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.
Cultural appropriation is a funny bit of business. Things get taken, recycled, reused, modified and eventually become the norm. No one using a twelve-bar blues format thinks that they are stealing a bit of ethnic music. But they are.
A couple of weeks ago I went and saw Huun Huur Tu – a group that plays ancient Tuvan music – at the Mod-Club. I thought that the deep reverberations of Tuvan throat-singing and a down-town dance club that referenced London in the swinging sixties was a strange pairing. I had no idea what was going to happen next. Huun Huur Tu came out and played with a New York vest-wearing producer called Carmen Rizzo. Rizzo put screen-savers up in the club and added canned beats to the music, turning this unique group of musicians (Huun Huur Tu) into glorified spa sounds. The “World Music” crowed seemed to love it.
I was not impressed.
“World Music” as a genre is one of the most confusing and misleading entities in all of mislabeled music. What does Ali Farke Toure have to do with Jorge Ben Jorge? Where are Java and Sumatra anyway? Isn’t gamelan a blend of Starbucks coffee?
In the 1970s the krautrock group Can produced a bunch of recordings they called their Ethnological Forgery Series. An honest title for what happens when a rock group puts a sitar in a song.
Ok. Let’s be honest. The last piece of music I posted owed very little to David Darling & Ketil Bjornstad. It owed a lot to Harold Budd. I admit it.
But did you know that Harold Budd and Albert Ayler were in a military band together? Ambient piano or other, that is a serious piece of credibility. A big hunk of it.
I’ve wanted to do a series of recordings of Albert Ayler songs in a Fahey-esque guitar style. Ayler’s lovely, folksy melodies perfectly match the pastoral Americana of Fahey’s finger-picking. But I thought this week I’d try to do it first in a new-age style, because I’m on a new-age kick.
Here is ambient piano, double-reverbs, harmonic stasis and a guitar theme inspired by Alyler’s lovelier moments:
A New Age Tribute To Albert Ayler
It turns out I’m not the only one who thinks Ayler and new-age are not incompatible. A simple google image search revealed this:
This morning I had to prove that I could snap out of this reverb-drenched funk. I recorded the Theme for Albert Ayler without allowing myself a single digital effect:
For Albert Ayler
Pat Metheny made a record with Ornette Coleman. Harold Budd served in the US Army with Albert Ayler. Sometimes the distance between avant-garde and easy-listening is only a reverb button.
I was feeling a little dissatisfied with it. It seemed formless, aimless. Over stuffed. Keeping the dictum that LESS IS MORE in the back of my mind, I made a second version:
A Winter’s Tale – Version 2
It has more tracks than the first one, but the focus is better. I was also able to include another guitar theme I had kicking around. Going back and listening to the first version, I found that I did like it. Now I have two versions of the same theme. By trying to make more with less, I ended up with more of more. Life is funny that way.