Wednesday, March 31, 2010


New music review in short order, thanks for returning with me.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

a brief hiatus

crow with no mouth is entering a brief hiatus, as I enter a week of significant transition. New writing about music will resume before too long. Thanks for reading, please come back.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Only when a crow is black

Do not say there is no need to practice Buddhism because we have Buddha Nature intrinsically. There is Buddha Nature (eventually there is happiness) only when a swan is white, a crow is black, a human being is a human being.

Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, Public lecture, September 1, 1963.

got it

nobody understands my not no Zen Zen

not even that crow's shattering bleak scream got it.

~ikkyu, 15th century zen master

Thursday, March 18, 2010

...and for solace the perspective of your own infinite life.

I am slowly, slowly, making my way through the staggering raison d'etre of this gentleman, who manged even his outrage and scorn with equanimity and articulate protest. He was Camus' sort of rebel in one sense-he lived so that his life was an act of rebellion.

Like millions, pole-axed by the passivity, depravity and pervasive retardedness in Washington, I return to the essential reality of politics and society that even a cursory read of history lays bare- it has always been so, and always shall be. Certainly a cause for cynicism; or for the small solace that comes to us, as Emerson says, when we locate hope [whatever hope is real and possible] where it belongs- in our perspectives being large enough to hold "...the shades of all the good and great for company" [ The American Scholar, 1837]. Suzuki Roshi called this "giving your cows a larger pasture."

The mind requires a larger pasture, the society suffers without a larger pasture. We have reached such an intensely claustrophobic state, such an impoverished imagination, such an enervated will, each of us, and all of us collectively, that these apes in power can pass as statesmen and legislators. The beat down of especially the last 30 years [the Reagan epoch is as good a marker as any] has been harsh on all of us-and on scholars, on whatever press remains, on genuine servant-leadership, on popular movements, and on the most vulnerable among us.

So this spectacle has sent me back to a focus on sanity, and Emerson will give you something to work with as pith and savvy as any zen man. Like this:

"The spirit of the American free man is already suspected to be timid, imitative, tame. Public and private avarice make the air we breathe thick and fat. The scholar is indolent, complacent. See already the tragic consequences. The mind of this country, taught to aim at low objects, eats upon itself."

If you have a minute, read those few sentences again. This was Emerson's address to a graduating class at Harvard in 1837. Where does this large pasture perspective spring from, for this leisure class intellectual invited to address the Harvard class? Here's a clue:

"Patience, patience: with the shades of all the good and great for company; and for solace the perspective of your own infinite life; and for work, the study and the communication of principles."

Beautiful! Emerson untethered [I'm speaking strictly of the Emerson of these insights] sees what ails us [intellectual and moral cannabilism], and what liberates us-keeping company with all the shades [big pasture mind], keeping principled, seeing our own infinite life.

Emerson, nobody's fool, is chugging towards his deservedly celebrated 1841 essay, Self Reliance, where we see the seeds tossed to a likely perplexed Harvard class fully cooked. Now he is, as are all free people, a dangerous individual. Imagine anyone on your current cultural radar insisting,

"Whoso [sic] would be a man, must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind." [Self Reliance, 1841].

I don't know where you take your solace in this society ruled by whores and cut-throats, but you could do worse than consider what Emerson points to here- look to the integrity of your own mind, the solace of your infinite life.

Would you be an outlaw for my love?

Rest In Peace, Alex Chilton

Some strong local connections and collisions with this beautiful singer/songwriter, a tremendous loss.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Her Clothes and Ornaments

Vanessa Rossetto ~ Misafridal, Imperial Brick, Whoreson In The Wilderness, Dogs In English Porcelain... [all released on Rossetto’s cdr imprint Music Appreciation, the first three in 2008, Dogs…in 2009].

PDD-NOS [a 2010 cassette-only release on Period Tapes, an infuriating 46 copy run].

Rossetto: all sounds, including violin, viola, cello, field recordings, acoustic turntable.

Whatever follows, in this appreciation of the music of Austin, Texas-based Vanessa Rossetto, it is a fact [not a rhetorical ramp for a cogent review] that I am nearly at a loss for words. If you leap from that admission to hear her self-released solo work for yourself, you might understand how my regard for Rossetto’s boundless creativity and singular sound-world can produce a real paucity of apt descriptors and adjectives. But it seldom works that way, so let me put forth a few of my responses to the wild imaginarium of Vanessa Rossetto, accessed through a run of five solo releases from 2008-2010.

It is a strange sound-world, however you get there: whether you arrive from the sphere of free improvisation, an area Ms. Rossetto is clearly intimate with, and occasionally evokes with her sometimes sere, sometimes emotive violin/viola sound; or musique concrete, the placeholder I find as useful as any for her last two solo releases; or field recordings, a means for Rossetto's effortless-sounding erasure of whatever thin membrane still exists in the foreground/background, incidental/formal sound gestalt of electro-acoustic music. Chamber instrumentation [Rossetto wields the violin, viola and cello on all five of the solo recordings] is coequal with kitchen clatter, the pervasive household menagerie of chirps, squawks and barking that emerge and recede in her domestic collage compositions, as well as barely controlled feedback squalls, and string dynamics that range from acerbic, mocking and dancing [cf. Billy Bang, Leroy Jenkins], to steady-state drones of serene equanimity [cf. Tony Conrad].

While I managed some comparisons, and could speculate further on influences, my opening assertion that Rossetto’s work occupies a singular and strangely description-elusive space, remains true. It isn’t finally the component parts [her timbral explorations on exceedingly familiar orchestral instruments, the integration of natural, environmental sonics, the overall shape of things] that impresses most. It is Rossetto’s joining of starkly dual sound worlds- compositional structure with almost off-handed improvisational gestures, the foregrounding of banal domestic sounds next to sober violin lines, the genuine collagist hand at work in this [and this is a superficial impression belied by repeated listens] seemingly kitchen-sink approach to sound art. I was at a loss for an adjective that would distill the shape of her works down to a single word; then I visited her My Space page, and saw Rossetto’s comic, but apt, self-description-labile. That’s it, however tongue-in-cheek her intentions-labile, conveying that word's sense of chainless energy and abandon, as well as the potential for brilliance.

Sound art will evince some eye-rolling no doubt, so be it. If the descriptor reads as precious to you, I assure you it will be immediately clear that Rossetto’s sound art is brilliantly spun from some of the most quotidian, low-fi sound sources available to a composer. It is as if you are hearing one of those Lynchian hyper-detailed/magnifying shots that startle us with the revealed world of activity going on just below our ordinary perceptions-instead of a blade of grass, or a decomposing ear, it is a plummet into one of Feldman’s beloved tapestry patterns. Here, Rossetto’s wild explorations reveal, is the cacophony and the occasional serenity and beauty that lies deep in the fabric of our domestic lives. It is sometimes as if she has tapped into a rainforest in her living room, rough-hewn and plangent sounds placed amid the pervasive element of string drones, a noise floor that seldom allows you to relax, much less bliss out, as every few minutes whatever sounds you’re fixed on morph, slide, collapse. Banal clatter yields to gorgeous harmonies, a pissed-off sounding parakeet leads to a few good measures of beautiful string threnody.

Here’s the risk in laying this out this way- it sounds overwrought, chaotic, more pastiche than assured, creative juxtapositions [cf. Zorn]. Not at all. Every one of these five releases is, overall, an interesting ride upon a first or second spin. For me, the appreciation for her structuring of the works came after multiple listens. The maturation I hear between Misafridal and Dogs In English Porcelain, separated by a mere year or so, is impressive. Rossetto clearly works like one who confidently occupies her own space, sensing that it is her DIY materials and unfettered imagination that limn that space.

I have quibbles about some of the episodes heard across these five releases-missteps to my ears, an occasional digression from an area [often, to be honest, her Conrad-esque drones] I’d prefer to hear sustained, the trying, monotonous sound of the acoustic turntables through some of PDD-NOS. But this is an amazing run of recordings, seldom lapsing into uninteresting music, and always startling the listener with the scope of Rossetto’s imagination. If I were to convey my enthusiasm much more concisely, it would be this last quality- Rossetto is improbably imaginative, curious and audacious, far from the settled, fully explored territories of some of her peers. She has been, for several years and a clutch of releases, incapable of boring me. There is nothing like this stuff, and if you should check it out, and wish to refute that claim, I’m all ears.

A few brief pointers for newcomers: if you’re especially drawn to collage/musique concrete, try Dogs…; if you are more interested in timbral/textural exposition for the strings [ala Leroy Jenkins], try any one of the three 2008 releases. Imperial Brick consists of seven improvisations for the viola. For reasons inarguably subjective, my personal favorite of those three is Whoreson In The Wilderness, a stunning work.

Among the many delights I take in Ms. Rossetto’s work are her song titles. The title of this article is one such, a lovely piece found on Whoreson In The Wilderness.

You Must Believe In Spring

We are several days from the vernal equinox, but last night complied with the mandated, meddlesome setting of the clocks ahead by an hour.

We walked today in 60 degree contentment, picking our way around the dog shit and smelling the restorative odors of mud and a brackish lake. Even the fetid odors, released by the snow melt and thaw, are welcome. Winter was hard.

In a few weeks, for the first time since 1981, the local nine take to a ball-field of grass.

My neighbors are taking tentative steps out, blinking and improbably pale. Skin again!

My old friend Basho:
Spring rain
leaking through the roof
dripping from the wasps' nest.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

[Comments On] The Society of the Spectacle

III. No one today can reasonably deny the existence or power of the spectacle; on the contrary, one might doubt whether it is reasonable to add anything on a question which experience has already settled in such draconian fashion. Le Monde...offered a felicitous illustration of the saying, "If it exists, there's no need to talk about it", a fundamental law in these spectacular times...

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Why Drone?

It is tempting, in thinking about what to say about Nicholas Szczepanik's contribution to the illimitable drone pool, to attempt an apologia for drone itself. It is an area of sound surfeit with indistinguishable releases, by intention self-limiting and unornamental, and, for many its chief deficit, generally unconcerned with ideas of progression or radical development.
The apologia, if I exercised it here, would be an effort to argue for a listen to The Chiasmus with a refreshed consideration of what the best drone music yields- immersion, the sensuality of oscillations, the tactile experience of timbre, the context for meditative states. The means-monophonoic loops and cycles, what detractors call "tonal dogma", spatial density, the insistence of waves and surges of repetitive tones, cleaves music fans in two as much as any area of music can.

The paradox of drone, whether produced by sine wave, sargam, Ableton, or analog, is its self-limiting essence, and this will, as I said, separate your friends quite nicely into at least two camps. So my apologia, were I to advance one here, would state this idea upfront- the best drone today contains the elements of its best antecedents, and while contemporary drone artists might stress what is additive or personal in their extension of the drone lineage, what I hear, and privilege in my enjoyment of drone, is that rearticulation. Barnett Newman, discussing the avalanche of similar visual artists in his wake, asked "Are they creating something, or making something?" I can enjoy both results, of course most appreciating those who create something. Somewhere between No Pussyfooting and Evening Star, Eno said, "Robert Fripp and I will be recording another record very soon. It should be even more monotonous than the first one!" If a music is prized for its attempts at innovation, drone will bore, baffle or at best provide a soporific for a stressed out audience. It is apparent many are drawn to drone for that last quality-it serves as a musical palliative, sonic St. John's Wort. This accounts for the pervasive amount of drone music in the New Age market. Not a thing wrong with that, but that is hardly the nature of the works of Niblock, Radigue or Tenney.

Or of many whom have followed, crafting their own drone architecture, mindful of the templates of previous drone generators extending back many years. There is, in Szczepanik's meticulous tracks, a felt sense of familiarity and an individual seal. The Chiasmus links memory to prior encounters with Eno, Jeck, Popol Vuh, others. Drone is an archetypal form, a fact that sometimes is mistaken for a played out form.

So, my receptivity and occasional avidity for drone music has been a life-long thing, something that became very clear to me as I teased out this idea of a drone apologia. I regard drone as genuinely archetypal because I recall its many, myriad presentations over the years, and my affinity for it. When I was young, there was a park in the mid-sized city I lived in where you could hear the industrial thrum and whir of the Cargill factories near the park, particularly at night. I was into this sound, sought it out many nights, and might have had my first realization of the music of cities there. I was 15.

At the same time I discovered the Velvet Underground, and seized on John Cale's bracing drones in Heroin and like music. Also around that time I went to hear Allen Ginsburg read, and he accompanied his poetry with the harmonium. It seemed at once goofy and beautiful to me. Then there was Eno and Fripp, Tangerine Dream, and, most mind-stoppingly potent, the encounter with the vina and the tambura in Carnatic music. Follow this with viewing my first Herzog film and the envelopment of Popol Vuh's soundtrack, the discovery of modal jazz, pedal point and Terry Riley, and you get the idea.

I digress to convey the sensibility I bring to Szczepanik's lovely, laboriously realized The Chiasmus. If you seek out a second opinion, a spoiler alert- several reviews mention a facet of the overall structure of The Chiasmus I will bypass, in order for you to experience it for yourself.
The Chiasmus flows from a lineage issuing from Eno's rich ambient works, particularly the 1978-1982 run of Music For Airports/Plateaux of Mirror/On Land. Who are Szcezpanik's fellow travelers?- maybe Asher Thal-Nir, Christopher McFall, some of Greg Davis' work. Comparisons may be odious, but keeping with my initial point, that the depth of the best drone work is in this reiteration and revisiting of antecedents, that's the territory.

The five tracks are sequenced nicely, and even with points along the way in which Szczepanik tosses some grain and gravel into the mix, the overall effect is psychotropic. Cellular ideas recur, the five episodes developing towards a final, distilled track [entitled Lose Yourself...] that floats along with a finely detailed drift.
The tonic often sounds like held organ chords, with ribbons and skeins of added voicings, the incremental, thickening textures familiar in drone works in this area. I have found repeated listens reveal how nuanced some of this assemblage is- there are details-pulses, sonic spires and wisps, emerging and ebbing pitches, I didn't hear initially.
There is a dynamic alternating of raw, slightly noisy elements, with lush and serene ones, but this is not a work for someone seeking a preponderance of noise. I'm sure the Eno circa 1980 comparison makes that clear, though Eno wouldn't have tolerated a few of Szczepanik's more industrial flourishes.
Generally Szczepanik adheres to another drone template, the quiet start rising and surging to peak and eventually subside. Not always that linear or that shape, but consistently pretty narrative and dramatic.

That this is Szczepanik's first proper release in this area, and that The Chiasmus rewards close, repeated listens so fully, is impressive. I have a sense this is a prologue of sorts, that Szczepanik is committed, at least for now, to diving deep into drone's elemental potency; it seems unlikely his extension of the possibilities of drone, rooted so confidently in its history, is an accident.

The Chiasmus is available here.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Cinema Is The Most Beautiful Fraud In The World

Do yourself a favor, if you want to read some personal, opinionated writing about film- visit my friend Ed Howard's blog, Only The Cinema.

I knew of Ed for several years as a laptop musician performing under the name The Seven Arts, and as the honcho of the experimental music label Fargone Records. Now I know Ed to be a passionate obsessive about film, with an avidity for films from many countries, and for directors of varying sensibilities. I am confident a few visits to his site will provide you with additions to any Must See list you're working off, challenges to your canons of the best and the worst in the medium, and that goofy regard we have for those who have, for the sake of an art and entertainment they love, gone off the deep end.

Monday, March 8, 2010

6 Words

Many of you probably know the internet meme of writing a short story in six words. The undefeated champ remains, for my money, Hemingway. Before the internet.

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Memories, Dreams and Reflections

"You've got to sing and dance for years..."
- Charles Nichols

This is a quick entry to crow about Austin-based musician Nick Hennies' release Lineal.
My title heading refers to a memoir of Carl Jung I read 30 years ago, and have since revisited. It came to mind when I read Hennies' liner notes for Lineal, at first blush reading simply as an account of how the project came about and the like. After listening to Lineal several more times, then returning to reread the notes, several dimensions of this lovely piece become clearer.
As in Jung's recollections [which he agreed to with great ambivalence and nearly abandoned], there is the dimension of how all memories are really dream-like, as their particulars as often as not vary according to the storyteller, divergences that can lead to heated, even generational, disputes. Upon Jung's passing, his estate [his surviving and mortified survivors] sought to excise the unflattering aspects of Jung's childhood recollections.
Hennies' memory of his grandfather Charles Nichols, who's stentorian recitation of three verses he memorized and recited at family gatherings form the spine of Lineal, is of a grim, detached and marginal family member. But the verses are sentimental and religious, invoking family fealty and bearing witness to loved ones as they die. Juxtaposed to these clearly heartfelt recitations is Hennies' memory of family members laughing and whispering as Nichols held forth. Hennies was asked to record grandpa Nichols for posterity. What Hennies' did with these digitalized recitations is weave together his memories, dreams and reflections.

Listen to Lineal informed by Hennies' memories of these elements, and of the gap between how we preserve a familial myth, and the reality [whatever that is]; it becomes the more sobering and powerful. As expressed in this relatively concise work, Hennies' binds these elements together with nuanced musical framing.

So, a few words on the music; Hennies' integrates the poems into essentially three acts that cohere despite dramatically abrupt segues and strikingly different musical fields in each act.
The first section consists mainly of the resonances of struck glasses and/or bells, spacious tolling that, upon repeat listens, seems entirely incantatory, setting the stage for Charles Nichols first recitation. The contrast between his deep southern pipes and the preceding ritual tolling is startling at first. The second act sounds windswept and desolate, leading to Nichols' reading of a versifed dialogue between man and god. The third section, involving a gauzy sense of distant choirs, is stunning, the ethereal "chorale" continuing into/around the last recitation- not Rilke, nor Eliot, but the plodding rhymes of the 20th century poet of the sentimental masses, Edgar Guest. And somehow, framed by Hennies' choral white noise ascending, and juxtaposed with the young Hennies' recollection of an aloof and unloving figure, it is a brilliant, heartbreaking moment. The old man dedicates the Guest verse to his deceased wife of 60+ years, then recites lines about a family [a family myth] being made by watching someone you love die, as wisps of ghost music segue to a final, unreverberant tolling.

There will be new music reviews here very soon. Since starting this site last week, I have been listening through several releases, with some promising new works winging my way from other worlds.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Some o.k. verse from the director of a zen center in Columbia, Missouri- pretty much well considered diary entries. But there is a sweet one about a task familiar to me, having been a single parent with two sons- wiping your kid's ass when they are young and tasked with potty training. See, Ronci links doing this, irritated and distracted as he tends to his son, with the much-chronicled stories of Ikkyu caring for his dying master day-after-day with great fealty, producing the tender scatology in this verse:

my dying teacher could not wipe himself unlike you disciples
who use bamboo i cleaned his lovely ass with my bare hands.

Also, Seido Ray Ronci gave us this pith line, simple and crucial:

One learns through zazen that enough is enough.

It all links up- crows, zen, ordinary life filled with both service and knowing your limits.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Our minds buzz like bees

I am totally out-of-sorts, beside-myself, not-in-my-right-mind, not-myself-today, of-two-minds; every year I grow older I see the turning word, the koan, in these self-referential complaints my parents used. All ways of saying not in harmony, riven, dislocated.

Ikkyu managed his robust life in the arts [and the brothels] because his foundation was zazen, "just sitting." The practice of being of one mind. The iron cow of zen, the heart of the matter. Just sitting. Just sitting, watching thoughts and feelings, the stream-of-consciousness bearing cognitive and affective dinghies and tugboats, the occasional freighter [cancer, divorce, job loss] passing by. Health mending and deteriorating. Problems shaking you silly, then ameliorated. Breathe in, breathe out. Simple, right?

Our minds buzz like bees
but not the bee's minds.

There's the rub. Being out-of-sorts, what sort am I? Once, maybe a dozen years ago, I referenced my *unconcious mind* when speaking with Dharma Field head teacher Steve Hagen. He said, with an improbable confidence, "Jesse, there's only one mind." What is this mind that is buzzing, put upon, unsettled?

I write this now as my head is abuzz, foul and out of sorts. I have had several reversals of fortune this winter, with my health and my finances and other matters of consequence. That will clarify the buzzing mind, or gradually drive you stark raving. Usually the latter first.

Zen is "just sitting", sure. And "just acting", before the buzzing resumes. I have been hostage to these reversals, and need to return to zazen.

When hostage to the twins sisters of bum-fuckery, ambivalence and procrastination, just sit, just act.

don't wait for the man standing in the snow
to cut off his arm. help him now.
~ Ikkyu

Our minds like bees
but not the bee's minds.
It's just wings not heart
they say, moving to another flower.
~ Jim Harrison, After Ikkyu and Other Poems

99 Days

The World Cup feels [like the vernal equinox and the first pitch], possible, if not imminent.
It's been a hard winter- I'm looking forward to June 10, South Africa, and the complete destruction of my sleep/wake cycle.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Society of the Spectacle

30. The spectator feels at home nowhere, for the spectacle is everywhere.

31. Workers do not produce themselves: they produce a force independent of themselves.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Some things are ineffable, no good word serves to convey what you want to say. I have many names for my wife, with whom I will observe a seven year wedding anniversary this month, eight years of partnership in April. Confrere conveys the ground we try to relate to each other on. There are, of course, pet names too cringe-worthy to publicize, as well as the occasional, instantly regretted epithets. And you all know this territory, both the treacle and the terrible, so relax.

Her Tibetan name, Konchog, can be translated as jewel, an auspicious dharma word, a fair enough name for my best friend. Like Ikkyu, writing about his young consort, I scarcely understand this beautiful woman traveling so many years with me.

The Society of the Spectacle

28. The reigning economic system is founded on isolation; at the same time it is a circular process designed to produce isolation. isolation underpins technology; and technology isolates in its turn; all goods proposed by the spectacular system, from cars to television, also serve as weapons for that system as it strives to reinforce the isolation of "the lonely crowd." The spectacle is continually rediscovering its own basic assumptions-and each time in a more concrete manner.


For my internet friends directly touched by the devastation in Chile, I offer my best wishes and hopes for you and your country.