People like to complain about the winter weather. I like it. Winter is a great time to bunker down and get some work done.
Winter is also wonderful at magnifying distance.
Distances, Measurable and Otherwise
The cold weather has given me plenty of time to work through more music from the blog Allegory-of-Allergies. One of the very special treats there was this album by Loren Mazzacane Connors. The opening track put me in a pastoral mood. I got my guitar out.
I hope the opening theme of this puts you somewhere between John Fahey and Pat Metheny. That’s where I was. At the end I snuck in some of my second-rate Sibelius-esque brass playing. You can’t blame a guy for trying.
For my day job I work in a junk-store. While this doesn’t sound glamorous, it has its benefits. Over the years I’ve picked up a few instruments for the stable, including the two closest to my heart: my clarinet and my guitar. Aside from the material comfort (a steady income) and the material gain (clarinet, accordion, guitar… etc.) the store is also a place where I can go and make noise.
As part of my musical fitness regime, I show up to work every morning an hour early and blow my brains out in the basement. This is hard work.
The saxophone, or any single line instrument, presents an array of challenges for the restless improviser. Without any fixed background it is easy to meander, to flounder, to squeak and fart your way through the morning. To remedy this I do a couple of things; I try to play blues choruses along with practice loops; and I play compositions by Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus and (on my more cogent mornings) the immaculate Thelonious Monk.
Playing the blues is a challenge because after two choruses, if a person isn’t really trying, the blues becomes very boring. It is a struggle to keep myself interested. Playing Monk’s music is always a lesson in the power of pure melody.
When these two tricks fail me, I have a back-up. One, is listening to the Cello Suites by J.S. Bach. The other is listening to Steve Lacy. Steve Lacy is a profound musician (a beautiful portrait of him is on youtube), as simple as he is complicated, as melodic as he is noisy. Lacy is a true spirit of the late twentieth-century, and an inspiration for single-line instrumentalists. His solo performances of his own music and Monk’s have provided me with enough musical nourishment to get through even the darkest mornings in the basement of the junk-store. Lacy wrote tribute songs to pay homage to his heroes. While these solo themes are not even worthy of being named in his honour, they never-the-less represent my commitment to the sax right now – a commitment that exists, in part, because of his recorded legacy.
Solo Sax Themes, January 18, 2010
As promised, this site will feature successes and failures. I recorded these solo miniatures at home, where I get incredibly self-conscious playing the sax. It is a loud instrument, and I’m certain that my neighbours can’t abide it. While I tenuously blow as softly as I can, they are next door wanting to blow their brains out. And not in the solo saxophone kind of way.
The first week of this year was filled with the discovery of the sensational music blog Allegory of Allergies and in particular their wonderful lists of minimal music. After spending the holidays aimlessly listening to Jackson Browne and Yes this was a great refresher, a sonic slap in the face.
I was so inspired I got out my tape machine and made this:
Elephant Island – Lion Skin Music #1
I created a long crescendo on a single note using two electric guitars and three accordions. I fed it into my tape machine and played with the pitch. Once I had the structure of the piece together I re-recorded the main drones using the pitch wheel on the tape recorder to create very slight variations in pitch. Microscopic variations. This is something I read about in Blues & Chaos: The Music Writings of Robert Palmer in the article about Pandit Pran Nath. When Pandit Pran Nath sings he has such control over his pitch that he can perform variations on a single tone, moving almost imperceptibly through being perfectly in and out of pitch with a sound. The tension and resolution this creates is very unique, and I hope I have achieved a small amount of that in this piece.
This Sunday the New York Times ran an article about Pierre Boulez – once the biggest dick in music and now a sort-of-nice-guy and world-famous conductor. He said something that reminded me of my youth and my maturation:
I used to hate music I didn’t like. Now I know that everything has its time, both Jackson Browne and Phil Niblock. When the lion sheds its skin where does the refuse go?
Every year I make musical new year’s resolutions. Not very often do they come true (where was I going to get an oboe?). But this year I am letting an extra-musical resolution pre-empt those unrealistic sonic dreams: be realistic in what you hope to do. Realistic hope stands in direct opposition to my motto: you are the impossible. This will be a year full of tension.
But after tension comes resolution.
I’ve resolved to:
– take saxophone/clarinet lessons
– learn Thelonious Monk’s music (I started playing Pannonica on the accordion last night)
– have my 3/4 stand-up bass serviced and made playable
– write more through-composed music
– buy a set of tabla drums and learn how to play them (this is unrealistic and will never happen)
The first piece of through-composed music I am working on is going to deal directly with the problem of resolution. Specifically, I want to know if two dissonances can become a pleasing cadence if repeated enough. Here is a sketch of the repetition I am going to use:
The idea came from Blues & Chaos: The Music Writings of Robert Palmer. In the interview with Terry Riley the tempered piano – avowed enemy of many late twentieth century musical radicals – is criticized for its instability, a consequence of the compromise of equal temperament. The piano’s instability is one of its nicest qualities, and one I plan to exploit.
People who like sports do something called “Fantasy _____”. I don’t really know what it is. Fantasy Baseball. Fantasy Basketball. Fantasy etc.
I like music. I do something called “Fantasy Albums” where I imagine a fantasy album. Sometimes it is as innocent as thinking “wouldn’t it be great if Brian Eno produced the next Strokes record” and sometimes it involves Photoshop, old encyclopedias and hubris.
Here is the first one I’ll share:
It’s not as “fantastic” as “Fantasy Sports”, but it’s a fine way to spend an hour.
Just before Christmas I started working on a song. For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved really rugged blues. Early John Lee Hooker, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Robert Pete Williams and the like. Droning blues. But I’m not a very strong guitar player. And I feel like a phony playing blues licks. When I play the guitar I am always looking for an honest way to play the droning blues – that is how this song started.
I had reached an impasse and was ready to give up on the song. And then…
One of my patrons gave me a marimba as a Christmas gift.
Technically it’s a balafon, but whatever it is it helped me finish the song I’d been messing with since before the holiday started.