I’m in big trouble. I have fallen in love. The problem is, she’s high maintanance. She’s expensive. But she’s beautiful:
Ever since my ears first laid eyes on her beautiful sounds my brain has been racking itself to figure out how I can own this monstrous (in size and price) instrument. I might have come up with my silliest, least realizable idea yet.
I’m going to take the instrument out to the streets and play. I know. I know. I disdain playing live. I disdain busking as a concept. I don’t know how to play any songs! But I’m going to do it. And I am going to do it in jazz style.
For a long time I’ve been thinking about playing my alto on the streets, improvising one long endless ballad. The rewards of this would be two-fold. First: I could PRACTICE the horn and not annoy any neighbours. Second: I might be able to buy a cup of coffee at the end of a day.
Now I know what you’re thinking: “How do you go from buying a cup of coffee to buying a $5,000 instrument?”
You’re conclusions are probably the same as mine: stupidity. But that’s ok. Love will make fools of us all.
I’ve always been enthusiastic about making my own instruments. I’ve rarely been successful.
The bamboo pole supporting the peppers was my attempt to make a shakuhachi. It’s the only surviving artifact from a long period spent trying to make my own pan-pipes, fifes and primitive flutes.
A website for kids helped me complete a functional instrument:
A pentatonic tubular xylophone. Wow. After hours of research, trips to the hardware store and a ton of burnt bamboo I could make 5 notes. And they didn’t sound great.
I decided if I wanted to be the next Harry Partch, I would have to go where the future was. Electronics. I bought a book about circuit-bending and went to a Circuit City for the first time in my life. The result?
A semi-functional pair of contact-microphones. I don’t think Stockhausen needs to worry yet.
So I put instrument building out of my mind. Why would someone who can’t hang a picture think they are capable of building an instrument? Folly, plain and simple.
And then it happens. I see a set of wind-chimes and begin to think about metallophones… and before I know it, my dad is driving me to the Home Depot to buy threaded rod and 1x2s.
While I didn’t contribute anything musical to this (the wind-chimes come tuned) I have no hesitation saying: I’ve built my first truly successful instrument. (It plays 6 notes.)
People think that free-jazz/free-improvisation is self-indulgent. I agree – but I think it misses the point. A virtuoso (Lang Lang banging away at Rachmaninov) is self-indulgent too. He indulges the worst features of a performer and the basest desires of the audience. Everyone might as well have gone to the circus and watched the trapeze act.
But free-jazz/free-improvisation indulges one person’s pure musicality against another person’s pure musicality. If an audience wants to be there, to hear the music and to hear connection, they are welcome. But the music does not depend on an audience – all that is needed are two players and the will to play.
I do most of my music making at home, alone. I overdub, cut and paste, pretend I can play the accordion and hopefully at the end of an afternoon I may have a track that sounds nice. But I long for the interaction that continually draws me to listen to free music.
This week I met with an old acquaintance who has an interest in free music and plays the drums. Here is a snippet of what we did:
I also made some recordings of myself playing the drums. And when I had some time later on in the week I put a bass vamp over the drums and did my best Cecil Taylor imitation over top of them:
I’m quite pleased with my piano playing on this. The piano is my favourite instrument, but I think it is the instrument I’m worst at. Practicing the piano is a very public thing to do and when the only material you have to play is what is inside of you, that’s hard.
The piano is also the hardest instrument to mic – but with the aid of my handy new Zoom Handy Recorder H2 I have actually been able to record some good piano sounds.
This also lacks the visceral punch of music played in the moment by a group of people. One day I might just have the balls to start a piano trio.
I know it’s self-indulgent to put seven minutes of yourself free-improvising on your music blog. But I have over 30 minutes of recordings of drums-saxophone duets, so I don’t think I was as indulgent as I could have been.
(The wonderful drums on the duet are played by Matthew Dunn.)
Chance is a funny thing. I took five days off work and went to the cottage for some relaxation.
While I was there I made some field recordings with my new portable recorder.
I recorded water:
and I recorded wind:
And I got home and went right back to work. After a vacation I am always more tired than before I went away. I almost cancelled a Monday night engagement. At the last minute I changed my mind and went. My bus home is on diversion. At 9:30 I walked passed Gallery 345 on Sorauren. Henry Grimes and Andrew Cyrille were playing. It was beautiful, inspiring and galvanizing. It was also depressing – to me, these guys are legends. There were less than 20 people in the house.
Henry Grimes had disappeared for 30 years. People thought he was dead. In 2002 he made a comeback.
After I saw him play I made this song. It is in no way related to the music he plays. I’m glad he’s playing it.
I’ll let you know something: when it comes to tech, I’m a bit of a Luddite. I have a natural aversion to reading about anything that ranges from synth manufacturers to recording software.
The same goes for guitar pedals.
But my brother, Noah, loves pedals. And I love all sounds. And the sounds that come from these pedals are fucking awesome.
Including this one:
As you can read, it is an “echo/chorus/vibrato” pedal. The long and short of that is that you can improvise along to short snippets of yourself playing. I think they call it “delay”, but one would have to be tech savvy to know for sure. For me, it’s enough to hear myself repeated.
And when I do, I have visions:
The soundtrack to this movie (Dead Man, by Jim Jarmusch) has stuck with me more than any quirky detail from any of his quirky movies. And it has probably had as much, if not more, influence on my concept of “guitar music” as anything else. Including John Fahey.
That being said, I offer this humble gloss on the blues as I read through Huck Finn and can’t help but feel: alright then, I’ll go to hell.
Let’s Call it Adventure
PS – There is a version of the Dead Man soundtrack that features no spoken interludes over the music. If someone can find this for me in any format (mp3, CD, LP) I would be grateful.
Certain things you hear hit you and hurt you. I remember coming out of my punk rock phase into the arms of “Money Jungle” by Duke Ellington and being enthralled. What were these sounds? Who could make such noise and thunder with just a piano and bass and drums? Was there really rage after (for me) and before (for chronology’s sake) punk? How could one note on the piano express such beauty and such discontent?
The Duke has been with me ever since.
And so has his most detested label: jazz. But by the time I came to buy “Unit Structures” by Cecil Taylor I had (like most arrogant youths) a pretty good idea of what was and what wasn’t jazz. And what jazz wasn’t was Cecil Taylor. Muscular, sure. Full of rage, you bet. But to my well seasoned ears (I had been listening to hard-core punk since I was 11 and Duke Ellington since I was 15) Cecil just didn’t have the goods. So at the tender age of I6 gave up on Taylor and all the subsequent avant-jazz and became a mouldy fig.
At 18 I came back and tried with no results.
Same at 20.
Again at 22.
I kept coming back to “Unit Structures” and I kept getting rid of it. In fact, it is a record I have bought and sold 5 times.
Which brings me to the moment where a sound hits you and hurts. The next time I came back to Cecil I decided to skip “Unit Structures” and hear “Silent Tongues” and “Air Above Mountains (Buildings Within)” – two records of Cecil in his grandest form playing live and solo. I was devastated. I heard it all. Everything that arrogant critics claim they can hear: Brubeck, the church, and most of all Ellington. It was all there, just waiting for me to hear it in the right way at the right moment and for it to sucker punch me in the right spot.
I don’t try to convert people to Cecil. You can’t. All you can do is tell your loved ones over and over again “His music is beautiful, just keep listening”.
Have I told you yet that I hate it when people hear my music and say: “That would make great movie music”?
It’s not meant as an insult. And probably shouldn’t be taken as one. But the underlying logic I hear is: “Your music is not good enough to listen to on its own.”
That being said, I recently saw a movie that had some wonderful movie-music in it. It was called “I am Love” and featured the music of American post-minimalist John Adams. The music was all composed before the movie was made. It works wonderfully. The music, in fact, is one of the most important characters in the film. And, I hate to say it, it makes really good movie music.
Another “character” in the film is the upper-upper class. There is something very satisfying for me in watching rich people do the things that they want to do as they are want to do them. (I know, I know. The whole point of the movie is picking simple pleasures over the cold and heartless traps that come with being rich.) Regardless, I want to be rich.
One practical way for me to do this would be to have my music used in a major motion picture.
A fanciful way would be to name a piece of music for Karl Lagerfeld and have him become my friend. I don’t want money. I just want to be flown on private jets to Paris for fashion week and get drunk with royalty. Is that so much to ask?