Friday, May 24, 2013

American Music as World Music

An article from World Literature Today by esteemed musicologist speech artist, bassist, composer and humanitarian:

American Music as World Music
“World music” has become a prominent part of an advertising lexicon promising the buyer of CDs entrée into unfamiliar conventions. The operatic creations of husband and wife team Christian Asplund (composer) and Lara Candland (poet/librettist) promise listeners something similar. 
Asplund and Candland helped create Seattle Experimental Opera, a guerilla arts organization formed in the 1990s that disbands and reorganizes like a fluid artistic insurrection. Resource starved, the group compensates with conviction. By always acting as though everything going on is perfectly normal, they foster the sense that unknown conventions are at play. The results are creations akin to opera transported on covered wagons by an under-funded kinship group so far from home that their efforts to recreate their abandoned culture produce fresh conventions.

Take their work Liquid: An Epistolary Opera, which premiered in Seattle in 2000 and can now be heard on a 2007 CD. The overture features the instrumental trio of electric guitar, electric bass and drums providing a music at once familiar for the pop scoring and defamiliarized by classicized guitar licks. Midway through the overture, Asplund reveals his make-due sensibility as one of the opera’s three singers wordlessly chimes in. Asplund had a singer available, so why not make better use of his limited resources by having her perform as a musical instrument during the overture? 
Five letters from Eva Eve to two interlocutors comprise Liquid’s entire text. We join the correspondence at an advanced and intimate point. Eva Eve loves “Dearest Charles”, but careful listening reveals that Charles may be Eva Eve’s anthropomorphic fantasy of a misshapen duck residing on her walking path from home to Seattle’s Lake Washington. A love triangle, fitting for opera, emerges in the three middle letters as Eva Eve turns her attention to friend and potential rival, Catherine. In the finale, Eva Eve breaks off her romance with Charles in the aftermath of the duck’s death. 
Three singers sing the letters. Their musical lines smack of operatic singing now and then, but also resemble incantation, speech and vocalizations defying description. Listeners will find Asplund’s heterophonic treatment of vocal lines fascinating as two singers present Candland’s vivid images simultaneously in a way that calls attention to the myriad subtle differences of each singer’s interpretation. Liquid challenges listeners for being calmly sure of its own normalcy, a normalcy common in a place no GPS can find, yet refreshingly American in its speech patterns. 
Their next collaboration, Sunset with Pink Pastoral (2006), takes the conventions of a “road movie” to present audiences with likeable innocents abroad amidst the vast landscape of the American West. The visual ambition of Candland’s libretto meets the material poverty of experimental opera head on and without compromise. Milk, the opera’s male protagonist, has a chance encounter with a young Native American, and after hearing his prayer exclaims guilelessly “that’s cool, dude. I wish I had, like, a cultural heritage or whatever.” Such a naïve young man might invite meanness from another composer/writer team courting cruel laughter, but Asplund and Candland treat Milk and everyone else inhabiting their operas gently, effectively cutting themselves off from opera’s traditions of violent emotions.
Their most recent collaboration, Lalage, features Candland’s voice reading from her poetry manipulated and embellished by Asplund’s live, low-tech electronics. They might have called this collaboration an “opera” too, but they didn’t. “Opera” means something to them, but the conventions informing that meaning belong to them alone.

Thursday, May 9, 2013



Latest vid: Think of One:

I have been experimenting with alternative ways of making music for a few years now.  The principal ways of music making that I grew up with were live performance and recording.  When downloading and streaming started to take over and I moved to a place that had a paucity of venues and audience for live music, I began searching for a third way.  Thus my “ViolaBlog”, followed by my “PianoBlog”.  These were simply web pages on my WordPress site that had dated solo improvisations.  I was very interested in exploiting the intimacy of the medium, both of recording and of the personal computer and other devices.  Thus I used, in the ViolaBlog, a phalanx of very close microphones.  In the PianoBlog I placed the mics under the piano, almost touching the soundboard.  In both blogs, I set the recording levels quite high.  This meant that I could clip very easily, so I kept the playing volume low, and monitored my playing with headphones.  I was thus able to explore the very wide range of dynamic shadings that exists in lower volumes, but not so much at higher volumes.  And this made possible the recording, on both instruments, of some sounds that I don’t think are otherwise possible with any medium.  The ViolaBlog led to the CD VIOLA, for which I used a slightly different approach.  I used the same close miking with several mics, but instead of recording to digital, I recorded to a high end cassette deck, which eliminated the threat of clipping, and, instead, introduced the wonderful phenomenon of saturation and even a bit of analog distortion.  I was able to raise the recording level, and, by careful headphone monitoring, play with the unique properties of the analog medium.  I haven’t done a lot of electronic music per se, but I consider these projects to be a kind of electronic music.

These projects occurred at a time when I was “between commissions” as a composer, and when I had little composition studio time because of complex work and childcare needs.  I was also experiencing some insomnia.  I tried to incorporate all this into this project.

There were some problems with this project.  I have very little ability in the areas of web design, etc.  These “blogs” are not particularly attractive or inviting.  I came up in a kind of DIY ethic, where the concept was to get stuff out there.  The idea is that there is a mysterious virtue in simply making things available.  In the punk/new wave era, the main innovation to me was this idea that you could make music without being part of the formidable rock establishment that had arisen.  You would find: a) a place to play, b) people to play it, c) music for the people to play, and d) simple ways to inform people of the existence of this music.  That’s where fliers became a big thing (obviously long before the internet).  You wanted to distribute as many fliers as possible, put them up on as many telephone poles and bulletin boards as possible.  But you didn’t want to try “sell” yourself.  It was just to inform.  The fliers themselves because a kind of DIY art form, but again, this was to draw focus away from the fliers being manipulative or commercial.

You see, there is a fine line between the concept of DIY and the concept of the “Vanity Project.”  I don’t know if I’m ready to dissect these two concepts.  It might take several posts, but I’ll make a tentative start.  Actually, maybe I’ll put some random musings on these questions for your consideration:

The non-vanity projects (we need a name for them) are really the anomaly.  These are the projects where someone else pays us a guaranteed amount of money to create or perform something.  One can view this situation as a range of things from a positive collaboration between two or more visionary people to wage-slavism. 

Perhaps we need to query why it is we want to make and share things.  Is it to obtain affirmation that we are talented?  Is it to share objects or information that we feel we have been privileged to obtain or create?  I think it is both (and maybe a few others).  In both cases, I believe we are enacting/demonstrating/tracing/proving an encounter with the Divine, with spiritual realities, “higher energies”.  This is especially important and compelling to the secular-materialist Euro-American culture that approaches spiritual reality in a very tentative and clumsy way.  We crave and naturally want to share non-explicit encounters and accounts of encounters with the Divine.  There is a kind of Victorian cloak of shame surrounding spiritual experience.  I guess I kind of revel in spiritual pornography, if this be the case.  I don’t believe any culture or faith tradition has a monopoly on spirituality or metaphysics.  But I do believe that we are eternal beings, and that we naturally are drawn to the traces of what is eternal in this temporal realm.  Of course, I privilege music in this sense, as I believe it has the power to remove us from teleology.  But that’s another post.

Anyhoo, the desire to demonstrate talent, is, in part, a desire to share a miraculous gift from divinity.  The desire to share created objects is, in part, the desire to share that which has been inspired or revealed.  It is the sharing of a collaboration between entities from two different realms.   

Is it vanity, then to share created things, where no one has asked let alone paid for them?  I think it depends on how one approaches them. 

I say Mindy Kaling on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart the other night.  He asked her when she slept since she appeared to be so busy.  She pointed out that she, like Stewart had a show named after her, and life was so awesome because of it that she barely wanted to sleep for fear of missing something.  I was discussing this with Lara who pointed out that Mindy also produces and writes for the show.  Then she noticed that Mad Men, and a whole bunch of movies and TV shows are produced by their stars.  Are these vanity projects?  Does getting paid make something not a vanity project?

Maybe our fear of vanity (projects) is a manifestation of our fear that our own existence is itself a vanity project.  Maybe we feel sheepish about taking up space on the planet.  One is reminded of the ill-fated OK Soda ad campaign, which showed a photo of a hipstress with the copy “It’s OK if you think I’m not OK, but I am.”

I’m working on answers.  I’ll get back to you when I have them. 

In the mean time, I am starting another musical blog of sorts.  The ViolaBlog and PianoBlog suffered from a few problems.  The aforementioned drabness of their web interface.  Also, I never knew if anyone was listening and didn’t get any feedback if anyone did.  This is where social media has some real advantages (and many disadvantages), mainly the ability to see if anyone is listening.  This new blog, or perhaps sub-blog will consist of videos of solo piano versions of Thelonious Monk compositions, recorded in no particular order.   The day before yesterday I did Blue Monk.  Today it’s Think of One, which may have been the tune Thelonious was referring to when, asked why his compositions were so “complicated” he responded, “Some of my pieces have melodies a nitwit can understand. Like I've written one number staying on one note. A tone-deaf person could hum it."

The MonkBlog is sort of a continuation of a much longer term Monk project that I have been engaged in for many years, that includes the Monk Marathons I did in Provo, Seattle and New York last year.  Hope you enjoy.  Oh, but it’s OK if you don’t