A FRAMES + HASIL ADKINS

A Frames: A Frames (S-S/Dragnet, 2002)
Hasil Adkins: Haze’s House Party EP (Norton, 1986)

1. In August 2002, my wife and I landed in Seattle in the middle of a rambling road trip, and by chance wandered into a compilation-release party at the very cool Re-Bar. There were tons of bands on the bill, all playing 20-minute sets, and most of it was a blur… but one trio, A Frames, made a real impression: robotic and noisy, with a sort of bored/steely stage affect that kept me tuned in from start to finish. So I bought this CD after their set. It’s a short, sweet slab of minimalist noise-punk. Dissonant, interlocking guitar and bass riffs; rudimentary but absolutely dead-on drumming; unaffected vocals that slip between monotone and sweetness (!) while spinning aphoristic evocations of modern dread. “Hostage Crisis,” “Electric Eye,” and “Nobot” (and the latter’s “dub” version, “333333333”) are standouts for me, but there’s not a weak moment (and with 11 tracks in just over 25 minutes, no time for that anyway.)

2. One of my biggest rock-and-roll regrets is never having gotten to see Hasil (pronounced “hassle”) Adkins perform. From all reports and the slew of YouTube videos floating around, he was a force of nature. From the 1950s until his death in 2005, he logged countless recordings of his skewed take on rockabilly, many at his home studio in West Virginia, most as a one-man-band, and pretty much entirely focused on the down-and-dirty side of livin’. Total rawk mythology, and totally great. This 7” EP collects 4 cuts from the early ‘80s: raucous and weird rave-up “Dottie Dottie,” the brooding “Sex Crazy Baby,” shoulda-been-dance-craze theme-song “Do the Hot Pants With Me,” and his hysterical riff on “She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain.” It’s a house party, y’all.

THOUGHTS FOR LATER:

  1. Re A Frames, I am SUCH a sucker for simple-but-discordant musical ideas. Interesting to reflect on how much of my compositional “voice” is informed by post-punk and noise-rock, even if it doesn’t sound much like any of that (unless it does, but I dunno).
  2. Re Hasil, time to hunker down on that book proposal. But not today — it’s almost 80°F and sunny and breezy up in these mountains, and man, it’s been a cold winter.

AESOP ROCK: BAZOOKA TOOTH (DEFINITIVE JUX, 2003)

Off my “usual” schedule today — spent most of the morning putting up shelving in the laundry room. So this’ll be a short one.

 

My friend Joe (who runs the great micro-label Carbon Records and has played in a bunch of bands, including sq with me) turned me on to Aesop Rock — this must’ve been 2002-ish, since it was the Labor Days album. I never did pick that record up, but this one found its way into my collection.

Aesop was part of a blossoming movement of underground/experimental hip-hop artists around the turn of the millennium, quite a few of whom ended up on El-P’s Definitive Jux imprint. (This is well before the latter’s household-name status with Run The Jewels.) It’d be pointless to try to make any concrete connections between any of those acts’ approaches, but there did seem to be some shared emphasis on off-kilter beats, stream-of-consciousness lyrics, and freely-rhythmic vocal flow.

This album is a pretty solid representation of all of that. The best moments for me are when Aesop’s production goes totally bonkers — like “Bazooka Tooth” and “Mars Attacks,” both of which careen around between tempos and textures in a totally unpredictable way. More straight-ahead but also great is the banging diss track “We’re Famous,” featuring turns by El-P. Throughout, Aesop’s spitting is creative and unexpected, and often thematically hard-hitting (“Babies with Guns” is a blistering take on youngsters getting swept up in street violence). At 70+ minutes, and without a thread connecting the tracks, it’s kind of an exhausting straight listen. (I could do without most of the interludes and several of the inner cuts.) But there are some great things on here regardless.

SAMUEL ADLER: STRING QUARTETS 3, 6 & 7 (CRI, 1991)

In August of 1990, I arrived as a naive but cocky freshman at the Eastman School of Music. I hadn’t previously studied composition, and had only a piecemeal grasp of the history and culture of EuroAmerican art music — but I’d written a few things that I thought were great, and hey, they’d landed me in one of the top-tier conservatories in the world. In my mind, I was awesome.

My first lessons with Sam Adler straightened me out quick-like. They were torturous affairs for me; he’d scan through my laboriously-wrought sketches with a raised eyebrow, ask me a couple of pointed questions about process and/or decisions (to which I’d give rambling, stammered responses), and then tear apart only my work but my entire artistic edifice (so carefully constructed, yet so fragile!) for 45 minutes. At least, that’s how it felt at the time.

It wasn’t until much later that I came to appreciate how Dr. Adler’s critiques came from a genuinely constructive and generous place, and that his teaching approach — so stern and withering that, for years, I had anxiety dreams with him at the center — was probably inherited from his own mentors (Hindemith, Copland, Piston, etc.). But before our year together was over, I became aware of several crucial music- and life-lessons he’d imparted, and they’re ones I still value and pass on to my own students:

  1. Repetition isn’t bad, but variation is better. If you’re going to do something more than twice, change it in some way on the third iteration, and change it again and again on subsequent ones.
  2. Write as much as you can, every day. Set a goal of writing x (number of bars or duration), and try to exceed it.
  3. Listen to criticism, but also learn when to stand your ground. (One of my favorite memories of that year: I was working on what would become my first string quartet. The first time I brought in some sketches for the second movement, Sam found one note that he didn’t like, erased it, wrote in the “correct” note, and said, “There. You’re welcome.” I was SO pissed off, and immediately changed it back after the lesson. When I came back the next week, I rather defiantly pointed this out to him… to which he smiled and calmly replied, “Good. Your note is the right one.”)

Wow, what a rabbit hole. I suspect there’ll be more about Eastman in later posts.

Anyway, this album: three strong performances by three different quartets (Meliora, Cleveland, and Fine Arts). I’ve heard people criticize Sam’s music as “workmanlike,” and I guess they’re not wrong; in my younger years, I often felt it was on the conservative side, and I guess that’s not wrong either. But from my current perspective, I’m awed at the craft and expressive versatility on display in these works; the 6th quartet, which sets several Whitman poems for soprano, really ought to be required listening for students writing for voice (though honestly, I could listen to Jan DeGaetani sing major scales and be fully happy), and all of the pieces should be studied as examples of ace writing for strings without a lot of fancy techniques. If there’s a “flaw” in Sam’s work, it’s more to do with being out of step with prevailing trends — this stuff just doesn’t fit into the ultra-modern, or postmodern, or post-postmodern, languages in vogue during the post-WWII era… which is to say, the fault’s on folks who’re invested in such trifling matters. For anyone who’s more concerned with honesty and mastery of materials, though, this is really great. Thank you, Dr. Adler, for your music and teaching.

THOUGHTS FOR LATER:

  1. Try to track down the recording of his first quartet — he mentions in the liner notes that (as of 1991) he’d “discarded” it; see why.
  2. The 3rd quartet was revised several times. This is a practice I’ve taken on as well. Interesting to think about where the urge to revisit and make better (vs. accepting that a piece was what it was, and moving on) comes from.
  3. His works list includes a recent piece based on southern Appalachian folk songs. Look for this.
  4. Sam’ll be 90 in a couple of weeks, and still going strong! A good kick in the pants — I’m halfway there; keep working.

CHRISTOPHER ADLER TWO-FER

Christopher Adler: Ecstatic Volutions in a Neon Haze (Innova, 2007)
The Christopher Adler Trio: Transcontinental (9 Winds, 2001)

I’m laid up with some sinus junk today, so I’m using my general malaise as an excuse for a longer listening session.

I met Chris back in ’98, when he was one of the student hosts for my prospective-grad-studies visit to Duke. We got on well, having a lot of common musical interests; although our time in the music program only overlapped by about a year (i.e., he was heading out as I was getting started), we hung out with some frequency, and have continued to collaborate sporadically over the years (though not so much recently). He’s a good, smart guy with a voracious musical worldview, and it’s a pleasure to listen to his stuff.

Ecstatic Volutions is his second album of compositions. (I’ve misplaced my copy of his first, which came out on Tzadik and is also very good.) Chris’s interests in math, Southeast Asian music, free improv, minimalism and loads more are foregrounded in the pieces here. Highlights, for me: (1) Iris starts out like something from a lost early Philip Glass piece, but gradually opens out into other spaces, with unpredictable metric shifts and hocketing; (2) the solo version of Signals Intelligence is given an on-the-edge-of-control reading by percussionist Robert Dillon on six ceramic tiles; (3) it turns out my band, pulsoptional, made a pretty solid recording (with Chris at piano) of the titular piece, which we commissioned from him (and which I’ve purposely not listened to since, for fear of cringing).

One composition on that disc, I Want to Believe, is a sort of composed distillation of Chris’s improv playing with multi-wind virtuoso Alan Lechusza. That’s a reasonable segue into the trio album, where Alan and Chris are joined by drummer Vikas Srivastava on three long-form free improvisations. Each piece is beautifully sculpted, with the players leaving plenty of space for individual expression but also knowing exactly the right moments to come together; it veers effortlessly and logically from subtle quietude to full-on ensemble skronk, and they handle both extremes (and everything in between) with confidence.

THOUGHTS FOR LATER:

  1. It is SO time for me to get back into free improv. It’s been years since I’ve done this with any diligence, and it always had an energizing effect on my compositional activity.
  2. Make a point to get up to Knoxville for the nief-norf festival in June.
  3. Ask Chris for a score for Iris; curious how he’s notationally handling the processes, as I can’t quite tell how much is “open” interpretation v. strictly prescribed.

JOHN ADAMS: THE DHARMA AT BIG SUR + MY FATHER KNEW CHARLES IVES (Nonesuch, 2006)

Two substantial pieces, with the composer conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra. The Dharma at Big Sur is a concerto for electric violin — really, for Tracy Silverman. Adams channels a number of inputs in this piece, from Indian fiddling and Qawwali singing to Balinese gamelan to his own sorta-minimalist origins. The violin part is fantastic, emphasizing the stuff “between the notes” (slides, trills, wide swooping gestures), and plays well against the dual tuning systems in the ensemble (harps, sampler and piano use just intonation vs. the equal temperament in the rest of the orchestra). Especially enamored of the delicate, overlapping harmonics in the first movement (“A New Day”), and how the music almost imperceptibly ramps up in intensity throughout the second movement (“Sri Moonshine”). Despite/because of the static harmonic palette, Dharma really does evoke a Kerouac-ian wide-eyed East-Coast wonder at the Pacific landscape; brought back my own first views from the Oregon coast. I really, really like this.

Less taken overall with My Father Knew Charles Ives. Basic conceit is a fictional story, as background for an exploration of Ives-ian compositional techniques. I’m sure it was fun to write, but most of it is a little too on the nose for me — esp. the unapologetic rips from The Unanswered Question and Three Places in New England in the first two movements (“Concord” and “The Lake”) — and largely makes me wanna listen to Ives’ music. But the last movement, “The Mountain,” is an excellent reminder of the influence Ives has had on most of us American composers — and here, Adams’ adoption of polytonality, polymeter, common-tone tertian motion and other tools from the Ives wheelhouse is totally internalized and personal. Especially great is the surprise quiet ending, which I’d bet made Adams go “wow” just like it does me.

This is one of those albums I’ve had in my collection for several years, but have never listened to before. I lucked out on this one; will be interesting to see what other surprises are in store…

THOUGHTS FOR LATER

  1. Remember when the standard take on John Adams was that he was, like, the “fifth minimalist”?
  2. Adams’s music is pretty uniformly programmatic. So is my own. Would be an interesting experiment to listen to one of his pieces, not knowing the title beforehand, and see what the effect is.
  3. Track down a score, and study the orchestration in the third movement of My Father Knew Charles Ives. That is masterful stuff, even for a masterful orchestrator.
  4. Look back at that piece he wrote with banjo in it — Gnarly Buttons. Didn’t make much of an impression when I heard it in grad school, but maybe there’s something there for my current projects.

ROY ACUFF TWO-FER

Roy Acuff and His Smoky Mountain Boys: Great Speckle Bird and Other Favorites (Harmony, 1958)
Roy Acuff: Night Train to Memphis (Harmony, 1970?)

Growing up in the Virginia Blue Ridge in the ‘70s and ‘80s, I had a tenuous relationship with country music. Both my daddy and his daddy were fans of the classic stuff, so I had Hank, Johnny, Patsy, etc. in my ears from an early age; my mom’s daddy sang and played a little guitar, and he’d occasionally croon a Carter song. But my friends were more into rock and pop, my mom encouraged me in learning to play (and eventually compose) notated/classical music, and then I found punk. In retrospect, there seemed to be some social pressure in my environs to reject things potentially coded as “hillbilly”; I wonder how much that might have had to do with the era’s and region’s chronological proximity to the War on Poverty, Deliverance, and various other less-than-flattering media portrayals of Appalachia…

At any rate, although some of my earliest memories are around country music, I didn’t embrace that part of myself for many years. Too bad, because I missed out on many years of getting to know records like these. Great Speckle Bird compiles a bunch of Acuff’s best-known ‘30s and ‘40s sides, and it’s just perfect; though the songs span more than a decade and several lineups, Roy’s “high lonesome” voice floats across it all. Dare you to listen to “Wreck on the Highway” or “Low and Lonely” without shedding a tear. Night Train to Memphis is more of a grab-bag; I’d guess some of these are later recordings (‘50s, maybe ‘60s?), but I don’t know who’s backing him here, and there are fewer hits (title track aside). But“Ten Little Numbers” swings hard, “In the Shadow of the Smokies” does that longing-for-my-mountain-home thing awfully well, and the versions of “Grey Eagle” and “Pretty Little Widow” are pretty rocking showcases for his solid fiddling. (Side note: Charlie Louvin’s story about seeing Roy for the first time is awesome: “It [the fiddle] was just his stage prop. He’d balance the bow on his nose from time to time, but you never did hear him play.”)

THOUGHTS FOR LATER:

  1. Read up on Acuff to get a better sense of his professional timeline, who he was playing with and when, etc.
  2. Roy’s “Grey Eagle” is not the flowery one I hear a lot — plainer, but with a couple of funny twists. Might be a three-part tune? (With the B part kind of reminiscent of “Crow Creek”?) Research this.
  3. Look up Dorsey’ Dixon’s original version of “Wreck on the Highway” (“Didn’t Hear Nobody Pray”). Also compare/contrast w/Springsteen’s “Wreck on the Highway” — Dave Marsh thinks it’s a direct descendant.

ACID MOTHERS TEMPLE & THE MELTING PARAISO U.F.O.: ELECTRIC HEAVYLAND (Alien8 Recordings, 2002)

Collection of 3 (or 4, depending on how you see the first track) face-melting long-form psych/noise explorations. Opener “Atomic Rotary Grinding God/? Quicksilver Machine Head” skitters unpredictably but effortlessly between spaceout synth bliss and gonzo, crushing improv-rock, in one 16-minute FUUUHHH. Intermezzo “Loved and Confused” is in ABAB form; the A sections dial the tempo back, leaving ample space for dive-bombing vocals and woozy electronic-and-guitar call-and-response, while the B sections set the controls for the heart of the sun and find it glowing with Kawabata Makoto’s insane fretwork and sheets o’ feedback (natch, for an album whose title references Hendrix). Closer “Phantom of Galactic Magnum” goes from placid to nightmarishly roaring in about 90 seconds, and then stays there for 17 minutes — an admirable feat o’ stamina, but kinda monochromatic for my tastes, esp. when the rest of this disc’s so damned good. Still, the rest IS damned good.  Bonus points for all the ‘60s/‘70s stoner-rock references in the titles, AND for them actually feeling relevant to the sounds therein.

Also, gotta say, Alien8’s packaging kicks ass. Sturdy Kraft box, with simple silver-on-black exterior and a bleached-out full-color photo spread across the interior fold, plus a tidy black envelope for the disc itself. I’ve a few other of the label’s releases coming down the pike; they’re all beautifully rendered, so expect further slavering.

THOUGHTS FOR LATER:

  1. ABAB — and non-recursive form generally — is something I should explore more in my own work.
  2. I don’t think I’ve previously ever listened to either of the AMT records in the morning hours — definitely not twice in two days. Would be interesting to study effects of listening at different times of the day… maybe.
  3. Interesting how tuned in I was to the recording quality this time around. It’s super lo-fi, which is perfect for the presentation — just don’t remember having taken note of that before.

Going through my rekkids: a daily project

So, I’m starting a little project. Here’s the deal:

  1. I have a pretty sizable collection of recordings, in a variety of formats.
  2. Historically, I’ve been an avid listener, and like most creative types, I derive a creative spark from absorbing the output of other creative types.
  3. Over the past decade, my dedicated time for listening has dwindled to almost nil.
  4. Over the past few months, I’ve been in a pretty fallow place creatively — most days, I feel lucky to get a few notes or words down.

Without any great leaps in logic, it’s pretty obvious that #4 probably follows, at least in part, from #2 and #3 — and that, in #1, I’ve got a potential solution.

Thus, starting today, I’m making a conscious effort to rededicate a portion of every day to listening, actively and closely. In order to keep myself honest, and also as a way to try to jumpstart a few creative projects, I’m gonna take the further step of chronicling my listening habits, and putting them out there for all who might care to see.

Here’s how I’m gonna proceed:

  1. Every single day, I’ll set aside time to do nothing but listen to one album in my collection, all the way through, with no distractions. If I have time and mental energy, I might throw a 7″ or EP into the mix, too. And I’m gonna go in alphabetical order (by artist or, in the case of compilations, by title, because that’s how I roll), just to be sure I don’t miss anything.
  2. I’ll restrict myself to  physical formats — vinyl, CD, cassette. (This is largely in response to (a) criticism from some quarters of my household about how much space my collection occupies, and (b) the honest truth that there are items in said collection that I either do not remember listening to OR really have never listened to, at all.)
  3. After listening, I’ll write up something — about the album, about the artwork, about my memories of the time I got the album, and/or about something else entirely that the listening experience conjures up.
  4. I’ll attempt to write in a variety of styles and formats, and to avoid just doing “reviews.” We’ll see how successful I am. (I’m hoping to get some special guests to post, too. No promises yet.)
  5. I’ll aim for an average word-count of about 200-300 words. That’s gonna be tricky at times, and I’ll likely fail with regularity (I mean, who DOESN’T want to read yet another 30,000-word explanation of what Daydream Nation “means,” man?!?)… but what the hey.

I’m not expecting this to be groundbreaking or anything, but I truly hope you’ll enjoy something you find here. And it being 2018, maybe we’re just about due for a wave of nostalgia for the heydays of music blogs. (Yeah, I know.) Either way, feel free to leave a message; I’ll respond when I can.

Happy Valentine’s Day! Check back tomorrow for something from Acid Mothers Temple.