Sunday, June 18, 2017

Johann Johannsen: Arrival, Orphee, and the Icelandic Essence

Being a fan of heady, philosophical sci-fi, I assumed that sooner or later I would eventually see Arrival.  The love affair that I had last year with the Interstellar soundtrack had also left a void, so it seemed fitting that I should check out Arrival’s score.  In my opinion, the best soundtracks can stand on their own compositional merit without being attached to the action of a movie.  This paradigm was cultivated in, and perhaps limited by, the work of John Williams, but in recent years Hans Zimmer and Steve Reich have opened my ears to increasingly subtle uses of melody.  This increased interest in less “Neo-Classical” forms of film scoring cleared a path for me to readily appreciate Johann Johannsen’s soundtrack to Arrival.

Arrival, as a freestanding piece, is minimalistic but not minimalist, at least not in the mathematic tradition that Reich and Glass epitomized.  Melodic content is used sparingly throughout, with an emphasis on soundscapes and atmospheric textures.  This might suggest that Arrival veers towards mere ambience, but tastefully placed tension and non-orchestral timbres imbue it with a certain narrative capacity.  At its most intense, Arrival captures the austerity of Japanese Gagaku, while otherworldly murmurs and voices provides a sense of impenetrable, creeping alienness.

All of these ingredients are essential to the tone of the film and make Arrival a fascinating piece of sound sculpture.  More impressively, it sustains a narrative that allows it to work as a freestanding composition, but in a way more aligned with contemporary composition practices than the thematic leitmotif that I have often used to define a successful soundtrack.

I began to dig a little deeper and  discovered that Johannsen is quite prolific.  In addition to scoring quite a few films, he has also composed several freestanding works.  In the spirit of collecting some new music for late-night feedings, I put 2016's Orphee into rotation.  Like Arrival, Orphee is minimal but not really minimalist, using simple melodies can draw out a lot of emotion. For me, the first note of opening track Flight from the City, causes the world to slow down.  
I try the best I can to shy away from generalizations, but here is seems fitting: Icelandic musicians are able to capture something unique.  It is not difficult for me to imagine Jonsi from Sigur Ros vocalizing in his signature falsetto over Johannsen’s contemplative soundscapes.  This is not to say that Johannsen is copying Sigur Ros’ hyperbolic post rock, but that there is something essential that the two artists share, not the least of which is a tendency to blur the borders of “classical” music.  

Orphee bears this problematic label, but there are many aspects of the album that are in no way traditional.  While there are moments that pay homage to the eloquence of a Bach Cello Suite, these passages play out on a stage set by impossible background textures, buzzes, and static.  Like Arrival, Orphee seems to play with tradition and technology to widen the horizons of what “classical” music is.  The edges of these horizons will certainly be under scrutiny at 2 am when it is my turn to feed the newborn.

Which will happen very soon.  As I am finalizing this entry, I am in the Labor and Delivery room watching the birthing process slowly progress.  The birth of our son (referred to for the time being as #3), is imminent.  I cannot imagine ever receiving a more meaningful Father’s Day gift.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Dungen's Paradox, Allas Sak, and Closing Up Shop

There have been a couple of times in the history of this blog that I have attempted to capture the silent relief that hangs in the band hall after the school year has ended.  That stillness is quickly dispelled, however, by the long checklist of things that need to be done to actually wrap up the year and prepare for the next.  This list seems daunting at first, but the good news is that these are mostly solitary activities, which means I can provide my own soundtrack without fear of annoying anyone.  This year, I am blaring Dungen’s Allas Sak as I count instruments in my new band hall.

When I first discovered Dungen in 2006, I was immediately impressed with their unique blend of psychedelic, progressive, and classic rock.  They were able to evoke both dreamy wash of The Moody Blues and the muscular groove of Led Zeppelin, but effortlessly dodged derivation by way of their impressive tunefulness and musicality.  When I picked up Allas Sak in 2015 on a whim at End of an Ear Records, I was as impressed as ever.  It was more of the same great retro psychedelia that I remembered them doing.

Herein like the paradox, however, of Dungen.  There is a sense of sameness to their work.  On the one hand, it's all great, but superficially, there are relatively few surprises once the initial shock of how good they are wears off.  To get into their innovations from album to album takes investment, and sadly in 2015 I just didn’t invest.  I shelved Allas Sak with the intention of coming back to it.  This took over two years.  

Revisiting Allas Sak has reignited my admiration for Dungen, which is tempered by the guilty admission that I don’t give them the credit that they deserve.  They really do have something going on, especially on this album. If you are tired of struggling with the very real possibility that The Flaming Lips have jumped the shark, Dungen may be the cure. There are an abundance of riffs and soaring atmospherics and guitar, all of which are navigated with tasteful musicianship that rivals Pink Floyd's best work.

The elephant in the room, of course, is that when they aren't creating deeply melodic instrumentals, the band boldly insists on singing in their native tongue.  While I agree that they could be singing in total gibberish and I would still love them, I do have the somewhat selfish sense that gaining an understanding of their lyrics would deepen my appreciation for their music.  I don’t want him to sing a single word of English, however, because that would dramatically change Dungen’s identity.  Conversely, I don't really want to learn Swedish just to understand their lyrics, so I guess we are at a cultural impasse there.  

Allas Sak is echoing down the empty halls on the cusp of what has been one of the most difficult school years I've had in a long time.  Don’t misunderstand - the new job has been good.  Things are more positive in my professional life than they were previously, and there is the sense that they will get better.  Still, restarting this program has been stressful.  Still things aren't going to lighten up too much with a third child being born in a couple of weeks, but at least I won't be moving. Or trying to start a new program. Or trying to figure out how to make the program that I'm working in better. For just a few weeks I'll have a bit of a respite to really focus in on what is really important to me - my family.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Spring Semester Roundup: Setting Roots in Heavy Weather

A little over a year ago, in the midst of the job search and EJ’s impending birth, I got so far behind on the blog that I finally dedicated one of my quarterly roundups to just catching up.  I have been using the blog to explore my history in recent weeks, which has kept it active, but I am at the point at which all the current events in my life have stacked up.  I am overwhelmed as to where to start. This roundup, then, will not only serve to record the music I've been listening to since spring break, but also the myriad events that have been happening up until now.

I’ll begin with My 94 year old grandmother moving up to Denton.  She found a good independent living facility very close to our house.  It has been very good to see her more regularly, especially with the girls.  My parents were to move up shortly thereafter into a house they were building outside of Aubrey, and in the midst of this move, my grandmother fell and broke her hip.  Mom traveled back and forth between here and Austin help her through this ordeal while my Dad finalized packing and selling the house - a dynamic not unlike that of my wife and I last Summer as I started my new job.

Concurrently, we are mere weeks away from the birth of our third child.  While EJ’s pregnancy was more difficult for my wife in the first trimester, our son has been harder on her in the third.  She has been battling insomnia, sleepwalking, and, more recently, high blood pressure.  Bedrest is in the forecast.  To say that we are ready for him to be born is an understatement.  Even though there will undoubtedly be the usual sleep deprivation and stress that occur with a newborn, the impact that he has had on my wife’s health has been worrying.  I, for one, am ready to see her recovery underway.  

The glue that held this whole crazy situation together has been my parents.  As difficult as our move was last year, their move has been as difficult if not more so.  They have selflessly dealt with my grandmother’s rehabilitation and helped an incredible amount with navigating my wife’s condition.  I can't tell you how fortunate I am to have them.

So clearly, there's a lot going on, with this stuff mostly playing in the background:

Michael Giacchino - Rouge One OST: Giacchino  has the unenviable job of being the first composer score a Star Wars movie other than John Williams. He does a respectable job, and although William’s distinctive touch is noticeably absent, the Rouge One OST checks enough boxes to decently fit into the world’s musical canon.

High Tides - High Tides:  A low-fi sequel to M83’s Dead Cities, Red Seas, & Lost Ghosts.  It is perhaps a testament to the power of suggestion that analog synth music, which was once so closely associated with science fiction themes, could be employed so effectively to evoke a nostalgic Baywatch sunset.

Dungen - Allas Sak:  The biggest fault with Dungen is that they are consistently great, and due to that, paradoxically, I don’t give them enough credit.  I got Allas Sak a couple of years ago on a whim and it didn’t stick, but I revisited it and I think it is something special.

The New Pornographers - Whiteout Conditions:  Also another band that is consistently great and have never really released a bad album.  Although they have an identifiable sound, they are clever with finding new and subtle variations on this formula that make each album distinct from the others.

Mew - Visuals:  As far as the writing goes, Visuals is significantly more consistent than its predecessor +/-.  The distinctive guitar playing of Bo Madsen is noticeably absent, however, and I miss the angular grit that he contributed to the band’s dreamy atmospheres.

Seabuckthorn - Turns. There's something very unique about this album, which I bought with the intention of employing as a late night feeding soundtrack for kid #3.  Turns centers on acoustic guitar, but the environments did it creates reach way beyond any preconceived notions of an acoustic guitar album. .

Johann Johannsson - Orphee: Johannson’s haunting soundtrack for Arrival inspired me to investigate his freestanding works, again with number 3 in mind.  My wife thought it was Sigur Ros, which wasn’t really a bad guess - Orphee captures a similar Icelandic desolation.

Sounds in Between - Identity Crisis. This album includes one of my former bandmates from Ethnos. He plays the oud on the album, which is a beautiful instrument with a distinctive range that is very difficult to balance in a lead role in a more Western setting.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Flashback to the Oughts: 2005

Every year since I started this blog, I put myself through a soul-wrenching struggle to create a satisfying “best-of” list.  I don’t have too much trouble coming up with representative entries.  That aspect is mostly a matter of record-keeping, which kind of takes care of itself in the process of writing.  Ordering these titles in a way that will stand the test of time, however, is a bit more difficult.  Occasionally, some albums that I have ranked very highly in their respective years have not come off of the shelf much since, while other lower ranked entries and honorable mentions have proven to be more durable.

Creating a “best-of” list retroactively for a year gone by is no less problematic, but the issues of accuracy and durability seem to be inverted.  This is especially the case in the early oughts, as record stores were still kind of a thing.  If I did not purchase an album on Amazon back then, I have few definitive calendrical references for what I was listening to and when.  The slippery nature of memory resists definitive sequencing, making accuracy a primary concern.  Once I can sketch out a clear picture of what was in rotation during a given year, however, hindsight allows these selections to fall into order relatively easily.  

The list for 2005, however, has been probably the biggest struggle yet. The records from that year hang in between online purchases and record store walk-ins. Stitching these together with my memory episodes was particularly difficult because I was existing at the crossroads between being a band director, a graduate student in ethnomusicology, and being increasingly involved in my "significant other's" world.

10. Green Carnation - Light of Day, Day of Darkness: I listened to this hour-long track a whole lot in 2005 on my old Zen player as I walked to Cross-Cultural Ensemble rehearsal with my Stick strapped across my back.  Although I have not listened to it much since, upon revision I found it pleasantly familiar, if a bit thin in the production department.

9. Porcupine Tree - Deadwing:  Although it may not be apparent from Lazarus, which is included above, Deadwing was Porcupine Tree’s heaviest album to date.  It also followed their most commercially successful album and I have always felt that the writing, which is still more nuanced than most, suffered a bit under the burden of following its standard.  

8. Panjabi MC - Beware: By 2005, my ethnomusicological studies had given me a deepened appreciation for intercultural popular music and a growing interest in the music of India.  Not only did Beware sit at the intersection of these two fields, it was catchy enough to win over my significant other.

7. The New Pornographers - Twin Cinema: Although I had been introduced to The New Pornographers during my late 90's power pop jag, it was 2005 before I wandered into a record store in Massachusetts and picked up Twin Cinema. I have been a staunch advocate ever since.

6. Frank Zappa - Studio Tan:  Zappa’s music was always finding its way from used CD bins into my collection during the oughts, so although his music was ever-present, it is nearly impossible to unravel specific dates.  I do know for certain, however, that I took a Summer class on the music of Frank Zappa in 2005 and Studio Tan was in heavy rotation during that time, along with Broadway the Hard Way and several volumes of the You Can’t Do That on Stage Anymore series.

5. Fountains of Wayne - Utopia Parkway:  Perhaps one of the best post-Jellyfish power pop albums in my collection, mostly because it is stylistically distinct.  For the most part, Fountains of Wayne relies on outstanding songwriting more than overt semiotic nostalgia for their success.

4. Ramnad Krishnan - Vidwan: Music of South India: Songs of the Carnatic Tradition: On the suggestion of my Indian music teacher, this was the first album of Indian classical music that I ever purchased. Although I started unpacking it in 2005, I am still unraveling its nuances.

3. Rumah Sakit - Rumah Sakit: To this day, the details about Rumah Sakit remain vague - they are references to them everywhere, but it is difficult to pin down their origins and history. Nevertheless, my expanding appreciation for rhythmic complexity in Indian music allowed this album to spark my interest in so-called "math rock."

2. The White Stripes - Elephant: In direct contrast to all of the deeply complex stuff I was into in 2005, Elephant's focus on low-technique rock songwriting rose to the top of the heap. Pardon the video in the playlist, by the way - I will always remember showing that to the Pop Music and American Culture class I was TA for a couple of years later.

Album of the Year: 2005
1. Brendan Benson - The Alternative to Love: Although I was a fan of Brendan Benson's since One Mississippi, this album convinced me that he could do no wrong as a songwriter. There isn't a single dud in the bunch.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Flashback to the Oughts: 2004

2004 was a year of beginnings that were fueled by equal parts confidence and, if I am honest with myself, delusion. At the end of the previous year, I acquired a Chapman Stick, and the practice that I had been using as therapy started to manifest in some real musical output. Determined to master this non-traditional instrument and use it to somehow subvert academia, I began coursework for a Master’s degree in Ethnomusicology. My studies included jazz improv courses and a seminar in global pop music, both of which began to further diversify my listening.

At the same time, I continued to teach out at Krum. The breadth of these new experiences make connecting the dots between my memory episodes and the reality of the calendar particularly confusing. My propensity to listen to older albums or to let albums simmer for a while complicates matters further.  I’ve had to refer to school records, Amazon shipping statements, and even dates on old pictures to flesh out specifics.  Still, after toying around with my memory and all available information, the 2004 list is, like its predecessors, a good representation of what I was into at the time.

This project is making me realize the extent to which memory episodes resist lining themselves up in neat chronological order.  They seem to arise in vivid flashes as I revisit this music, bringing to mind seemingly random events that must then be categorized.  This all might seem to be more trouble than its worth, but organizing my life story by the music that I surround myself with has, in recent years, emerged as a satisfying narrative in this blog.

10 The Drowners - Think of Me: I continued a steady diet of inexpensive power pop albums throughout 2004, many of which were unremarkable. The Drowners’ Swedish identity provided a unique perspective on the style that was slick and compelling.

9 Muse - Absolution: It has been a rare occasion for me to favorably compare any band to Rush. In 2004, however, I discovered Absolution, which earned Muse that distinction for a time by virtue of its accessible songs, impressive chops, and intense energy.

8 Blackfield - Blackfield: I supported Porcupine Tree’s move towards heavier and more identifiably progressive territory, but part of me missed Steven Wilson's relatively straightforward songwriting on Stupid Dream. Blackfield became the place where I could get my fix.

7 The Decemberists - Her Majesty the Decemberists: I saw The Decemberists in Denton on a lark, without ever hearing a note of their music, one night in 2004. Their show was impressive, and within 24 hours, Her Majesty the Decemberists had the dubious honor of being one of the few albums that I uploaded through ITunes in its earlier iteration.

6 Green Day - American Idiot: I saw American Idiot as the 21sy century Tommy - a punk rock opera of resistance for the Bush administration. Alas, within a few years Green Day would jump the shark with this great album and run it as a broadway musical, but at the time it was quite the statement.

5 The Trey Gunn Band - The Joy of Molybdenum: As I was getting more and more into transcription, I started making more of an effort to find other Stick and touchstyle guitar players that I felt a connection with. Gunn’s style was, and still is, a baffling exploitation of the instrument’s affordances, but his melodicism and conceptual adventurousness makes him one of my favorite players and The Joy of Molybdenum remains my favorite of his solo works.

4. Miles Davis - Kind of Blue: I owned Kind of Blue for decades, but in retrospect, I had never really engaged it beyond mere background music. Transcribing solos from it for an improv class changed all that, however, and provided me with a deep appreciation for the clarity of Davis’ ideas.

3 Brian Wilson - SMiLE: Brian Wilson finally released the long awaited follow-up to Pet Sounds in 2004 with compelling results. The tour that followed provided one of the best live shows I had ever seen.

2. Fela Kuti - Zombie: A seminar in Global Popular Music fleshed out my understanding of Fela and his unique political position. I ended up getting several Fela albums this year, but Zombie remains the best of the bunch.

Album of the Year: 2004

1. Opeth - Damnation: Opeth’s one-off experiment in melodic melancholy would, in hindsight, serve to pivot them from their black metal roots into their current progressive rock incarnation. In itself, however, it remains a unique masterpiece in their catalog.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Flashback to the Oughts: 2003

The trials of 2002 left me somewhat adrift, but by 2003, I started making some long-term goals for myself. The biggest one of these was the acquisition of a Chapman Stick, which I began relentlessly shedding on as a form of therapy. I felt like I had an intensely clear vision for the instrument, and I was determined to become its master.

I moved into a one bedroom apartment off the Denton square with a new, more secure sense of self. I experimented with bachelorhood and dated around a little while. When I stopped trying so hard, I found myself in a positive relationship that continues to evolve to this day (love ya, dear!).

In retrospect, however, my attitude had a selfish undercurrent that would later manifest into some negative behaviors. Regardless, it is fair to say that I was in a much better place than I had been in a long time.  As a result, the 2003 best-of list is generally more upbeat in tone than the one from 2002.

10. Magma - Mekanik Destruktiw Kommandoh:  But first, nothing acknowledges that sinister, self-indulgent side more than Mekanik Destruktiw Kommandoh, which sounds like what would happen if Frank Zappa was commissioned to write a Klingon Opera. Clearly not the most lighthearted entry for 2003, but its virtuosity and electrifying performances kept it in rotation for a good part of the year.

9. The Darkness - Permission to Land: I realize The Darkness was a one-trick pony, but the trick was really, really good.  Permission to Land was both a reverent commentary on what was great about 80’s hair metal and an irresistible collection of fun, crunchy songs.

8. O.S.I. - The Office of Strategic Influence: One of Mike Portnoy's many side projects, this one with ex-Dream Theater keyboardist Kevin Moore and Fates Warning guitarist Jim Matheos. O.S.I. captured a broader spectrum of moods and textures than the prog-metal pedigree of its lineup might suggest.

7. Owsley - Owsley: William Owsley only recorded a couple of albums before his apparent suicide in 2010. A look as his resume shows him to be an incredibly talented songwriter and session musician, but a listen to his album reveals him to also be tragically overlooked as an artist in his own right.

6. Radiohead - Hail to the Thief:  Radiohead had been toying with a more electronic sound for awhile by the time Hail to the Thief came out, so I found its more prominent use of guitar alluring.  It certainly did not recapture the magic of OK Computer or The Bends, but it felt more like Radiohead “the band” than Radiohead “the project.”

5. Tsar - Tsar:  I ran across several inspiring power pop albums in 2003, and Tsar was among the best.  It, along with Sugarbomb’s Bully, rekindled my belief that the style was still alive, well, and surprisingly affordable through the Amazon Marketplace.

4. The Mars Volta - De-Loused in the Comatorium:  This little piece of nu-prog chaos came out of nowhere and, in any other year, probably would have taken album of the year.  In any case, the success of this album would propel my interest in The Mars Volta throughout the rest of their career.

3. Kevin Gilbert - Thud:  If there was any question as to the incredible depth of Kevin Gilbert’s unique genius after his posthumous rock opera The Shaming of the True, Thud lays it to rest.  While his unique progressive pop style obviously resonated with me, I found Gilbert’s lyrics refreshingly genuine and, at times, devastatingly honest.

2. Sugarbomb - Bully:  I often perceived Tsar as the B-side to this amazing and overlooked gem.  Bully, with its ebullient energy, bittersweet lyrics, and excellent production, was in constant play throughout this year and well into the next.

Album of the Year: 2003
1. King Crimson - The Power to Believe: King Crimson’s final studio album is, I feel, still one of their best.  Where The ConstruKCtion of Light was a bit obvious in the way it aligned itself with the band’s back catalog, I would argue that The Power to Believe captured the essence of the band’s past successes and forged an entirely new interpolation of the group.  

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Flashback to the Oughts: 2002

Music often connects to experience in strange, sometimes unpredictable ways, and its capacity to become vividly associated with times and places is, I feel, a given. In this blog, I have recently referred to these flashes of recollection that arise when listening to music from one’s past as “memory episodes,” but I don’t know that I have ever clearly defined what that means or why I think that it happens. As an organizing principle of this series in particular, it seems like that is an oversight worth addressing.

One could argue that recorded music is a phenomenological abomination. A recording tears music from the musical act and flattens it, which results in only half of a full experience for the listener. I theorize that when we listen to recorded music, the untethered aspects of the musical experience latch on to the things we are feeling, thinking, and doing as we listen. Later, if this tethering is strong enough, listening to music can trigger recollections through this association.  As I reconstructed 2002 for this best-of list, my memory episodes were somewhat painful to travel through.

This was the year that I experienced the end of a marriage and desperately sought out a new path for myself.  As a result, my recollections are a jumbled mess of crushing sorrow, indulgent escapism, and, later in the year, self-discovery tinted with desperation.

10. Godspeed You! Black Emperor - Lift yr. Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven: My introduction to the problematic sub-genre “post-rock” also served as the soundtrack to my inner struggle with a friend’s suicide. Its melancholic mood swings still bring back sadness and rage.

9. Coldplay - A Rush of Blood to the Head: Before they became pigeonholed as the darlings of the new adult contemporary, Coldplay resonated with me as a reinterpretation of what was once good about U2. A Rush of Blood to the Head is brimming over with well-crafted melodies and arrangements.

8. Oysterhead - The Grand Pecking Order: Although the material on the album felt a little slipshot at times, listening to Stewart Copeland lock into a groove with Les Claypool made the whole thing worthwhile. Thanks to the influence to Trey Anastasio, The Grand Pecking Order also marks the beginnings of Claypool’s interest in the jam band format, and laid the seeds for his current work with Sean Lennon.

7. Brendan Benson - Lapalco: Benson followed up his criminally good One Mississippi debut with the merely excellent Lapalco. Jason Falkner’s co-writing presence firmly adjoins Benson to the Jellyfish Family Tree.

6. Glass Hammer - Chronometree: A self-aware and somewhat satirical concept album about the pitfalls of reading too much into concept albums. Glass Hammer has made many recordings since this cautionary tale, but it remains my favorite.

5. Happy the Man - Crafty Hands: For a time this year, I was so emotionally devastated that I could barely listen to music with lyrics without twisting their meaning to suit my addiction to self-pity. This mostly instrumental release was in rotation a lot during that time, and actually served to later inspire me to play the Stick, even though there is no Stick on the album.

4. Rush - Vapor Trails: After a significant hiatus, Rush returned to the studio and produced Vapor Trails, which was a great improvement upon its predecessor Test for Echo. Although the album was slightly uneven as a whole, the band’s playing and concept was stronger than ever.

3. Spock’s Beard - Snow: Neal Morse’s final album with Spock’s Beard ended up being a career-defining rock opera with no small amount of religious overtones. Like any rock opera, Snow has its share of filler, but by and large the material is so amazing and is executed with such exhilarating chemistry that this shortcoming can be easily overlooked.

2. Peter Gabriel - Up: In retrospect, there is the nagging sense that parts of this album seemed geared toward radio airplay. These moments are fleeting, however, revealing Gabriel to be at a creative zenith in terms of orchestration and arrangement.

Album of the Year 2002
1. Porcupine Tree - In Absentia: After the relatively polished songwriting approach that Porcupine Tree had been operating with since Stupid Dream, In Absentia represented the first step in a heavier direction. While the guitar riffs were thicker than before, there was no loss of the nuanced melody and texture that had come to be the band’s trademark.