The Green Room: From on stage, back stage and the theater seats, the Performing Arts blog illuminates the intersecting worlds of dance, theater, and music.
A long time ago I was given a cassette dub of Solo Monk. It’s the only Thelonious Monk record I’ve ever owned. Which is not to say I don’t value the unique contributions Monk made to 20th Century American music – his achievements are top-tier in that regard. And, though I’ve only owned those 13 [...]
A long time ago I was given a cassette dub of Solo Monk. It’s the only Thelonious Monk record I’ve ever owned. Which is not to say I don’t value the unique contributions Monk made to 20th Century American music – his achievements are top-tier in that regard. And, though I’ve only owned those 13 different takes of Monk’s recorded output, rest assured that I am a true admirer and, when I hear his music, solo or with accompaniment, his singular genius is apparent and saying so seems a bit redundant. Proclaiming Monk’s genius is like proclaiming milk’s whiteness – it kind of goes without saying.
So, why the dearth of Monk in my record collection? Strangely, I think it’s because his genius was so singular, in fact, that it never really evolved. The specific qualities one could identify from a Monk performance or composition in the late 40’s stayed constant through the remaining years of his life and career with astounding consistency. Compare how far Mingus or Miles Davis or Coltrane moved in a similar period and Monk’s resilience against the demands of time is revealing. For example, a reduction of Miles’ career into five-year chunks shows us an artist who skipped from The Birth of the Cool to Walkin’ to Kind of Blue to E.S.P. to In a Silent Way. That’s a load of ground to cover and that kind of insatiable exploratory impulse is what makes Miles, Miles. What made Monk, Monk was a consistent eccentricity that remained regardless of the milieu into which it was thrust. So, his solo work is as pure as I need it to be and all other permutations are unnecessary.
(Plus…shhh…don’t tell anyone but I’m not that much of a bop fan.)
Jason Moran apparently doesn’t share my take on Monk. In My Mind: Monk at Town Hall 1959 was a multimedia reconsideration of the titular concert – a concert that featured Monk as part of a tentet. The players in The Big Bandwagon, assembled by Moran, were certainly capable (I especially enjoyed the jocular trombone of Isaac Smith) of interpreting Monk’s odd melodies while also paying tribute to some of Monk’s specific arrangements. Moran clued the audience into these tributes by playing recordings of Monk’s deliberative process during rehearsal. It was interesting to hear the man speak for himself and then have Moran’s band express his wishes across fifty years of history. (It’s important to note that the Big Bandwagon resisted the lures of re-creation. That is, their aim wasn’t to replicate the 1959 concert but to revisit it with contemporary perspective, most evidently in the playing of drummer Nasheet Watts who wasn’t afraid to pepper his breaks with Latin rhythms from the 1960’s or James Brown funk from the 1970’s.) It was precisely the kind of historic transformation that multimedia and performative theory can hardily promote.
But, these high-minded performance strategies also require subjects that can absorb, maintain and even thrive upon an excess of attention. For me, the question remains whether Monk, the musical genius, requires our re-visitations. He was/is complete whether we we pay attention or not.
(I would like to thank Philip Bither, Michele Steinwald and everyone who made possible this past season of music at the Walker Art Center. Thanks also to those who maintain this space at Walker Blogs. I’ve truly enjoyed blogging these various performances and appreciate the opportunity. For those interested, in the next week or so I intend to post an entry that will consider music programming at institutions like the Walker…you may consider it a meta-post if you want but I hope it won’t be as dull as that sounds. Thanks again, everybody.)
Add this to the list of jobs I’m glad I don’t have: David Longstreth’s bass player. Now, don’t misunderstand. I’ve no reason to believe Mr. Longstreth isn’t a fine boss, that the rest of Dirty Projectors aren’t good company or that being in the band isn’t day after day of blissful camaraderie and swank accommodation. [...]
Add this to the list of jobs I’m glad I don’t have:
David Longstreth’s bass player.
Now, don’t misunderstand. I’ve no reason to believe Mr. Longstreth isn’t a fine boss, that the rest of Dirty Projectors aren’t good company or that being in the band isn’t day after day of blissful camaraderie and swank accommodation.
It’s just that poor Nat Baldwin and his four strings were gravely outnumbered. Like the Little Dutch Boy holding on 20 meters north of Niagara’s drop, he was.
You see, from time immemorial (or at least since 1954), the bass player has served two essential functions.
A) To provide tonal material from the lower portion of the frequency range. This is the “bass” part.
B) To aid in the formation of what is known, in the musical vernacular, as a “pocket.” This is the “player” part.
Charles Mingus, Bill Black, Duck Dunn, Paul Chambers, George Porter, all of ‘em. When they played bass, they commanded the lower registers and tended the pocket so that things didn’t get too rangy and awkward for the rest of us. Even a wild-eyed narcissist like Jaco knew that, despite the fact his guitar had no frets, it was his job to “hold it down,” as they say. Bass players are the tent-stakes of contemporary music.
But, the way Longstreth organizes the sound of Dirty Projectors, Mr. Baldwin has no chance. It is almost as if, bass guitar aside, Longstreth only wishes to be accompanied by pitches above that of his voice, a high-tenor. Even the kick drum is tuned to a flat, wooden knock. The result is a symphony of treble, reedy voices and front pick-ups run through Jazz Chorus 120s and crash cymbals and our Mr. Baldwin, our bass player, is like a panda bear at a lizard convention.
Then, as if being called out as a tonal anomaly wasn’t bad enough, the pocket, that mythical repository of virtually all western music, is made irrelevant by Longstreth’s guitar (the real star of our show) which leaps and crackles and insists that any given moment is the right moment for it to do its thing.
Pity the poor bass player.
In May, 2007, I was in Paris, in Monmartre, at the Basilica du Sacre Coeur with my girlfriend. We ascended the stairs alongside the side of the church and so we snuck up on the edifice, only gathering its measure after having been inside. Upon entering the building, we were presented with a musical performance [...]
In May, 2007, I was in Paris, in Monmartre, at the Basilica du Sacre Coeur with my girlfriend. We ascended the stairs alongside the side of the church and so we snuck up on the edifice, only gathering its measure after having been inside. Upon entering the building, we were presented with a musical performance of asture and patient beauty from the house organ and our eyes grew larger and our smiles wider as we breezed, slowly and clockwise through the ancient church. It was only after having left this place that we could admit to one another that what we were hearing was actually the pipe organ being exactingly tuned so that this exciting and moving musical performance was purely accidental. Those pipes made our insides quiver as the air around them was pushed in and out of phase and, though we knew it to be an un-performance, we treasured it and still do. However accidental it may have been, it remains one of the greatest musical experiences of my life.
Ray Lee’s Siren, if the two clean-shaven men with screwdrivers who tinkered amongst the contraptions are to be trusted, is in no way accidental. This attribute – the sheer intention of it all – is, regrettably, the source of all criticism. I’ll leave that unsavory business to others. Instead, I’d like to ask a question and provide a bit of advice for the uninitiated.
Why did these machines require to be tuned in the first place? There are sound-sources that can reliably reproduce a particular tone over and over again without variation. I would guess at least half the people in the audience have the appropriate software already on their laptops. Don’t misunderstand – I love the screwdrivers and the brutal intensity of the performers’ ”tuning face.” The choice to rely on analog devices speaks much towards artistic intent and, I suppose, these decisions are where performance is made. The intervals as they were conceived had to, of course, be presented correctly and so they were.
To those who will see this over the next couple of nights… don’t be shy and keep moving. You will find your favorite locations within the space. Some tips: for those partial to shimmering, suspended dissonance, try upstage right. For those who enjoy flatulent expression, stay downstage left. Step back to take it all in. Step forward to promote some tones over others. Watch out for the dancing guy or girl. They are harmless and probably high. Just watch out for them, because they aren’t watching out for themselves. Enjoy your time on stage.
Enjoy it as if it’s accidental.
A few thoughts on The Making of Americans by director Jay Scheib and composer Anthony Gatto, a Walker commissioned evening-length opera based on Gertrude Stein’s largest and most intimidating novel; a novel I have never read and never will read, for I have several impossible to read novels on my list already and, frankly, I’ve [...]
A few thoughts on The Making of Americans by director Jay Scheib and composer Anthony Gatto, a Walker commissioned evening-length opera based on Gertrude Stein’s largest and most intimidating novel; a novel I have never read and never will read, for I have several impossible to read novels on my list already and, frankly, I’ve given up reading novels for watching Lil Wayne videos on Youtube
(Not really. I’m reading Child of God by Cormac McCarthy right now. Remind me never to time-travel to pre-1975 Tennessee. Or, if I have to, remind me to bring Lil Wayne with me. That’d be awesome.):
Even though I’ve not read Americans, I know enough things about things to know that Stein is perhaps America’s greatest literary obsessive modernist, so certain she was that truth or beauty or something of value can be extracted from the act of writing. In and of itself. It’s true. She thought that. Stein somehow convinced herself that she could conjure up universals through repetition, that the singular act of doing (writing) the same thing over and over again (with slight variation to move things forward) could establish impossible monuments that floated before us, simultaneously permanent and ephemeral. More than that old gravy boat of a phrase “bits and pieces gathered to present the semblance of a Whole,” Stein wanted the whole Whole, in fact, not simply appearance. She didn’t get it.
Hence, Modernism’s big, fat failure.
Because Stein was so typically (grandly) Modernist, I was intrigued to see how Anthony Gatto approached his score. Considering Stein’s reputation as perhaps literature’s greatest repeater, would he succumb to the temptation to treat her Modernist obsession with a Reich-style commitment to canons? Would The Making of American’s assertion that “repeating is the whole of living” force Gatto’s hand into some sort of minimalist night-drive where Stein’s theme was fed to us through repeated figures like spoonful after spoonful of cherry cough syrup? Thankfully, Gatto (mostly) resisted this choice. The composer seems to have understood that Stein’s work was teleogical, goal-centered and that to treat it with the fascination for process that marks the work of the great minimalists would be to miss the point. While not composed in a grand Wagnerian arc, Mr. Gatto’s music was at its best moments (Bradley Greenwald’s first act, for example, which approached the strange psychic landscape of Britten’s Canticles) probing and inquisitive.
Of course, much of the reputation of The Making of Americans was also established through the novel’s excess and the resulting unrelenting tedium. Here, too, Gatto represents well, especially during Mr. Echelard’s Second Act. Ms. Stein would approve, I think.
Speaking of the novel’s author, I wonder where she went. It was admirable that the production’s authors would attempt to rescue the story and its characters from legend of Stein and her impossible novel. But, while I may not deserve this desire after having admitted never reading the book, I was looking forward to getting to know the novel’s narrator, a character more famous than any of the Herslands, for she was Stein herself, learning to write how she would write and learning the limits of writing itself. Tanya Selvaratnam did a fine job at expressing some of the fundamental themes at work, but, as I’ve heard, the struggle that makes up the novel’s essential architecture is the struggle of the author to get it all out and rather than exploring the tension between maker and work, this production seemed content to simply show product without producer.
Any comments would be appreciated. Thanks to Michele S. and the Walker for the show and the forum.