Music in Snaketime

Moondog - Moondog 1969

“Machines were mice and men were lions once upon a time. But now that it’s the opposite it’s twice upon a time.”

Moondog is one of the most pivotal and iconic figures of the classical avant-garde. The man certainly commanded attention – a blind, long-bearded fellow often adorned with a cloak and Viking-style horned helmet living on the streets of New York, he quickly earned the moniker, The Viking of 6th Avenue. But his eccentricity was far from superficial, and Moondog (1969) serves an as exquisite specimen of his unique compositional style and his expertly-seamless fusion of classical and jazz musics. And how many individuals can claim to have ascended from street musicianship to conducting the Brooklyn Philharmonic in their lifetimes?

In the early ‘40s when Moondog moved to New York City, he met Leonard Bernstein, Charlie Parker, and Benny Goodman, the influence of which is certainly evident throughout his catalog, but particularly so on Moondog (1969). The upbeat tempos and often humorous compositional style of this LP are likely the result of these encounters.

The album’s opening selections, “Theme” and “Stamping Ground”, (aka “that song from Lebowski”), are instantly indicative of the sort of ride you’re in for with this record. The tracks are epic and theatrical, with a lush orchestral quality. But simultaneously, there is a humbling intimacy and a flare of smart minimalism at play all throughout the album, adding an understated intellectualism to the whimsical interplay of traditional and invented instrumentation. Tracks like “Symphonique #3 (Ode to Venus)” and the brief vocal interludes sprinkled throughout work brilliantly to counterpoint the captivating rhythmic energy of selections like “Symphonique #6 (Good for Goodie)” and “Lament I (Bird’s Lament).”

There’s a curious and mysterious mannerism to the music on this record, and its inspiration reveals the nature of its oddity. In an interview with Robert Scotto, who went on to publish his biography, Moondog described his music as being directly inspired from street sounds, characterized by what he called “snaketime”, described as “a slithery rhythm, in times that are not ordinary,” and saying, “I’m not gonna die in 4/4 time”. It is this snaketime that gives Moondog’s compositions their enchanting peculiarity. There’s an off-beat, quirky eccentricity and playfulness to every one of the songs here, and together they form a cohesive and rewarding listening experience unlike any other.

10/10

Modern Classical Highlights of 2016

A fellow listener mentioned last night that 2016 was a fantastic year for modern classical and its related subgenres. As a tremendous fan of the genre who has sadly neglected its exploration for the last several years, I instantly set myself to the task of righting this wrong.

A quick RYM custom chart instantly revealed new titles from modern classical mainstays which I know I’ll have to pick up – Iceland’s Jóhann Jóhannsson’s nineteen album discography, (most recently the Orphée album and the film scores to Arrival and Sicario), Ólafur Arnalds’ Island Songs, Max Richter’s Sleep Remixes, and Nils Frahm / Ólafur Arnalds’ Trance Frendz. Library Tapes’ Escapism also sounded good from a brief sampling, as well as the 2015 album Yume by an old favorite, Helios (and his latest work titled Sometimes performing under his Goldmund moniker). Both projects are long-standing favorites of mine.

In about 4 minutes, this friend’s comment inspired an entire weekend of exploratory listening. And this will be much-needed medicine for melancholy working through all that I have going on at present. Tune in with me if you’d like. It’s wonderful stuff. I’ll embed a few highlights below. Many of these are complete album playlists. Enjoy!

Highlights of John Cage and Morton Feldman – Exquisite Examples of Dynamic Range

This weekend’s research proved to be incredibly valuable, resulting in two wonderful musical discoveries.  And it began with The S.E.M. Ensemble.

From semensemble.org:

The S.E.M. Ensemble was founded in 1970 when Petr Kotik organized a group of musicians of the fellows at the Center of the Creative and Performing Arts, SUNY/Buffalo. The first S.E.M. Ensemble concert was presented in Buffalo at the Domus Theater and included works by Cornelius Cardew, John Cage, Petr Kotik and Rudolf Komorous.

In 1992, the SEM chamber ensemble was expanded into The Orchestra of the S.E.M. Ensemble with a debut concert at Carnegie Hall, presenting the first complete performance of Atlas Eclipticalis by John Cage (all 86 instruments).  The concert was an internationally celebrated event, lauded by audiences and critics from across the United States, Europe and Japan.

S.E.M. Ensemble

But another property unique to this performance makes it a must-own for all lovers of exceptional music.

For the last several years, DR-loudness-war.info has been crowd-sourcing a massive database mapping the dynamic range, (that is, the range from the quietest to the loudest sounds occurring in piece of music) for over 77,000 albums.  This database was created as a reaction to the Loudness War – the trend of record labels cutting off all the “highs” and “lows” of an album so that the entire album can be as loud as possible.

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Skrillex’s “Kyoto” – This is what the loudness war looks like.

It is this very recording – the S.E.M. Ensemble’s Concert for Piano & Orchestra, which tops the chart for dynamic range. In fact, the album holds both the #1 and #2 positions among all 77,522 recordings presently cataloged – one for the original CD release and the other for the subsequent digital download.

The recording is unlike any other musical experience I’ve had with my listening equipment.  The sound stage is open and well-defined and really gives the listener the feeling of a live modern classical performance.  My setup has a very neutral or transparent delivery which is well-suited to the more “academic” recordings I enjoy such as Berlin School electronic, drone and ambient musics.  I can say with certainty that this recording is a brilliant match for my setup and makes for a thrilling experience, both for its critical acoustic properties as well as for the cerebral pleasures it arouses in the listener.

While reviewing the Dynamic Range Database’s other highest-ranked recordings, I took note of Morton Feldman’s Late Piano Works Vol.3 performed by Steffen Schleiermacher.  AllMusic contributor, Blair Sanderson called the album “sublime”, speaking of the spaciousness and quietude of Feldman’s composition and of the incredible sensitivity and control with which Schleiermacher presents the featured selections.

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Feldman’s later piano works make for excellent study music, or simply a soundtrack for an evening of quiet reflection.  The Database is certainly correct – this is a wonderfully pensive and subtle recording which is sadly (and quite literally) drowned out by more modern victims of the Loudness War.  Put this on, turn down the lights, and awaken your senses to the subtle nuances of audiophilic delight.

Wolfgang Voigt – Lost in Königsforst

Wolfgang Voigt - GAS - Nah Und Fern 2LP
Through a wonderful stroke of good fortune, I am now honored to have claimed a copy of Nah Und Fern for my vinyl library.  A milestone compilation – both for Wolfgang Voigt, performing under his legendary moniker GAS, and for the incredible impact the recording had on my own musical experience.

GAS is ambient minimal techno in its purest form.  Voigt’s samples are ghostly sonic elements – formless and featureless.  There is no melody, no key, no pitch, and no progression for the listener to cling to.  Instead, the pieces, (all untitled), pulse steadily in place, with no discernible beginning or end.

Voigt, himself describes it as “GASeous music, caught by a bass drum just marching by, that streams, streams out through the underwood across the forest soil.”  The music of these projects were inspired by Voigt’s LSD experiences in the Königsforst forest near Köln.

There are four albums in the GAS project – Gas, Zauberberg, Königsforst and Pop.  Released between 1996 and 2000, the albums were later compiled into a 4CD box set titled Nah Und Fern in 2008 on the Kompakt label.

This limited vinyl release consists of four side-long edits, the first of which is exclusive to the LP.

GAS was my initiation into drone music, and led me on a rewarding path of discovery with albums like Jimmy Cauty’s Space, Robert Rich’s Somnium,  Black Swan’s vinyl-only releases, and later to Voigt’s own influences – namely Wagner and Schoenberg.  A delightful friend and ambient guru first played GAS for me in his bookshop, and the rest was history.

But Nah Und Fern does not come cheap, and I confess that I approached the purchase with some hesitation.  Thankfully all my doubts were vanquished when I learned that the gentleman who sold me his copy was a fellow member of the Youtube Vinyl Community!

Critics have called it many things – zero-gravity club music, tunes for lucid dreaming, underwater techno, or as Wire put it, “an outdoor rave, heard floating through the air from a neighbouring village.”  One thing is certain – this is drone music at its finest.

Published in: on December 12, 2014 at 10:43 pm  Comments (2)  
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