Alex Kelly Cd Release Extravaganza

I don’t usually post “reviews” about shows I’ve seen.  They are somehow too ephemeral –  once they are past, they can only exist in my memory of them. ( In my case, memories quickly become dusty and should be treated with a great deal of skepticism.)  I simply had to bend my own rules after witnessing what I witnessed last night at Beatbox in San Francisco.

Here’s why:  It was one of the most generous performances I have seen in a long time.  However, I’m biased.  I’ve gotten to know Alex a bit over the past few months after he graced my new record (go here for more information on that if you are piqued) with his inspired cello-work.  Alex is one of those musicians whose heart pours through his instrument.  His playing exudes kindness and sensitivity.  What I think I was least prepared for last night was the scope of Alex’s musical landscape.  How often can you hear cellos playing gritty blues one minute and ethereal “soundtracks to a moment in your life” the next; toe curling flamenco as an appetizer to the most sumptuous string quartets ala Joan Jeanrenaud  (who was but one of the many special guests – you know – Kronos Quartet?)

There was the batty, but kind hearted, juggler who subjected some hapless guy from the audience to a frighteningly clumsy episode using some sort of flashlight taser contraption – three of them actually – before juggling them, perched upon an incredibly tall unicycle.  We were treated to a magician(?) who was able to guess the most absolutely random shit I’ve ever seen in my life.  I’m still scratching my noggin over this guy.  How he anticipated one phone number from the San Francisco White Pages is completely beyond me.  Towards the end of the evening Alex was joined by Dan Cantrell – one of the most astounding accordionists you have ever heard in your life (at one point my friend turned to me and said “The least he could do is look at the keyboard every now and then to make it look hard.”) – in a delicate duet called “Whispers”.  As if the sheer beauty of this piece wasn’t enough they were joined by a dancer(?), acrobat(?), what was he?, who balanced and gently undulated 8 glass balls in his hands.  It was utterly mesmerizing.

But the glue, the very fabric of the evening was Alex and his cello.  I’m posting the link to his cdbaby site so that you can click on it and then buy his record.  The way I see it – his generosity should be rewarded with ours.

Buy his cd now:  Alex Kelly “Solos”


Preconception as a Limit to Listening

As a species, our ability to preconceive has allowed us considerable success in our survival.  This skill depends upon a highly sophisticated use of pattern recognition and, subsequently, pattern prediction.  What probably started off as a somewhat mythical re-cognition – a feeling of again – evolved into a highly complex knowledge of, not only cyclical variants of large scale events (like seasons) but, minutia of complex behavioral systems. (Remember, the intent here is to talk about music.  A proper discussion of the crumbling of this ability – vis a vis Fukushima, climate change, and an infinite growth economy based on finite fossil fuels – will have to be relegated to someone else’s blog.)   So… though our species now has the ability to hurl a spacecraft into the tail of a comet careening through the cosmos at unimaginable speed, most of the population is completely dumbfounded by free jazz.  The reason for this?  The two principles are working at cross purposes.  It is the very ability to preconceive that disallows us the pleasure of enjoying much of the creativity in the field of modern music.

Think about it:  if your favorite Dave Matthews song were suddenly interrupted by an interlude consisting of Bagpipe, Banjo, Accordion, and a Tuvan throat singer, your preconceived notion  of  how that song was supposed to unfold would be severely disappointed.  The question is, however, how does this same process unfold in a song you’ve never heard?  Usually if the deviation is slight enough –  an unexpected bridge or chorus, a chord change that came out of the blue – it has the potential to delight us or at least engage our attention.  In 99.9% of those examples, however, the variation still fits somehow within the paradigm provided by our Western upbringing – that “unexpected” chord is still harmonically “correct”.   Now, granted, these are incredibly sweeping generalizations, but the spirit of the argument is this: we expect certain patterns from the music we listen to, and these expectations have the potential to prevent us from being fully engaged in an experience of Listening.  We end up disliking a whole genre of music simply due to the fact that we’ve never been provided any guidance in opening our skills of listening.  As David Stubbs says in his book “Fear of Music”, almost anyone can go to a museum and appreciate something as abstract as a Jackson Pollack painting, but a very small percentage of the population can sit down and enjoy (much less have heard of) a Stockhausen concert.

I am by no means recommending that anyone try and rid themselves of their preconceptions, not only do I think this impossible (unless aided by a kindly psychotropic substance) but, in the long run, unhelpful.  I see the “problem” as more of an opportunity – a portal into an awareness of the lenses through which we view music (and subsequently the world).  What I have found, personally, through continuously opening my ears to new music, is that my paradigmatic assumptions have not only broadened, but have actually shifted.  I no longer listen to music in the way that I did even five years ago.  The task could perhaps be paraphrased as this: instead of listening with one’s mind, we listen through the mind. We don’t try to go into some sort of magical trance state and bypass the rational mind, but we engage the rational mind in examining itself!  Our species has evolved into a state of consciousness that is self-reflective – we know that we think and can think about how we think.  Music has the potential to deepen our awareness of ourselves, into how we feel, how we think, and how we view the world.  It has the potential to reveal our paradigmatic assumptions and allow us to move past them.

By deeply engaging with our experience of music, there is the possibility of transcendence.  By reframing the statement “I don’t like that!” with a question or two: “How did that not meet my expectation of what music is supposed to be?” “How did I arrive at that expectation?” “Where do I draw the line as to what is music and what isn’t music?”: we may begin to extend the boundary of our aesthetic values and at the same time learn about ourselves and what informs our decisions about the world.  Even if the end result is that, dammit, those bagpipes just don’t belong in that Dave Matthews song, our knowledge of ourselves can only make the world a better place.

Seaworthy+Matt Rösner- Two Lakes

We live in a predominantly visual world.  Our sense of place is highly determined by what is seen.  Even our sense of Time, if one really thinks about it, is primarily arranged in consciousness by spatial elements – how long will it take me to get from here to there.  When we go abroad, we go out to see the sights. At a paradigmatic level, modern society has fallen into what A. N. Whitehead calls the fallacy of misplaced concreteness – mistaking the map for the territory, the formula for the phenomenon.  (Ask a physicist about gravity and they will most likely show you this: g_h=g_0\left(\frac{r_e}{r_e+h}\right)^2.  Rarely, if ever, will they admit that they really don’t know what the hell gravity is, or begin waxing poetic and refer to it as Love or Allurement.) Representations of our world are visual representations: photographs and maps tell us what our world is, tell us our place in that world, even tell us a bit about our cosmology and world view.  For instance, do we live in a world surrounded by the numinous or a world that is floating in a vast empty space divided and fractured by politics?

Do we live in this world?

Or this one?

On the other hand… how often have we “taken a trip back home” and experienced a felt sense of security, of belonging, of place, not from the seen but the heard?  One hears the stillness of a humid summer: the singing of locusts, the lapping waves of the lake, the soft trickling of the creek, those particular bird songs that you didn’t realize you missed. One hears the hard fragility of winter: the soft crackling of iced tree limbs, the delicate drip of icicles in the afternoon sun, even that unmistakable silence of early morning snowfall.  Are these sensations not as integral to our sense of place as the landmarks? But how often do we appreciate and allow ourselves the opportunity to tune-in to the our primal world of sound. A world, perhaps, prior to the symbolic forms of language?

Seaworthy and Matt Rösner allow us this very opportunity.  “Two Lakes” is a sound study of two coastal lake ecosystems at the lakes Meroo and Termeil.  What is perhaps most striking about this recording is the delicate interplay between the sounds of the environment and the electro-acoustic sounds of the musicians.  The relationship begs the question of the liminal space between the two.  Where does one end and the other begin?  The human urge to music making is ubiquitous and primal.  It seems to spring forth effortlessly from some deep well of experience; one that hearkens back to an aspect of our evolutionary roots where “vision” was merely the play of chiaroscuro – the dance of light and shadow – and our expression of being-ness flowed, unhindered by rational thought, back into the world through song, through music.

“Two Lakes” conveys our deep, abiding relationship to the world of sound; our attempts to commune with our landscape – a landscape that is no mere cartography of what is “out there”, but the landscape of relationship – one that has no reservations to define gravity as Love.

Listen to some samples here:

Steve Tibbetts – Natural Causes

It would be easy to say that Tibbett’s new album, Natural Causes, is beautiful, sublime, or elegant.  It would be easy to address its austerity, restraint, or subtlety.  We might even come at it from the perspective of the good old music theorist who attempts to dissect each song into its modal qualities, its shifting rhythms, or the complexities of its harmonic structure.  Both the adjectival and the rational/theoretical approach somehow fall far short of conveying Tibbetts’ real achievement here: the transmission of spiritual immanence. We could certainly begin such a discussion by pointing to his previous work with Choying Drolma – Cho (1997) and Selwa (2004) – both of which floated as if carried by clouds.  But it seems shallow to write off the felt sense of timelessness as a product of the East.  If we were to sink into the imagistic we could just as easily find ourselves in the sanctuary of Augustin or Aquinas as in the temple of the Tibetan monk; we might feel the bite of Himalayan wind or the warmth of a Central American cove; we could be exploring the pattern of clouds through a tangle of redwood or gazing from an office window, high above the city streets, at (or in a more tender moment, through) the swarming mass of humanity – the hungry ghosts, each with their joys and sorrows. It is true – this music conjures the East but it is also distinctly Western.  Somehow, though, these labels, upon closer inspection, dissolve.  But the result is not some watered down “world music” merely appropriating the Sounds of another culture into a commodified phantasm – but a seamless blending of spiritual wisdom-gleaned with the natural spirituality of inherited place.  Tibbetts’ time in Tibet is palpable, but it is impossible not to feel the years of Minnesota winters crystallizing through his music.  It feels tacky to insert some kind of pugnacious plug of popular global village rhetoric here. Perhaps a subtler reference toward Teilhard de Chardin might be in order:

Teilhard was a Catholic philosopher  best known for his revolutionary revision of evolution.  Instead of the traditional phylogenic approach begun by Darwin and his ilk, Teilhard used Consciousness as his common thread… all the way down… to the molecular… It is all Consciousness.  He gifted us with a spiritual telos involving what he called the Noosphere – a sphere of thought arising naturally from the Biosphere (the sphere of Life).  Technocrats might refer to this phenomenon as a manifestation of the Internet; the Earth centric among us may claim that Gaia herself has reached a new stage of her own consciousness through human thought; a cosmologist might see this nexus of self-reflection as the Universe looking back at herself.  For Teilhard, though, it is Life moving into the purely spiritual. Music has the capacity to act as a bridge to the non-rational, pre-verbal depths of consciousness – a world prior to the imagistic land of dream; prior to light and shadow; a world close to the skin – that permeable membrane “separating” our inside from our outside.  Music also acts as a vehicle of transcendence to the diaphanous realms of spirit.  Tibbetts and his long-time percussionist Marc Anderson traverse the vertical trajectory of the spirit, but also walk lightly along the horizontal – the connections that make us all too human, the aesthetics of culture and geography, the ineffable world of Feeling. So, yes, Natural Causes is beautiful; it is elegant; there is a depth of restraint and subtlety.  But how do we begin to describe the complex relationship of transcendence and immanence?  Words fall short in our attempts to describe the “space between”.  Perhaps this is where we turn to music as an expression of our pre-linguistic experience, and expression of that elusive quality we call Compassion.

One song that was not included on the cd is a cover of Villanova Junction by Jimi Hendrix.  Here’s a taste:

Matthew Herbert: Mahler X Recomposed

There have been many attempts to fully realize the splendor of what might have been Mahler’s 10th Symphony.  Succumbing to an infection of the blood at the age of 50, Mahler also fell prey to the “curse of the ninth”, so we will never really know what harmonic breakthroughs he would have gifted the world of music.  What he did leave behind, however, is akin to the vexing Reimann Hypothesis – the mystery of which gave purpose to generations of creative mathematicians.  Rather then attempt, however, some kind of speculative harmonic structure for the unfinished movements, Herbert takes as his starting point the “finished” Adagio as performed/recorded by The London Philharmonia under the direction of Giuseppe Sinopoli.

The music emerges from a pregnant wet silence, birds and the solo violin iterate Mahler’s plaintive melody – purportedly performed at Mahler’s gravesite.  From the start we feel less of an attachment to the 20th century classical tradition than we do a reminder of the dusty places we keep our memories.  The Symphony is re-recorded (reinvented) through a panoply of settings simultaneously weighty with meaning and banal: through a car stereo, inside a coffin, buried in an urn, etc.  We are brought to the brink of collapse, decay only to again be revitalized and reminded of music’s stubborn ability to remain.  Though a fitting tribute to a composer lost too soon, the music begins a deeper philosophical inquiry about life; it is about the act of listening; it is about immortality and on the same coin disintegration and mutability.  It is about the medium of recording, the method of playback – but most striking to this writer, is its tentative rattling of the gates of modern temporal sensibility. It begs the question – How does music reflect our fragmentary timeline of history, while retaining the unity of experience in memory?  The solo violin hovers the gravesite; it now haunts the space behind a door that was not there the night before.

Our epoch is one whose relationship to time is being deeply questioned.  Here the past is brought into the present and transmogrified.  One is reminded here of Marconi’s hopes that his wireless technology would enable him to hear the echoes of the Sermon on the Mount.  More deeply though, we think of the operator listening to the Titanic’s distress signals five hours after still ocean waters concealed the ship’s final resting place at the bottom of the Atlantic.

Herbert’s music is the beauty of the classical tradition revealed through the filters and aberrations of modernity.  One wonders how Mahler’s lush, tender melody survives the broken journey from the concert hall to the brittle realms of the digital domain… but it does.   The music is at once majestic and grand, and in the next moment fragile, distant, and faded. Like an old photograph, it portrays aspects of memory, the whole of which can never be captured.