this in mind, one has to be forgiving when considering pieces of music criticism. But a lot of music reviewers really overdo it with metaphor. In extreme cases, the focus is completely shifted from finding the best way to describe the music to an interested reader to finding the most clever, creative metaphors, regardless of how germane they are to the musical content. This over-stretching applies to name-drops, as well. Though this problem pops up more in promotional material, a lot of writers draw the most tenuous parallels between artists, connections that, at their worst, can be completely baffling stretches well outside the realms of logic. And, with a bit of self-conscious irony, this last sentence exemplifies my final complaint, which is the hyperbole with which such shaky-metaphors and doubtful name-drops are presented. It's a wonderful thing to be excited about music, but it's not fair to build expectations unrealistically with hyperbolic praise and unfounded comparisons, just as it's unfair to exaggeratedly denigrate music that rubs you the wrong way. I guess the take-home point is: writing about music is supposed to be about the music, not the writing. It's about a musical artist's creation, not the creation of the album reviewer. It's about informing fans of music, not about showing them how many obscure, dubious references you can make. Purple prose is largely frowned upon in literature, and it has no place in music criticism, either.

So it is with these points in mind that I officially kick things off. As for what's to be covered, genre specifics are difficult to pin down. One of the things I also grew to dislike about my time with DoA was having to review countless releases in genres I knew very little about or simply wasn't interested in. Here, I have the luxury of choosing what gets reviewed. Naturally, this means that there won't be much by way of "bad reviews." Perhaps "review" isn't even the right word. I'd like to focus on highlighting interesting and creative artists and albums, keeping things less about issuing a judgment and more about acknowledging novel ideas and spreading awareness of unique music.

Generally, I find improvisation to be vital to creative music, so a lot of what will be covered here will fit in various categories of jazz. Still, I try to keep an open mind about music, so there may be features on things in genres as varied as funk, modern classical composition, noise and drone improvisation, progressive and psychedelic rock, alt-country and indie rock, fringe metal genres, etc. The idea is to draw attention to novelty and creativity. There's more great music out there than any one person could ever hope to ingest, most of which is criminally robbed of the attention it deserves. I'd like to share a few things I've come to love over the years, as well as share the new things I'm enjoying as I discover them.

So welcome. As with all operations, it'll be modest to start. But poke around. Hopefully you'll find some things that you'll grow to love, too.

Photo by Bombardier
"Music is enough for a lifetime, but a lifetime is not enough for music." -Sergei Rachmaninov