Ascending Fiercely Into Sleep
143 · 23 October 97
Tan Dun: Ghost Opera
I've been single for a while now, after spending a number of years in two more-or-less contiguous relationships, and while I sometimes cling to the diffident fiction that my tastes in art depend on abstract parameters with which my romantic state does not interact, it doesn't take much effort to demonstrate that my art life and my romantic life are both derived from my life, and thus inevitably share some timbres and colors, some oblique tropes and similarly choreographed tautologies, and at times even some characters. It's constantly tempting to try to integrate causality into the equations: how many of my reactions to books and movies and albums are to some extent products of my isolation? Or, the other way around, is my laborious search for truth in part a complicated avoidance mechanism designed to protect me from dangerous relationship vulnerabilities? Or have I finally just bought so many books and CDs that they've developed a collective will, and are secretly warding off women so they can have me to themselves?
Whatever the connection is, I've discovered myself, lately, playing a similar game with both people and works of art. The people version can be played anywhere you are presented with brief glimpses of complete strangers, and consists of identifying a single tiny peculiarity about each person, and then constructing an elaborate extrapolation from it contending that that person either is, or isn't, your cosmically intended soul-mate. Most of the time it's easier to spot disqualifying details, but the game is more intriguing if you try to see the things that you might, forty years later, claim you fell in love with the moment you saw them: the way a person's gaze skims knowingly across the display windows as they walk past a bookstore; the way another one pauses at a crosswalk, as if muttering to themselves their part of an invisible dialog with the oncoming traffic; a choice of shoes; an indicative impatience or a simple smile. The advanced version of the game, once you've grown proficient at making fanciful snap judgments about people you don't know, is imagining that other people are playing it, too, watching you. How can your most mundane, circumscribed actions convey something of your personality and soul? How will you cross a street, or look in a window, or surreptitiously peruse the "adult" video section in such a way that a passerby could imagine, in your smallest gesture, a life the two of you might share?
The version of the game that involves art is, structurally, only minorly different. I suppose you could play it with movie trailers, radio singles and book-jacket blurbs, to be strictly parallel, but these are explicitly contrived, in the way that people simply going about their business are not, and so leave you less latitude for embellishment. I prefer, instead, to isolate the details myself, to pick out tiny splinters of meaning and imagine the alternate work in which these fleeting insights were integral. So, for example, in the film The Ice Storm, which I'm sure is about something else (though I'm not sure exactly what), I cling to two images: the severe modernist geometry of the neighbors' house, and the old-fashioned metal ice-tray out of which ice cubes are messily extracted for the endless parade of drinks. The house, to me, with its glass facades, fishbowl skylights and alien-kitch Seventies furniture, is the lead character in a sad architectural allegory about humanity's delusionary belief in independence through artifice. To build houses like that, you must believe that history is entirely arbitrary; that we do not learn from it, we are co-opted; and that new worlds, in fact, can be initiated at any moment you summon the resolve. It is possible to immerse yourself in this myth, momentarily, just as the house's occupants, in the film, clatter through it in a valiant attempt to impersonate the invincible, emotionless creatures that would feel at home in such spaces, but then a flood of other houses from other films rushes in, big, warm, imponderable structures sustained as much by tradition as by beams and bricks, from Love! Valour! Compassion!, Peter's Friends, The Myth of Fingerprints, A Thousand Acres, and reminds me of the immeasurable weight of precedent, and how many ways leverage can turn that weight from encumbrance into power. The ice-tray, on the other hand, is to me a chapter from another fable of machines and meaning, this one a nostalgic yearning for problems that can be solved within known constraints. The metal ice tray, with its clashing blades and handle that responded brightly to a satisfying smash, was a quintessentially Newtonian device, a product of a culture of graph paper, mechanical diagrams and decisive force vectors. It was a device that sang the biography of the cubes as you extracted them, bridging the conceptual gap between the water you poured in and the jagged shards of ice you took out with a story of transformation and organized destruction. Metal ice trays are gone, now, and with them a way of thinking and an expectation of continuity. Ice cubes now tumble out of automatic ice-makers, gifts for which we are beholden to our electric captors, or else they are flexed atomically out of plastic trays, taking deliberate advantage of the plastic's insubstantiality. Metal ice-trays were a recognizable evolution of glaciers and chisels, tiny machines that you could learn from, or repair; ice-makers and plastic trays are achievements that do not recapitulate their history, that do not teach, that break irreparably. They are tools that isolate us from who we are. As a method of making ice cubes they are, of course, vastly superior, but this efficiency comes at an enormous cultural cost. This is, in a way, that same dilemma that the film's sexual promiscuity finds itself entangled in, so perhaps, after all, I've understood more of it than I originally thought.
The detail I identify with, in this way, in Wu Man and the Kronos Quartet's recording of Tan Dun's Ghost Opera, is the use of ordinary substances -- water, stones, paper, metal -- as percussion. At some extremely impressionable point in my life I saw, on what must have been PBS, a video piece in which the percussionist David Van Tieghem, known then to me only for having appeared on Laurie Anderson's Big Science, wandered around an inexplicably deserted Manhattan, improvising an extended, self-propelled drum solo by beating on everything in sight. Later, at college, I tried to cultivate this practice, roaming around Harvard Yard late at night with drumsticks in hand, dashing from lampposts to kiosks to banisters, but I could never get the feeling right. Perhaps the grass and trees in the Yard introduced too much discontinuity, interrupting rhythms too sharply as I tried to move from one responsive surface to the next. Perhaps David was just better at it than I was. Somehow, though, I felt like there was a magic inherent in the spaces, that the whole world should play like a vast drum set, and the proper technique was only narrowly eluding me. In retrospect, the goofily pretentious audacity of wandering around a public space banging on things seems mind-boggling to me. Fifteen seconds into such a percussion tour today, and I'd be listening for the sirens coming to arrest me. I miss the obliviousness I once had. Banging on trash cans and building placards was, on one level, idiotic, but at the same time it demonstrated an inspiring faith that art could take place outside of any designated arena, or any scheduled time. Wouldn't our lives be richer if we felt, intuitively, that our world were an instrument, and our days and minutes in it were the measures of an all-encompassing performance?
Ghost Opera, of course, is imprisoned inside this little CD, planned and implemented by trained professionals, and so can't quite evoke the universal immanence I'm after, but it does, within the confines of its form, what it can. Splashes, rustles and clicks coexist with the conventional instruments of the quartet on completely equal terms, less like an incongruous bowl of liquid has been placed on the concert stage than like violins, violas and cellos have been discovered beside a burbling woodland creek. The performers howl and yelp, throughout the opera, like they are surrounded by animate spirits only barely held at bay, like the opera is as much something they are trapped in as it is something they are producing. The additional instruments, one-string lutes and Wu Man's pipa, and the keening, sliding string parts, give the music a cultural character that Van Tieghem's tour of Manhattan, despite its literal connection to the place, largely lacked. His performance only worked, I think now, because it was on video. His playing evoked Manhattan only because you saw him there; that is, his playing actually didn't evoke Manhattan. And perhaps this is why Harvard Yard didn't sound like Harvard Yard when I played it, either. The string instruments that weave together Western classical themes and Chinese folk tunes in Ghost Opera are translating, into sounds, an aura that we feel, in a place, through other senses. In a way we are living inside a giant instrument, if only we can stop taking things so literally that we can't see their truer selves.
Jonty Harrison: Articles Indefinis
A little shouting and banging on things, however, is not nearly as intimidating to a rock audience as it would be inside a recital hall, and to listeners more accustomed to Sonic Youth than Schubert Tan Dun's music may well seem inexplicably restrained, like a repressed child attempting to trash a garage by timidly up-ending the croquet set, nudging a box of nails off the workbench with the end of a broom, and shouting "ya" once or twice like one of Pooh's assertiveness exercises. This is a failure of context, not a flaw of Ghost Opera, mind you, but the problem is real, all the same. A large part of the impact of Ghost Opera is the formal dissonance of the arrangement, and people raised on "Godzilla" and "Whip It" may need to have this aesthetic device recalibrated to a different scale. This is an ongoing process, extremism constantly pursued by rapacious familiarity, but as we near the end of the century the melodic and rhythmic legacies of early pop and its ancestors are still strong enough that a wide musical margin is available under the misleading label Noise. Noise is available in a wide range of noisinesses, from the subliminal ebb of ambient to the cacophonous roar of industrial noise, but one of its stranger manifestations is electroacoustic music, a form that appears, as best I can discern, to be the near-exclusive province of the Quebec experimental label DIFFUSION i MéDIA. The simplest generalization for this style, summarized on the first disc of the Sombient compilation A Storm of Drones, is that it is a lot like ambient, only not relaxing. If you imagine that Brian Eno's Music for Airports is not a single album, but rather a compilation of isolated peaceful moments from other sources, like an abstract instrumental version of those Enya-heavy Pure Moods collections sold on late-night television, then electroacoustic could be the less-peaceful source material that got left out. Most of Jonty Harrison's Articles Indefinis sounds like the exasperated monologous rant of an R2D2 the size of a killer whale. Noises come in clusters, sudden and decisive, whipping through the stereo field and the human audio spectrum on impatient errands to somewhere else entirely. If stars were actually living creatures, existing simultaneously on time scales both faster and slower than our own, arguing with each other on topics beyond human comprehension, much less grammar, then this is what Fiorella Terenzi's would hear in her radio telescopes.
Stéphane Roy: Kaleidos
I'm sure there's as much distinctive nuance in electroacoustic music as there is in anything else, but I clearly haven't learned to spot it yet, as Stéphane Roy's Kaleidos sounds to me like a continuation of Harrison's record. The stars have calmed down a little. Perhaps now they are reminiscing, instead of berating each other; the sequences of sounds build more slowly, and flutter through more intermediary tones, rather than careening breathlessly from octave to octave. There is a bit more textural density, some of Harrison's spasmodic flare sublimated into an atmospheric sparkle. Roy manages a bit of instrumental reverse-weirdness, too, on Mimetismo, where some of the alien parts are transposed for Arturo Parra's guitar. Played back to back, though, these two albums seem to me like an epic 2001-esque expansion of the black-hole journey that Rush glossed over in the transition from Cygnus X-1 to Hemispheres.
Jon Appleton: Contes de la Mémoire
My third DIFFUSION i MéDIA disc, Jon Appleton's Contes de la Mémoire, takes a much less abrasive approach to electroacoustic music. Until a giant, sadistic, gong-playing praying mantis infiltrates the album toward the very end, carrying a frazzled television set, most of these pieces sound like Eno, Dr. Who theme music or ethnic field-recording sampler collages. The two pieces around which the album revolves, for me, are "San Francisco Airport Rock" and "Newark Airport Rock", both of which are assemblages of random responses to the question "What do you think about the new electronic music?", asked in Newark in 1967, and San Francisco in 1996. The two sets of answers are nearly indistinguishable compendiums of blithe ignorance, indiscriminate approval, rank intransigence and dopey techno-mysticism. I don't know whether Appleton's deliberately vague phrasing (perhaps "the new electronic music" meant something specific in 1967, but in 1996 it could refer to practically anything, and Appleton's academic electroacoustic music is hardly the likeliest referent) was a calculated tactic to elicit amusing stupidity, or he really expects to find a critical mass of sophisticated John Cage fans in a random airport sampling, but either way, the result does for music-appreciation about what Frank Zappa's "Porn Wars" did for obscenity.
If you'd rather your sampler collages involve a little more socio-political terrorism, Dispepsi is the latest album from Negativland, who are less a band than an ongoing experiment in copyright-law defiance. Their classic U2 parody, a single whose packaging was explicitly designed to look like a record called "Negativland", by the band U2, was sued out of existence, and I get the impression that they now plan for cease-and-desist orders as part of the life-cycle of a new album. The target, this time, is Pepsi, and Dispepsi duly appropriates a staggering number of Pepsi commercials and assorted other documentary evidence, tossing down, by way of legalistic caltrops, only the laughably transparent dodge of scrambling "Dispepsi" into anagrams everywhere it actually appears in the packaging (strangely, the back cover of the credits booklet lists, in one long unannotated run-on, just about every other soda and fast-food brand-name). Unlike with the U2 parody, though, nobody is likely to mistake this CD for a can of Pepsi, so I'm not sure, if I was Pepsi, why I'd care. It is possible to write a vitriolic critique of Pepsi as a corporate moral-reprobate, no better than a beer or tobacco company, intent on addicting the entire globe to culture-rot disguised as sugar-water, but this album isn't one, and there's no law against that, anyway. I'm not even sure Negativland have chosen the right medium for the task; when Leslie Savan writes about advertising (in her book The Sponsored Life, which costs less than this CD and says more), her written descriptions of advertising refer to ads without letting them speak for themselves; Negativland, in sampling bits of Pepsi commercials, just give the commercials another forum. They cut them up and place them in rude juxtapositions, admittedly, but sound bites, by their very nature, are better suited for advertisements than for coherent commentary, and in many cases I think Negativland is losing the very battle they started. It doesn't help that most of the Pepsi song snippets are far less annoying than Negativland's own few songs, which play like Muzak-ed early They Might Be Giants out-takes in which surreal wit has been replaced with banal crudity. I approve of bands that take stands, especially dangerous ones, and I'm glad to contribute to any cause that has the potential of annoying Pepsi, whom I detest for beverage reasons, as well as moral ones, but without much other than legal risk to recommend or justify this album, I worry that buying it is really no smarter than blowing the money you could have spent subscribing to Adbusters on a bungee jump.
Joseph Schwantner: Velocities / Concerto for Percussion / New Morning for the World
There's some more strange media-clashing in New Morning for the World: "Daybreak of Freedom", Joseph Schwantner's 1982 tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in which a composite text, assembled from various of Dr. King's speeches, is read against a dramatic symphonic backdrop. King was a emotive speaker, and many of his lines would be no less arresting if they were read by a Radio Shack speech synthesizer, but the overall musical effect of this performance mystifies me. The narrator, Washington lawyer and civil rights activist Vernon E. Jordan, Jr., reads the text in a bizarre, stilted monotone that sounds more like a dry-read through the script for a economics filmstrip than the fiery exhortations of a peerless orator, and his slow cadences often, it seems to me, render King's passionate words leaden and mannered. And while I'm relieved that Schwantner did not attempt, in the surging score, to affect any artificial African-Americanisms, the music does strike me as a bit of a Euro-centric cultural non sequitur, and I wonder whether this text would be a hundred times more effective, albeit more obvious, if Ice-T was rapping it over a foundation of James Brown samples and gospel-choir exultations.
If I don't worry about the cultural implications of the narration, though, I find Schwantner's music mesmerizing. The score to New Morning for the World is like a miniature Dvorak symphony, augmented by percussionist Evelyn Glennie with waves of violent, crashing timpani. Concerto for Percussion, the disc's middle piece, is a Glennie tour de force, involving, according to the notes, twenty different percussion instruments, surrounded by surging brass fusillades and eerie string fade-aways reminiscent of a Hitchcock soundtrack. And Velocities, the short opener, is a daunting solo-marimba workout that would make a great flip side to Steve Reich's Nagoya Marimbas, if singles still had flip sides, and classical musicians ever made singles.
Steve Reich: Proverb / Nagoya Marimbas / City Life
If they weren't both played on marimbas, however, Nagoya Marimbas and Velocities would have little in common. Where Schwantner's solo piece is melodic almost to the point of romanticism, Reich's duet is intensely mathematical, deriving most of its energy from the interaction of the two marimba parts, not either of them individually. The polyrhythms are not quite as abstruse as those in some of Reich's older works for larger ensembles, but Nagoya Marimbas still sounds to me like it demands more discipline than dexterity. The other two works here are nearly polar opposites. Proverb, though it involves some tight, circling accompaniment on vibraphone and electric organ, is predominantly a choral piece for Paul Hillier's post-Hilliard Ensemble group Theatre of Voices. Reich is not likely to be mistaken for Perotin or Michael Nyman, but the piece's reverent soprano lead twists its minimalism into intent devotional ardor, and the combination of elements results in something that sounds to me like an ancient benediction reverberating off the walls of a Le Corbusier cathedral. City Life, conversely, is as frenetic and uneasy as Proverb is serene. Reich's trademark penchant for deriving instrumental hooks from the natural melodies of speech returns here, but is mixed with samples of ambient city noises and a methodical eighteen-piece ensemble (two each flutes, oboes, clarinets, vibraphones, samplers, pianos and violins, plus a percussionist, viola, cello and bass). The sound is less a portrait of a city from street level than an abstracted, pixelated, almost-cubist rendition recorded by watching the circus of urban insanity through a wall of prisms.
Margaret Leng Tan: The Art of the Toy Piano
If the marimba repertoire is regrettably sparse, the adventurous marimba player faces nothing like the dearth of serious material available for the toy piano. Those of you with small children may regard this as a mercy, but Margaret Leng Tan has embarked on a one-woman crusade to lend miniature steel-plate pianos a measure of artistic credibility. In fact, over the course of this elfin album she also makes cases for the toy accordion, the melodica, cap guns and a toy drum machine. Her material ranges from her own toy-piano arrangements of pieces by Philip Glass, Beethoven and Erik Satie, to several contemporary compositions prepared specifically for toy piano, to Toby Twining's toy-piano setting of Lennon and McCartney's "Eleanor Rigby". It is a very impressive display of skill and imagination, on par with Zamfir, Master of the Pan Flute (and lest you think this a jest, I note that I own a Zamfir CD, and having listened to it, enthusiastically acknowledge his right to his title). It is also, however, forty-eight minutes of incessant toy-piano twinkling, which is enough to make me switch Chitty Chitty Bang Bang allegiances and take to the streets with a hook and net myself, intent on extending the ban on children to whatever insufferable toymaker is responsible for these infuriating, perpetually out-of-tune contraptions.
György Ligeti: Mechanical Music
If there's anything that should be even more annoying than toy pianos, it's this disc of "adaptations" for barrel organ and player piano. Happily, Ligeti and I share a strong fondness for the great player-piano composer Conlon Nancarrow, so I'm happy to sit through these strange, quick, blocky pieces. The thing I bought this album for, though, after not exactly having been won over by a previous disc of Ligeti's Hungarian folk songs, is Poème Symphonique for 100 Metronomes, the mere title of which reduces me to happy giggles. It is a conception so perversely brilliant, in my opinion, that physically performing it would be superfluous, were it not that some obtuse bystander is bound to say, otherwise, "Nobody ever really played that, did they?" Well, yes, they really did, and I can subject you to it if you don't believe me. It's twenty minutes long and really does consist of nothing other than a hundred metronomes, slowly running down. Although this is bound to be less exciting in interminable practice than in concise theory, the piece actually surprised me. I imagined that it would be essentially a clockwork Aube, a short blast of white noise whose origin was little more than a conceptual joke, but it turns out to be a fascinating, if oblique and mathematical, demonstration of harmonics. The metronomes are all going at the beginning of the piece, but as it goes on they are eliminated, one by one, and the undifferentiated noise takes on increasing structure, as the dwindling choir of metronomes wavers into and out of strange momentary synchronizations. By five minutes in I feel like aliens are trying to talk to me through the static. By ten minutes in I feel like I'm on the verge of decoding the message, but for some reason the aliens are starting to lose interest in the dialog. By the fifteen-minute mark it's clear that an entire noble alien race is dying, and these are their final words I'm hearing, and I am powerless to save them, or even comfort them, or even understand whether they're giving me burial instructions or complaining about a shipment of defective Incredible Hulk Pez dispensers. And the last two minutes, as I listen to a single metronome doggedly trudging toward its own certain death, I feel like I'm sitting in locked hospital room, holding a recursive vigil for my own life-support machines.
Aube: Stared Gleam
Then again, if I really want to be blasted by noise, there is almost always another Aube album awaiting. This one is called Stared Gleam; it's on some label called Iris Light, from Cornwall, but for once it doesn't appear to be a limited edition; everything on it was made from only the sound of a "glow lamp". Why a glow lamp would even have a sound, much less these sounds, I couldn't say. Perhaps Aube is getting Zen on us. He seems to be exploring softer and softer sounds, as well; Stared Gleam is even more muted and subdued than its predecessor, Cardiac Strain. This album has several stretches where you have to turn your stereo way up to hear anything at all, and in the old days this would have been a cruel setup for an ear- and loudspeaker-shredding explosion just when you'd been lulled into taking your hand off the volume knob. Here, though, the sounds build slowly to a low hum, and then fade away again. A moment of prudence at the beginning of track four is all you need to get through relatively unscathed. The hardest thing about listening to this album is having to repeatedly go check the CD player's display to be sure it's still playing. If you haven't had the defining Aube head-stuck-in-a-rock-grinder listening experience, this isn't the place to start, but after so many Aube albums that amount to endurance tests, it's oddly refreshing to get one that invites scrutiny, not flight.
Kronos Quartet: Early Music (Lachrymæ Antiquæ)
Every marathon of conceptual art, though, should probably end with something decorously inviting and conventional, and this one returns to the monastic early-music rapture that dragged me back into classical music in the first place. "Early Music" is a historically disingenuous title, as these twenty-one pieces are split nearly evenly between pre-1700 sacred music and contemporary revivals of the style, but the Hilliard Ensemble has already firmly established the link between real antiquity and neo-, so this album is in a way the instrumental counterpart to the Hilliard Ensemble's New Music for Voices. Kronos, too, address the old songs and the new ones as spiritual peers, and John Cage's jerky "Totem Ancestor" ends up scarcely less liturgical than Kassia's droning ninth-century dirge "Using the Apostate Tyrant As His Tool" or Perotin's "Viderunt Omnes" (or Arvo Pärt's "Psalom"). The showpiece, for me, is Alfred Schnittke's sweeping pastiche "Collected Songs Where Every Verse Is Filled With Grief", which sounds like exactly the medley of shameless melodrama soundtracks that the title implies. If only collecting up all the grief in one place meant the rest of the world was free from it.