Posts Tagged ‘daniel j. kushner’
Since Deutsche Grammaphon/Universal Music released conductor André de Ridder and the Copenhagen Phil’s St. Carolyn by the Sea–a collection of orchestral compositions by both The National’s Bryce Dessner and Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood–on March 4, Dessner’s seemingly nonstop schedule has shown no signs of slowing.
The composer and guitarist has since contributed to the Kronos Quartet’s 40th Anniversary Celebration at Carnegie Hall on March 28, and a reunion with the quartet for a world premiere at Barbican Concert Hall in London is scheduled for May 13. And while his “Murder Ballades” will be performed in the states of Oregon, New York, and Ohio throughout the month of April, Dessner has a full slate of tour dates with The National through August.
In a recent interview, Dessner spoke at length about writing orchestral music, the lesson that rock music teaches, and what ultimately attracts him to contemporary classical music over pop.
Daniel J. Kushner: What influence did your orchestral song cycle “The Long Count” have on your progress as a symphonic composer and the trajectory that led you to the compositions on this new recording?
Bryce Dessner: Part of that experience really gave me a real appetite for this music and for developing–you know, further–my own voice, and so, out of that, “St. Carolyn by the Sea” is in a way a much more, I think, developed composition. It uses some of the same techniques that I was using in “The Long Count”, specifically the mirror, kind of canonic behavior in the guitar writing….in “The Long Count” some of the guitar behavior is more sort of riff-oriented, whereas in “St. Carolyn,” the guitars are sort of treated as a section of the orchestra, so they sit timbrally like in the orchestral color, like the winds or the brass or the strings.
DJK: What relationship, if any, does the piece “St. Carolyn by the Sea” have to the concerto as a form? It doesn’t feature the guitar in a conventional means for a concerto, but I’m curious if there’s any correlation.
BD: I think a lot of my favorite electric guitar playing actually behaves that way, where the guitar is used as a kind of shading or a color, and less the kind of rock-driven tendency, rock tropes. Playing pentatonic scales over orchestral music is not something I want to do or listen to. That tends to be what you think of for an electric guitar concerto, so I really didn’t want to write a traditional concerto in that sense.
I think that [in] orchestral music, there’s a mystery–the communion you get of so many musicians working together, [there’s] a kind of elusive energy about that that to me is one of the great human aspects of art, in the orchestral tradition. Where else in modern art do you see 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, 80 people making something in real time? The mystery and the magic of that to me feels much more exciting than playing out my solo lines over the top of it. But I would say that doesn’t mean I don’t want to write a concerto, but I don’t think I’d do it for the electric guitar first. –Bryce Dessner
DJK: Is there a particular instrument that you would be keen to explore in a concerto first?
BD: I think that writing for solo violin, [there are] just so many incredible players nowadays, and young people who are doing really exciting programming, so that would probably be my first. I would say violin or cello. I’ve really developed as a string writer in the last four or five years, and I think I have enough to say now with those instruments that writing something like a concerto would be a really exciting goal for me.
DJK: In comparing your collaboration with Kronos Quartet on the album Aheym, this new recording St. Carolyn by the Sea has that intense, mesmerizing rhythmic quality that seems characteristic of your work. But here the compositions seem to expand and take shape at a slower, perhaps more brooding pace. Is this in part a result of writing for different instrumentation, or because there are different musicians involved?
BD: The larger pieces are slightly less anxious I think, they have a little less of that driving energy about them. I’m not sure if I made a conscious decision about that or if the instrumentation led me to that. I think specifically in the case of “Lachrimae”, it has to do with the musicians I was working with–so the Amsterdam Sinfonietta commissioned that piece. You know, I often try to think about–when I write instrumental music, the hardest thing is finding an idea. Once I have an idea, the music kind of comes. But I try to find a way into the piece, is what I always say. That may be these kind of non-musical references that I make, but more often actually, it’s who I’m writing for. So in the case of the Amsterdam Sinfonietta, they’re a really great conductorless ensemble and sinfonietta in Amsterdam–really , really phenomenal players. Really, It’s probably one of the best groups like that in Europe. And they play beautifully–they can play Renaissance or Baroque music, but they also can play new commissions and they’re just really good at both. So I think that’s part of what led me to “Lachrimae,” is I wanted to do something that kind of sat in between those two spaces. And so, the piece itself, being based on the John Dowland “Lachrimae”…there is something kind of peaceful about it, you know, and I think that I wanted to write a piece of music that was breathing a bit deeper in a way and less sort of hurried.
DJK: How do you feel that your music and that of Jonny Greenwood’s compliment each other on this album?
BD: I think Jonny does some really inventive things with harmony, and maybe my music is sort of more centered around what’s happening rhythmically…People ask me, ‘Does the rock music experience benefit at all, writing these kind of longer-form, more ambitious concert pieces?’ And I think that there’s something you learn as a rock musician about the immediacy of sound. That doesn’t mean poppiness, catchiness. It means actually just the kind of primary element of material and keeping things focused in a way, and I hear that for sure in his music, and I hope that it happens in mine.
DJK: You’ve been very successful at balancing your work as a composer with your very busy schedule as guitarist in the band The National. Do you think you’ll have to choose at some point to focus on one more than the other? If so, does one feel closer to your heart?
BD: My life in The National is really about my relationship to my brother [guitarist Aaron Dessner]. We’re twins….The National is a place that we really thrive together, and that relationship is kind of fundamental, the most fundamental thing. I’m basically a born collaborator being a twin, and if you look at pretty much all of this music you can see it in that light…I call The National my family, and I’ll be doing that as long as I want to.
That said, the reason that I do this other music….I find the kind of adventurous spirit of contemporary music–audiences, ensembles, composers, whatever it be–I find there’s a real open-mindedness that you don’t find as much in the kind of pop world or whatever. I think there’s an adventurousness and a kind of excitement about taking risks that is what draws me to it. I think ultimately, for my life, I see myself doing that forever. I can imagine myself as an old man writing music for choir or orchestra. I don’t know that I’ll be touring six months out of the year in a rock band when I’m 60.
For more information about composer Bryce Dessner and St. Carolyn by the Sea, visit http://www.brycedessner.com.
Be thankful for experimental music. At least that’s the message sent by Northern Spy Records’ November 29 release of Mystical Weapons’ limited edition 12″ LP Crotesque for Record Store Day Black Friday this year. Undoubtedly, the initial curiosity surrounding the band has much to do with the reputations of its founding members–Sean Lennon (The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger) and Greg Saunier of Deerhoof. Here, Lennon shares handle guitar, bass, and synthesizer duties with Shahzad Ismaily, and Saunier provides the percussion.
Consisting of one nearly 20-minute track, the music of Crotesque colors outside the lines in all the right ways, managing to be both joyful and ominous at the same time. The dual nature of Mystical Weapons’ sound is achieved by combining the boundless energy of the drums and lead guitar–which recalls the effects-laden, adventurous riffing of Omar Rodriguez-Lopez (formerly of The Mars Volta)–with the step-wise, at times chromatic melody in the bass line. The guitar work as a whole is exceedingly crunchy, all distortion and fuzz.
But it’s Saunier’s singular, spasmodic performance, which captures the unbridled spirit of The Who’s Keith Moon at his best, that serves as the anchoring presence in Mystical Weapons’ music. The great paradox is that Saunier is able to ground the music by exhibiting the most freedom. He paints with broad strokes here, using the full percussive palette and ranging from punk to jazz fusion influences. His unpredictability is what ultimately makes Crotesque such an enjoyable listen.
The ideas presented here don’t sound fully formed, but that doesn’t seem to be the intention. The musicians frequently revert to more formless segues characterized by timbral disparities between the spaciness of the synthesizers and the sharp intrusiveness of the guitars and drums. The trio is able to oscillate rather effortlessly from ‘90s-esque grunge rock to more introspective psychedelic noodling, from hiccupy grooves to full-fledged extraterrestrial jam music.
One of the most important components of the recording is entirely non-musical. Mystical Weapons is not comprised merely of the three musicians, but also artist Martha Colburn, whose video images are projected on 16-millimeter film. Though Colburn’s visuals are engaging and cryptic (as evidenced in the video documentation above of the group’s appearance on WNYC’s “Spinning on Air” program), the seemingly perpetual whirring sound of the projectors creates a formidable presence on the recording. The projectors don’t merely add sonic interest to the overall sound, but they suggest to the listener vital and robust imagery of his or her own creation.
Even if you’re not watching the video clip of the WNYC session, or you are unable to see the group live at their upcoming record release show on December 5 at Union Pool in Brooklyn, the mere suggestion of compelling visuals imbue the music with an even greater energy. The result is less like a studio album and more akin to a “happening.”
What sustains the intrigue of the music is its innate ability to induce a trance-like listening state. Crotesque sounds like the ideal soundtrack to an uninhibited bout of dancing, as impromptu as the music that inspires it. Mystical Weapons is clearly a band that is best heard live, but that shouldn’t stop you from blissing out privately.
For more information on Mystical Weapons, visit Northern Spy Records here.
On Sunday, September 15, a contingent from the Eastman School of Music performed John Luther Adams’s 2009 work Inuksuit, an immersive soundscape written for anywhere from nine to 99 percussionists. Presented at High Falls in Rochester as part of Greentopia, this version featured 40 to 50 musicians, by my estimate.
My primary intention here is to share my personal experience with the piece, as documented in the video excerpts below (apologies in advance for the occasional intrusion of my fingers upon the footage!)
As for a written commentary, I think that Inuksuit–and other compositions written with an outdoor setting in mind–are particularly poignant for the ways that they foster a renewed sense of self-awareness in the listner, in relation to the sounds she hears. In other words, a composition in which the listener is not only free, but encouraged to walk among the performers as he wishes promotes a more active listening.
The danger of feeling tethered to the seat in the concert hall, subtly restricted to a single, static aural vantage point is averted. Rather than having the decidedly more passive experience of “sitting through a performance,” which might otherwise result in a profound sense of complacency, the audience is given the opportunity to “traipse through the sound.”
No one listener’s experience is identical. One’s exact hearing of the piece is predicated on where the music compels you to be, and on the particular sounds to which you choose to listen. In one of the composition’s most volatile moments, I had the immediate and visceral experience of cymbals thrashing wildly in front of me. Simultaneously, I had the secondary recognition of insistent toms, and the tertiary experience of wailing air raid sirens. I was acutely aware of my ability to alter the texture of the piece, and in some way the character of the music, solely based on where my ears told me to wander. My physical location caused the perception of the dynamics of certain instruments to change accordingly, and the layers of the orchestration shifted.
Ultimately, I felt as if the composer had given me the gift of autonomy. I was enabled to access the music on my own terms, and in my own time. But with this freedom seemed to come a greater responsibility: the charge to truly listen.
Sometime after the release of Buke and Gass’s Riposte in 2010–a striking first impression of a record—the industrious DIY duo did something confusing: they changed their name..slightly…to Buke and Gase. On General Dome, the second full-length album released on January 29 via Brassland, what seems like a simple cosmetic change for pronunciation’s sake is emblematic of the band’s fuller realization of its own sound.
Buke and Gase’s music has always been what one could loosely call “avant-garage rock.” But that term is deceiving and overly reductive, and does nothing to explain what has made the music so compelling: the interlocking edginess of the instruments—Arone Dyer’s amplified baritone ukelele (“Buke”) and Aron Sanchez’s versatile guitar-bass hybrid (“Gase”)—combined with exuberant, groove-laden melodies and serpentine rhythms that expand and contract like pulsating organisms.
Apparently, the musical feel of Riposte was merely an approximation of the ideal Buke and Gase sound, and not its full manifestation. As noted in a recent press release, Dyer made the switch from the wooden ukelele heard on the debut record to a new instrument made, at least partially, from re-purposed car parts. The more one listens to “General Dome,” the more dramatic the resulting evolution of the band’s sound comes.
There is part of me that misses the anachronism of the old “Buke,” a humble acoustic instrument supercharged with amplification and effects pedals. Its odd quality lent itself naturally to idiosyncratic hooks that churned with tension and shimmered pungently with equal measure.
From the album opener “Houdini Crush” onward, the homemade instruments sound like they’ve been welded together, their individual timbres now completely in sync. If Buke and Gase created dense compositions with prog-like tendencies before, the music of General Dome boasts a crunchier core of harmonies and more streamlined song forms now. “Hard Times” is as concise as it is catchy, featuring a chorus that is as undeniably pop as you’re likely to find.
Elsewhere, the band employs triple meter liberally, in songs like “Twisting the Lasso of Truth,” which projects a buoyant waltz before it begins to snarl with sudden rhythm changes. The instruments mimic sardonic laughter, and the whole thing threatens to derail like a beautifully deranged carousel ride.
As a whole, General Dome is absolutely stunning in its rhythmic variety—the downbeat is constantly being disguised, obscured, and altered—without ever losing the continuity or momentum of each individual song. To that end, the use of tambourine, bass drum, and jingling feet percussion are still integral to the sound; they lend a march-like quality to the propulsion of the music, particularly in “Split Like a Lip, No Blood on the Beard.” Clever time changes populate the witty “Hiccup” with infectious results.
The musical chemistry showcased here, as in Riposte, is awe-inspiring. With this new collection of songs, however, Arone Dyer and Aron Sanchez have trimmed their sound–focusing on a meatier overall timbre and in the process, becoming a leaner, darker and grittier band.
Courtesy of NPR Music, this Buke and Gase concert at NYC’s Le Poisson Rouge in October 2012 features the band’s honed sound.
Setlist is as follows: “Hiccup” –>”Cyclopean” –>”Misshaping Introduction”–>”Split Like a Lip, No Blood on the Beard”–>”Sleep Gets Your ghost”–>”Tending the Talk”
In the living room of Macaulay Culkin’s New York City apartment, canvases occupy the space like so many peculiar yet irresistibly magnetic house guests. The room—converted into an art studio—is congested with the vestiges of creativity at work: bottles of paint huddle together in bunches, and paintbrushes spring up like wild vegetation.
What began in earnest in February 2012 as collaborative art-making between Culkin and two artist-musician friends Adam Green and Toby Goodshank—both formerly of the anti-folk band The Moldy Peaches—has coalesced into an art collective affectionately dubbed Three Men and a Baby, or 3MB. The collective’s first art show, a group of frenetic, eclectic, and irreverent paintings entitled Leisure Inferno, opens at Le Poisson Rouge (LPR) in New York’s Greenwich Village on Thursday, September 13.
As the title of the exhibition suggests, the prevailing motivation behind the making of the paintings was fun. That motivation naturally lent itself to a work environment rooted in playful camaraderie. Culkin—who goes by the name “Mack”—explains the open-ended process of beginning a painting: “We would take two or three words—‘disco’…’luau’…’Hellraiser’—and we’d all just kind of giggle about that. ‘Alright, let’s do it.’ We have no idea really what it’s going to look like, or what our grand vision is, but we would have a good old laugh and just go for it. And I think the results speak for themselves in a certain kind of way.”
The collaborative dynamic at work, while much more common in music, is rare in visual art. “Certainly we all have different techniques but we found it fun to paint together at the same time, explains Green. “Just literally three people standing in front of the canvas with paintbrushes and painting at the same time.” Perhaps this distinctive process can be linked to the brotherly bond between the artists. “The connection I feel with them is pretty extraordinary,” says Goodshank. “It’s lovely to get together with them all the time.”
The show is populated with canvases wrought with wild colors ranging from bright quasi-fluorescents to darker, muddier hues; the style of shapes and brushstrokes vary with each new figure in the painting. Most of the works either incorporate multimedia collage or strongly hint at it. In “Hellraiser Disco Luau,” the cartoon-inspired pig and mouse do the hula near a grass-skirt-wearing Pinhead and a highly abstract , serpentine version of Garfield—all underneath a glittering disco ball, ocean-side. While this hyperactive melange of pop culture references and visual eye candy can be dizzying at first glance, a cohesiveness emerges amidst the seeming nonsensical and disparate elements. “I think we took a slant with it where there were really no mistakes,” says Mack. “There was nothing wrong with a piece. I might have painted that corner differently than him, but it looks right. There are no mistakes in a show like this.”
Even with all the thematic non sequiturs and “low brow” imagery—and perhaps because of it—Three Men and a Baby seem acutely aware of their distinct interplay with highbrow art and the implications of that relationship. Mack elaborates:
You go to the Met or something like that, and you see some of the paintings from the Renaissance era. A lot of those were probably the most technically proficient paintings in the entire museum. However, when you go to the Modern wing, they might not be as technically proficient, might not have as much skill—but those are the kind of things you want on your wall. Well, what do we want to put on our wall? It’s not necessarily about technique, it’s more about the ideas. It’s more about just what you want to look at.
Green has a decidedly more tongue-in-cheek perspective. “We didn’t have a lot to compare it to,” he says of 3MB. “We didn’t feel like we were competing with other three-men collaborative painting groups.”
The ideas in Leisure Inferno are zany, sometimes edgy, but brimming with satirical affection. “RBI” portrays a baseball game in which Luigi pitches a fireball to former New York Yankee Don Mattingly. Elsewhere, Mario wanders through a gloomy expressionist landscape as Jean-Michel Basquiat and JonBenét Ramsay look on from distant perches in “Jean Benet Basquiat.”
In “Cast of Seinfeld,” Jerry and Kramer stand on the set of “Wheel of Fortune” as they serve as nude models for the artists He-Man and Orko (Masters of the Universe). While these fabricated scenes are undoubtedly bizarre, there was an intriguing layer of reality that only added to the surreality. “There was some awareness that even Mack could be in a Leisure Inferno painting, you know?” says Green. “I think that is interesting.”
The first manifestation of what would become the 3MB Collective goes back to 2010, during the making of Green’s independently made feature-length film The Wrong Ferrari. Shot entire on an iPhone, the movie starred both Green and Culkin, with Goodshank shooting much of the film; all three collaborated on the set designs. Featuring ample amounts of provocation and pop culture, thoughtfulness and blistering self-awareness, the film was later made available for free online. “[Leisure Inferno] was more of a holdover from making the film…And it was just like, ‘Why don’t we try to focus that into a group art show?” Culkin explains. ” ‘Why don’t we keep this momentum up, [this] creativity?’ Next thing you know we’re doing Leisure Inferno.”
For Culkin, Goodshank, and Green alike, this art collective debut marks several milestones in their respective careers. Goodshank, a skilled draughtsman who had previously worked primarily with pen and ink, was new to the medium of painting prior to the collaboration. “I find that working with Mack and Adam, they’re constantly inspiring me and encouraging me,” says Goodshank of his foray into painting. For Green—a voracious painter who has had two solo shows this year alone—Leisure Inferno represents his first official group exhibition. The exhibition at Le Poisson Rouge will be Culkin’s public debut as visual artist. Green seems to sense an adventurous, risk-taking spirit inherent in the collective’s work. “ I do think that that attitude of just doing something for fun benefited the show a lot,” says Green. “It allowed us to be prolific and to work without fear.”
The Leisure Inferno exhibition at LPR continues through December 15, 2012.
No Sleep ‘Till Berlin: Toby Goodshank and the Waking Dream of Truth Jump Fall (EXCLUSIVE–VIDEO PREMIERE)
A Post-Post-Rock Exclusive! The video premiere of “The Journey Back Down Jump Truth Mountain,” directed by Nathan Gulick, from Toby Goodshank’s 2011 album Truth Jump Fall. This premiere and subsequent review of Truth Jump Fall is the first in an in-depth series of three articles about the life, music, and visual art of Goodshank–a “TG Triptych,” essentially.
After amassing a more-than-substantial solo discography of over 15 albums (not to mention numerous other collaborations), in October 2011 singer-songwriter/NYC anti-folk mainstay Toby Goodshank released what would be his last solo record stateside before his forthcoming move to Berlin. At eight songs, this collection entitled Truth Jump Fall combines the length of an EP with the thoughtfulness and serious intent of a full-length.
The genesis of the album is an intriguing one. After recurring nightmares related to the passing of his father a few years ago had subsided, Goodshank began to have a series of vivid dreams instead, from which Truth Jump Fall would emerge. Rather than dreaming narrative scenes, the artist envisioned melodies, lyrics, and instrumental passages. One gets the sense that Goodshank had no other choice but to sing these songs and document them for the world at large.
The video for Goodshank’s “The Journey Back Down Truth Jump Mountain”–directed by Nathan Gulick, with costume design by Liz Abbot–is a narrative snapshot of a young social outlier making her way down Hollywood Boulevard, an area Gulick refers to as “like a seedy shopping mall.” “Toby mentioned to me that a lot of the writing of the album came from dream imagery so I wanted it to be dream-like, nightmare-ish [sic] really,” explains Gulick. “The back story is of someone that maybe got a little bit of a break, overplayed it and alienated her friends, moved to LA and then blew it, and ended up lost on Hollywood Blvd.”
In casting the video’s protagonist, Gulick explains the choice of Pepper Bridge:
We had a small casting session and found a couple actresses that looked cool but not rough and vulnerable like Pep. They had to be able to rock the Elvis shades (which were for a long time a Goodshank staple) without looking too ‘rockstar’ – they had to be more like they were a pose or a shield.
Pepper Bridge’s character is estranged from the world in which she finds herself, yet is undeterred by her troubled presence in it. She comes across as an extension of the characters that steadfastly trudge through Goodshank’s songs–the real-life embodiment of the experiences and feelings expressed in the music.
Produced, arranged, engineered, and mixed by Jack Dishel—a former bandmate with Goodshank in The Moldy Peaches—the album Truth Jump Fall is a group of tightly coiled, highly personal songs that showcase a solo artist brimming with maturity. There is a sweet vulnerability throughout, tempered with an unwavering resolve lying just under the surface. As with all Goodshank songs, the songwriter’s voice is the nucleus around which the other musical parts move. An endearing nasal tone that hints at The Decemberists’ Colin Meloy intertwines seamlessly with the melodic phrasing and corporeal lyrical sensibility of Jeff Mangum (formerly of Neutral Milk Hotel). The resulting alchemy yields a deceptive musical concoction with a rather paradoxical taste: an ethereal, nonthreatening mouth-feel at first sip, it finishes with raw earthiness. It’s all very bittersweet, and it works. A perfect encapsulation of this signature quality of the Toby Goodshank persona can be found in the opening lines of the album closer “My Reflection”:
Horrible companion, you mean to do me harm/Disenfranchised concubine, catch a bullet scar/ Within you, jacked off to the desert sand/ We’re both failures clutching ruined plans
Goodshank’s world is populated with weathered yet beautiful souls—his among them—mangled in their circumstance; but the artist’s take always avoids judgement. He is reverentially honest in his insightful takes on the fragile human psyche and its simultaneously conflicting emotional states, a fact evidenced even in song titles such as “Baby I Feel Like Just Got Cut in Half.” As stated in the incisive “Prelude to Fire,” an album highlight, the prevailing philosophy of the album seems to be “When truth collides with revisionist attitudes, we will not place blame, we will seek a higher plane.”
Given the melancholic focus of the singer’s words, this higher plane is in part only achievable through the potency of Goodshank’s musical accompaniment, with its carefully crafted combination of propellant power-chord riffs, and folksy “comfort food” finger-picking—which possess a kind of mystical life-affirming power of their own. In this way, what otherwise could have been pessimistic songcraft dominated by its indebtedness to the lyrical legacies of post-punk and grunge instead evinces a sobering hope without detracting from unwavering emotional realities.
The vitality of Jack Dishel’s contribution to the record can’t be overstated: he provides the bulk of the additional instrumentation with understated atmospherics and economical, somehow intimate arrangements that closely hug the minimalist, lo-fi songwriting of aesthetic of Goodshank.
Truth Jump Fall can be found at Toby Goodshank’s Bandcamp site.
When Canadian singer-songwriter Basia Bulat takes the stage each night in support of the headlining folk rock band Bowerbirds, she does so without a setlist. This seems rather akin to a trapeze artist performing without the aid of a net. It also reveals an unselfish attitude toward the songs themselves, a conceit that the songs are what ultimately compel the artist’s performance to do what it does, and that the artist can choose to embrace or reject the inherent danger in that vulnerable, “netless” feat.
At a recent Thursday evening concert at The Tralf in Buffalo, N.Y., there was an earnest patience, an indefatigable generosity running throughout her performance. Owning a voice that sounds as if it’s been burnished by the glowing sunrise, she combines youthful exuberance with a knowing gravitas. The multi-instrumentalist’s songs often dwell on memory, specifically the recollection that we’re ultimately beholden to the people and things that hold our hearts captive. “Snakes and Ladders,” the heart-rending but uptempo ballad that arrived early in the set, reinforced this lyrical theme with Bulat’s stirring yet simply stated admission: “I love the way we come undone.” At the heart of the set was “Gold Rush,” a melancholy and restlessly eager song in which the narrator conveys the loss of a loved one who leaves in an ultimately vain search for an unspecified treasure.
In speaking with Bulat prior to the evening’s concert, it seemed that telling tragic stories through song was inexorable, and that there was something inherently beautiful about that reality. She recalled a story she was once told about the First Nations of Canada:
When the Klondike Gold Rush began, one of the tribal leaders at the time went across the river down however many kilometers away to a related tribe—not the same tribe, neighbors pretty much—and said, ‘Here are our songs and dances. Remember them, pass them down to your people because we’re gonna forget our songs. And when we’re ready, teach them back to us’….[the song] ‘Gold Rush’ is more about not forgetting a story even though it’s not the nicest story, even though maybe it’s about greed, and it’s about your own greed, possibly.
Throughout her music, Bulat maintains an awareness about the existence of selfishness embedded in one’s love for another. Her songs unfurl all the complications of love and then repackage them in a three or four-minute span. For all its mystery, an explanation is simple and forthcoming. “There are certain things that I can only express in a song,” she says. “I can’t really say it any other way.”
Bulat doesn’t shy away from the things that only others can express in song either. In her cover of the indie cult classic “True Love Will Find You in the End,” the plaintive simplicity of songwriter Daniel Johnston’s original remains intact. But whereas Johnston sounds detached—as if reinforcing someone else’s hope while implicitly abandoning his own—Bulat imbues the song with warmth it was previously lacking. In talking about her attraction to a particular song or artist, she invokes a fittingly musical analogy.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m just this string, and when two strings are in tune, they kind of vibrate in a different way than when they’re out of tune,” she explains. “Sometimes I feel like I pick whatever I’m most attuned to.”
Basia Bulat’s current North American tour, in support of Bowerbirds, concludes with a show at Music Hall of Williamsburg in Brooklyn, N.Y. on Saturday, June 23. Visit the Music Hall of Williamsburg website for more information.
As I left the Crossing Brooklyn Ferry Festival on its closing night, Saturday, May 5, I couldn’t escape the feeling that I had wasted so much time—not at the festival itself, but long before.
I had grown up listening to music oblivious to the domineering constructs of ubiquitous genre definition, the invisible architecture of non-substantive taste. I’m not sure which attitude was worse—contented ignorance of how the conventions of constant classification had put unnecessary limits on my musical discoveries, or my more recent belief that the use of genre labels to separate real/perceived differences in music was a necessary evil.
Upon experiencing Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,however— the New York City festival that Bryce Dessner and Aaron Dessner of the band The National were commissioned by Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) to curate—genre distinctions emerged more grossly superficial than ever before.
Conceptually, the approach of the brothers Dessner seemed straight-forward and unadorned—invite artists and musicians whom they liked and respected to perform. The performances throughout the three-day festival, which began on Friday, May 3, were distributed among three separate performance spaces at BAM: the intimate Rose Cinemas, which hosted both musical sets and the screenings of nine short films by Bill Morrison, Matthew Ritchie, and others; the versatile BAMCafé, the site of performances by a truly eclectic mix of musicians—the Jack Quartet, Buke and Gase, yMusic, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, and Oneohtrix Point Never among them; and the Howard Gilman Opera House, which functioned as a “main stage” for such artists as So Percussion, The Antlers, Tyondai Braxton, St. Vincent, My Brightest Diamond, and Beirut.
Above all, the genius of Crossing Brooklyn Ferry was in the logistics. The performances in each of the three venues overlapped with one another, with festival patrons moving freely from one space to the other. By design, one could catch the beginning 15 to 30 minutes of the film screenings, catch the middle of an Opera House performance, and then head upstairs to the café for the open bar and the end of another set.
The formality that audiences may have come to expect at performances by composer Judd Greenstein and The Yehudim, violist Nadia Sirota, the NOW Ensemble, and others was jettisoned. And by having three simultaneous options at any given time, the experience of the listener/viewer felt varied and organic. Yet because all of the scheduled performances are staggered, as opposed to scheduling acts during approximately the same block of times, the festivalgoer had more genuine choices with which to craft an individual experience of musical discovery. Instead of the masses herding themselves from one stage to the next at the pre-appointed time, it seemed impossible that any two people had the exact same experience.
Apart from Bryce Dessner’s annual MusicNOW Festival in Cincinnati, the Ecstatic Music Festival, established in 2011 by the above mentioned Judd Greenstein, is Crossing Brooklyn Ferry’s most immediate and relevant predecessor. The creative circles of both Ecstatic and Brooklyn Ferry are essentially concentric; several artists, including My Brightest Diamond, So Percussion, Buke and Gase, yMusic, Missy Mazzoli and Victoire, Jherek Bischoff, and Richard Reed Parry of Arcade Fire have contributed to both festivals.
Such artists are inherently uninhibited by the dichotomy of vernacular versus formal, to which I had subconsciously adhered. And both festivals are excellent environments in which to be stylistically unencumbered.
But while each festival begins with the premise “Let’s have makers of great music all play on one bill,” the central conceits that Ecstatic and Brooklyn Ferry each project to their audiences differ in telling ways. The qualitative difference lies not in the music itself, but in the way the music is presented.
The Ecstatic Music Festival has from its inception clearly delineated which artist was more “classical” and which was more colloquial in each of its collaborative performances: So Percussion with Dan Deacon, Anonymous 4 with The Mountain Goats, composer Rhys Chatham with Oneida, etc.
But the mere acknowledgment of these genre distinctions lend them a validity that I sense is unintended. The result seems to be a contradictory concession of sorts that says using genre distinctions are vital to explaining why genre distinctions are unnecessary. The paradox is typified in the festival website’s heralding of “contemporary ‘post-classical’ music.” If labels were truly inconsequential and ultimately irrelevant, there would be no reason to employ them in the setup. Somehow, it undercuts the authenticity and dynamism of Ecstatic, and credence is given to the invisible yet still perceptible wall between classical and non-classical.
The Crossing Brooklyn Ferry Festival seeks to showcase the aforementioned borough’s music scene , but makes no effort to address genre at all. This approach suggests a way toward ensuring that the once obtrusive architectural eyesores of musical labels are not merely just invisible, but altogether intangible.
My latest article, a profile of composer and singer/songwriter Shara Worden (of My Brightest Diamond) can be found exclusively at NewMusicBox. Below is the accompanying video–complete with interview footage and performance clips–produced by NewMusicBox Executive Editor Molly Sheridan.
On November 5, singer-songwriter Gelsey Bell presents the premiere of her song cycle Scaling at this year’s Vital Vox Festival, a two-day series dedicated to expectation-defying vocalists as composer-performers. In an attempt to defy our own expectations for our interview, Bell and I decided to experiment with the format of our discussion. A modified “A & Q” ensued, in which I offered statements and the composer responded with a question as often as possible. Here is the result:
Daniel J. Kushner: The world premiere of Scaling will be presented as part of the Vital Vox Festival. According to the press release, the performance will involve a borrowed piano, a house plant, and a pair of shoes. It seems like these three items have a certain prominence in the cycle that one previously may not have given them before.
Gelsey Bell: Let me know if you agree: I’m hoping to use the theatrical and metaphorical world of certain everyday objects or everyday situations within the fabric of the piece…I feel like often in musical contexts there are things like, OK, we’re borrowing a piano, or this is the piano of the space, and I want to think about how to actually bring that situation into the artwork itself, so that we’re not ignoring that fact. Maybe some people don’t ignore that fact. It’s wrapped up in what kind of performance you’re doing. And then maybe the house plant and the change of shoes will make more sense within the context of the show, and maybe it won’t. That probably depends on how people are making sense of things.
DK: It sounds like you’re giving the audience more responsibility for the narrative, like a narrative is a more subjective thing that results from an audience member’s perspective rather than an authoritative version of what’s happening.
GB: Do you think that that is that unusual?
DK: No, not necessarily. I don’t think it’s usually so overt. It happens all the time in art, and it’s important for art to do that, but I don’t think we’re usually so conscious of it. It happens more or less automatically when art is effective, but it’s good to challenge oneself and challenge others to come to their own conclusions more actively. I’m all in favor of anything that engages somebody in a way that they haven’t previously been engaged.
GB: Yeah, totally. I can only hope that that’s something I’m able to do. Have you noticed how oftentimes playfulness doesn’t show up in the more serious art contexts, how seriousness can really overcome what would otherwise be playfulness?
DK: Yes. I think it’s something so ubiquitous that I don’t even think about it. You being a singer-songwriter, I think this really ties in well—singer-songwriters who make “serious music,” whatever that means, they seem hesitant to do things that make them seem more lofty or somehow give them more responsibility than they think they’re do, specifically in regards to the idea of thinking of themselves as composers. And if you’re thinking about things in a pop song idiom, you’re somehow taking yourself less seriously.
GB: I feel like I don’t want to answer this as a question so that I can actually engage with what you’re saying. I’m part of an ensemble called thingNY, which is a group of composer-performers, and I’m the singer in it. Other people do both popular music and classical music, but I very much have not taken on the composer title for a very strong reason, and I talk with them a lot about this. I really feel like the way I compose music is song-based, and for a lot of people in that world, I think they think it’s really silly of me to keep the singer-songwriter title, because there’s a hierarchy between the two, and they don’t understand why I’m embracing the lower of the hierarchy.
But for me, I kind of get this punk rock attitude, like, Come on you guys, I’m not going to take that hierarchy seriously, and I really think of music in terms of song, and I really think of myself on a trajectory with singer-songwriters, and I don’t look at one being more serious than the other. That’s really just an institutional myth that has been put in place to help people get funding and to feel better about themselves. That’s something I feel really strongly about, as being someone in both of those worlds. For this song cycle, I’m very much musically, taking a lot from the singer-songwriter part of the world that I’ve been in. We’ll see how the non-singer-songwriters feel about that.
DK: Historically, it’s not factual to say that there’s a dichotomy between composers and singer-songwriters. Schubert was a songwriter, Mahler even, obviously Ives. Those are just a few.
GB: Yeah, and I think part of the difference, too, if you look at the history of classical music for instance, it also has to do with performing your own music, and I think part of the mystique of the composer comes from composers who don’t perform their own music. But it’s like you say, you go back to Bach, he performed all of his stuff. Or Liszt or something like that, so I feel like the term that I’m seeing more and more of—the composer-performer—is really the same as the singer-songwriter, only singer-songwriters are vocalists and composer-performers are not necessarily vocalists.
DK: It does seem to me that with the phenomenon of the composer-performer, the current generation is involved more than ever with the execution of its own work.
GB: Yeah. And why do you think that is? (I feel like I’m Socrates or something.)
DK: I think it’s out of necessity, mainly. I think that it’s in order to promote one’s work and to make sure it gets presented to the public. It’s a function of practicality. It also makes a lot more sense particularly because composers’ work is more inter-related with other composers’ work. There’s less a sense of exclusive ownership—This is a piece that I wrote.
GB: I wonder—I haven’t thought of it that way. I certainly think it’s so that the work will get put out there, and I think a lot of composers are put into situations where they realize their work is never going to be heard if they’re not part of performing it. And I also think that a lot of composers end up learning a lot from that experience, in many ways influencing how they then go back to writing. I haven’t thought about how it’s connected to not feeling ownership. Are you connecting that to sampling and how the lines of ownership have changed so much just because the music business has been changing so much, in terms of recording?
DK: Not necessarily—I‘m thinking about the extent to which composers in the New York scene seem to be collaborating with one another and within other disciplines.
GB: And do you think that’s connected to the band situation, how for so long, it would be like OK, well, the Beatles wrote this? You know that the songs John sings, he wrote, and the songs Paul sings, he wrote, but all together, it’s all under the moniker of the band, and you never know what people come up with and what they don’t come up with. So the ownership ends up being a more collaborative thing, period.
DK: Yeah, I do. I would venture to say that the majority of composers working today either grew up with or have otherwise been influenced by rock music, hip-hop, or any other music style that has galvanized youth culture within the past 60 years or so. It’s a reference point that a lot of people have.
GB: Not only is everyone being influenced musically by the strand of mainstream rock ‘n’ roll and popular music, which is the majority of what most people are listening to, but also that the way those people deal with their music is influencing the classical, or contemporary classical, or new music—or whatever term I’m supposed to use now. Just because you can see, They’re forming a band, they’re going on tour or They’re putting out a record, and that’s how people are getting to know their music or They’re going about funding their lives as musicians this way or the social interaction they’re having with their collaborators and with the producer is happening this way. I feel like all of those situations that surround the lives of popular music musicians—people who are coming out of more academic situations are starting to see that, and there’s starting to be more of a cross-pollination between those two social worlds around music, not just in terms of the music style or how people listen to it but how the musicians themselves function in their role of I’m a musicians, this is what I do for a living.
DK: I would be remiss to not talk about art song. I’ve found that “art song” can mean different things to different people. Someone can pick a single attribute of art song and use that attribute to form his or her definition—maybe it means more chromatic chord progressions, maybe it means through-composed as opposed to verse-chorus-verse-chorus. Arts songs can exist in a pop song guise and pop songs can exist in an art song guise. The fluidity of the definition is interesting—it doesn’t seem like something you can pin to the wall and display in a butterfly case.
GB: I don’t know what to think about the category of art song at this point, actually. I feel like the strongest place where I can put it on the wall as a butterfly is when I’m looking at Italian art songs from 150 years ago, and I can say, Alright, well that’s an art song. This is part of a category of this historical group of art songs. Today in the contemporary world, in all honesty, it’s not a term that I use, although I guess I could. But I feel like if the term is used, it’s used to “up the rep” of some music in a way that it doesn’t necessarily need to be, or it can indicate, I’m going to sing a song in a classical style, and I’m gonna sing Bel Canto, which normally doesn’t mean pop music. And then the big difference is the compositional writing and the arrangement, but it’s also literally the kind of vocal technique you’re using, and when that’s used with non-classical voices, then it becomes this issue of Why do you need to “up the rep” of the music you’re doing?
I’m using the term “song cycle” for Scaling because I’m really grouping these songs together. If I was making an album, I guess I could say it was a “concept album.” But I’m also just thinking of the piece as a theatrical whole, if that makes any sense. I wrote the songs knowing that they would be performed live. One of the things I do with the song cycle is I play the piano in unconventional ways while I’m singing songs. And so I’m grouping them together, thinking about it as a theatrical, coherent performance, and in that way, the term “song cycle” made a lot of sense, but I didn’t necessarily think of it as I need to put these pop songs together, and if I call it a song cycle people will take it more seriously, and I can do it in different venues.
DK: Perhaps you can go into specifics about what makes the piano playing unconventional.
GB: One of the songs in the cycle I wrote so that I’m lying on top of the piano and I play the piano while I’m singing from on top. So I’m playing the keyboard from the other side, which is a totally different way of engaging with the keyboard. I basically use that physical position to enhance the emotional quality of what I’m singing about. Often when I write songs, I’m playing the piano, and I think, Well let’s say I want more minor chords, because that fits the mood or Let’s say I want this kind of rhythm because that fits the mood of the emotional energy behind the lyrics. I wanted to take that to another level, where I was keeping in mind What are the physical positions of my body, and what do they say about the words I’m saying?
So I have a song where I’m playing the piano from the other side, which is really disorienting, and also, Where is she? Why isn’t she sitting in front of the keyboard? Or I have a song where I’m playing it with my knees, and so the physical position I’m in while I’m doing that makes me literally feel very different. Or I have one where I’m playing the keyboard turned away from it, so it’s as if I’m chained to the piano, like I have to keep playing it but it’s like I’m trying to get away from it, and that very much is tied into the words I’m saying, and to ultimately how I’m trying to explore what it means to really be tied to an instrument, or we can think about that in even bigger metaphorical terms. And I’m trying to really bring that out more of my singer-songwriter world, because that’s where I really engage the piano, whereas the stuff I do as vocalist in experimental contexts is often just the voice.
For more information on the Vital Vox Festival, visit the official website.