Monday, November 30, 2009


Many writings on the compositions of John Cage refer to his practice of composing without an agenda. Certainly, when juxtaposed with many classical composers, contemporary and otherwise, it appears that Cage writes his music without an agenda, a motive, and end in mind. But I don't think this is so. I think Cage always had an agenda, or perhaps that's not the word for it. I believe Cage wrote music with intention, and this intention was different from the intentions of the other composers to which he is often compared.

Instead of writing with the intention of manipulation, with an Alfred Hitchcock-inspired formula for controlling the audience's emotions, Cage wrote music with the intention of giving the audience an experience, allowing them to feel however they chose to. The ambiguity of his compositions, rather than acting as an indication of lack of intention, serves to reveal his intention. I think people just assume that the intention isn't there, because they aren't expecting to have to regard music in such a way. It's an indirect analysis, really. Rather than the music itself appearing to perform the action that its composer intended, one has to regard Cage himself, and ask "now why would he do that?"

So maybe it's more fair to say that Cage had an agenda, but his music didn't...

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Rempis and Rosaly at Thomas More

You are hereby officially invited to end the semester in a joyfully indeterminate mode as Chicago jazz luminaries Dave Rempis (alto and tenor saxophone) and Frank Rosaly (drums) visit Thomas More College on December 11th for a very special workshop on the aesthetics of free improvisation. Both musicians are very active in the Chicago "experimental jazz " and improvised music scene, and both are frequent collaborators with drummer Tim Daisy (Klang, Vox Arcana). Rempis plays with Daisy in Vandermark 5, one of the most celebrated and influential ensembles to emerge from Chicago in the past decade. 7:oo p.m in the Science Lecture Hall. See below for more on Rempis and Rosaly.

"During live performances, Rosaly is intensely animated, so much so that it seems initially distracting. He hovers over the drums in constant motion, his shoulders rolling and arms twitching in anticipation of his next strike. He puts his whole body into the drumming, and once he really kicks the songs into high gear, his curious postures no longer seem unusual but rather essential. Whether he’s pounding away intensely or simply laying out a delicate hi-hat pattern, his motions seem to translate the sounds into body language, and watching him feel the music in that way really conveys the physicality of what the band is doing." --- Michael Patrick Brady, Pop Matters

Rosaly’s drumming is easily recognizable, on record and live . It melts between the perfect complimentary player and the ultimate standout. His rhythms are unstoppable and perfectly timed. His solos are imaginative and expressive. --Adam Kivel, Consequence of Sound



Over the last decade, Dave Rempis has emerged as one of the most active 

young players in the Chicago jazz and improvised music scene. Rempis 

graduated from Northwestern University in 1997 with a degree in anthropology, 

focusing in ethnomusicololgy, and a year spent at the University of Ghana, Legon 

in 1995-96.  Since 1998, his work with the Vandermark Five as the "other" 

saxophonist has established him as one of the up-and-coming voices of his 

generation, and has also provided him the opportunity to perform extensively in 

clubs, concert halls, and festivals throughout the U.S., Canada, and Europe.  His 

own groups, including the Rempis Percussion Quartet, Triage, The Engines, The 

Rempis/Daisy Duo, and The Dave Rempis Quartet, have toured regularly 

throughout Europe and North America, and have been documented on the 

Okkadisk, 482 Music, Solitaire, Utech, and Not Two record labels. In addition to 

these groups, Rempis plays regularly with Ken Vandermark's Territory Band, The 

Ingebrigt Haker-Flaten Quintet, The Outskirts, and the Rempis/Bishop/ 

Kessler/Zerang Quartet. His frequent ad hoc collaborations have included 

performances with Paul Lytton, Axel Doerner, Peter Brotzmann, Hamid Drake, 

Kevin Drumm, Paul Nilsson-Love, Tony Buck, David Stackenas, and Joe Morris.  

As a founding member of the Chicago presenters' collective Umbrella Music, 

Rempis curates a weekly concert series at Elastic, as well as the annual Umbrella 

Music Festival, now in its fourth year. Rempis has also been named as a Talent 

Deserving Wider Recognition in both the alto and baritone saxophone categories 

in the annual Downbeat Magazine International Critics’ Poll. 





Frank Rosaly is a percussionist and composer currently living in Chicago. Over 

the last 10 years he has become an integral part of the Chicago scene, 

navigating a fine line between the vibrant improvised music, indie-rock, 

experimental music, and jazz communities. He contributes much of his time to 

performing, composing, teaching, and organizing musical events, while 

managing a heavy touring schedule that takes him throughout North America 

and Europe.  


Frank is currently active in many different groups. Some of these include Rob 

Mazurek’s Mandarin Movie, The Rempis Percussion Quartet, The Ingebrigt Haker- 

Flaten Quintet, Jeff Parker/Nels Cline Quartet, Matana Robert's Chicago Project, 

Fred Lonberg-Holm’s Valentine Trio, Keefe Jackson’s Fast Citizens, The Jeb 

Bishop Trio, Jason Adasievicz’s Rolldown, Jorrit Dijkstra’s Flatlands Collective, 

The Chicago Lucern Exchange, and The Daniel Levin Trio. Rosaly also leads his 

own quintet, Viscous, featuring his original compositions. Other performances in 

the recent past include collaborations with Peter Brotzmann, Tony Malaby, 

Anthony Coleman, Paul Flaherty, Marshall Allen, Louis Moholo, Eric Boeren, Ken 

Vandermark, Michael Zerang, and Walter Weirbos, among many others. 

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Creative License

Just what requirements must a musician meet to "do a piece justice?" Where are limits, the parameters, the lines within which the musician must stay in order to "depict" the piece he or she plays... and what happens to the piece when these parameters are breached? In all fairness, I don't believe a line really exists, but historian and music writer, Stephen Davies once wrote an essay on the idea of authenticity in a musical performance that I thought was noteworthy.

First off, by "authenticity" Davies means, specifically, musical performances as performances of a particular composition (this, in contrast to authentic with respect to a musical style, or genre). That is, authenticity of a performance as a member of the entire class of performances recognized as that same composition, or a group of ideal performances of that piece. In short, "authentic" is used to acknowledge the creative role of the performer in faithfully realizing the composer's specifications.

Definitions out of the way, Davies first addresses the importance of the recreation of sounds in an authentic performance, as opposed to the recreation of "milieu," as he calls it. When Tchaikovsky wrote Swan Lake, he was probably intending for the score to be played by musicians using the instruments of and in the conditions available at the time. Therefore a decidedly authentic performance would employ the these types of conditions, for example, use of the instruments contemporary to the period of composition, an ensemble the size of which the composer had specified, and stylistic interpretation of the score in light of the practices and conventions of the time it was written in. But all of this is aimed at the recreation of the sound that the composer intended and nothing else. The ambiance within which the piece would have been presented to the composer' s contemporaries is not necessary (which rids of the potential mutiny of the orchestra at the proposition that they don leggings and ruffs) and the authenticity of the piece performed within a concert hall in front of a large audience is the same as that of the piece performed within an eighteenth century salon.

This said, Davies notes that the acoustics of the place in which certain compositions are performed does make a difference, and so there are buildings more suitable for some compositions and not others. Playing Beethoven's fifth symphony in a garage will not be as authentic as it performance in a concert hall with acoustics modified to reflect those of a wood-paneled room in which Beethoven might have had it performed. BUT this isn't because of the fact that the performance is in a garage and not a concert hall, instead, it's because the performance in the garage sounds different than in the concert hall. No tights or ruffs necessary. And if you're performing modern music written for modern settings, well, many problems like this become non issues.

This emphasis on the recreation of sound established, Davies stresses that the authenticity of a performance is judged against an ideal performance of the composition, rather than any one definitive performance. The sound that the authentic performance aspires to create is the sound that is possible, rather than actual. The notes written in the score, the directions written by the composer all must be observed, but even when this direction is given, it isn't always straightforward as to which and how each note is to be played and/or modified. Thus, tendencies of the performers of the composition at one time need not be the same as those tendencies of a performance at another time for both to be considered authentic. Also, the sounds sought to be faithfully reproduced need not be identical to those sounds produced at any one performance. Yes, a CD and a live performance of the same piece are allowed to sound different and both are equally authentic. Vivaldi, as played by an orchestra in Nebraska, is allowed to be different and yet is considered just as authentic as Vivaldi played by the symphony in New York.

Finally, Davies talks about the role that the composer's intentions play in the creation of an authentic performance. Long story short, he says that only those intentions which are normally accepted as definitive byt the conventions in which musical scores are read are relevant to judgements of authenticity. Translation: any other intentions that the composer might have had can be completely and totally ignored -and the piece is still in the running for being called authentic. Mwwa ha ha ha ha ha!!! And I have to agree with Davies on this point. The experience of the composer in creating music is different than that of the performer's creating music and though the composer may have written a piece with a certain intention, once that score is down on paper, it takes on an identity of its own. That's the great thing (and perhaps frustrating thing) about art. Once it's out there, it's still credited to the artist, but the world can interpret the work however it so chooses.

So, I think Davies explains the authenticity of a musical performance much the way a professor might consider a history paper. The author has to have the facts right, has to stay within the parameters of what is accepted as non-fiction, but once those bases are covered, he or she is given license to deduce from the facts whatever they want -and it's still an acceptable research paper.

Friday, November 20, 2009

'A Love Supreme' With Strings

John Coltrane's A Love Supreme is a jazz classic, powerful and seemingly untouchable since its conception... sort of. Just a few months ago, the Turtle Island Jazz Quartet is said to have done this iconic piece justice, and with strings, to boot. The group released A Love Supreme: The Legacy of John Coltrane in April of 2007, and they recently performed a live version, at the Merkin Concert Hall in New York City receiving a Grammy for their audacity in reworking the seminal album (and probably because it sounded okay too). An ambitious take on the music of John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and others, the centerpiece of the album is, without surprise, a string quartet reading of John Coltrane's 32-minute, A Love Supreme.

What I wanted to know was how a group can "recreate" and do justice to a jazz piece by Coltraine. I mean, the fact that he's Coltrane set aside, there's quite a bit of improv to account for... But the Turtle Island Quartet's violinist and arranger David Balakrishnan explains their approach to A Love Supreme through each of the movements: "Acknowledgment," "Resolution," "Pursuance" and "Psalm." The first movement is simply a transcription of the entire Coltrane saxophone solo, only orchestrated for strings (already I'm impressed). The second and third movements incorporate their own improvisation over the rhythm section, and the last movement, Psalm, is supposed to be a prayer to God. It's said that when Coltrane recorded it at the end of 1964, he brought a Psalm to the studio and set it on a music stand, then played the prayer note for note. And, of course, uniting the composition, Balakrishnan uses the four-note figure "A Love Su-preme" that underscores the original.

I still have a hard time wrapping my mind around how one can "recreate" a jazz piece with so much improvisation, when the composition belongs to someone else... and I find myself slipping back into those musings on plagiarism and the blurry lines separating an original work from a remix, from a new original work altogether...
I've become convinced that arbitrary labels really have no place in music.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Making a Mistake a Masterpiece

My sketchbook is filled with many things. Some good, others decent, some that will never see the light of day. But I like to keep my not-so-great sketches. Why? Well, for different reasons. Sometimes I don't like something initially, but can go back and see what I was attempting to do, or I can see what had inspired me to start the sketch in the first place. And -though these events are rare- I can sometimes go back and see potential in these sketches, and rework them into something that I do like.

I know lots of other artists have had their flops. Picasso's painting, The Guitarist, was found, upon x-ray analysis, to have a painting of a bullfight underneath it. Many famous painters would start a work, and stop, leave it for months, and then come back to it and rework it. So, what I got to thinking was, given the method by which Cage composed his music, is it possible for him to have ever had a flop? Did he ever compose a piece that just didn't work out? Or, did he ever compose something that he gave up on, came back to, and then was happy with it? Was he ever happy with it? Could he have been happy or unhappy with the way things turned out when he threw his I-Ching coins and derived a musical score?

Guess it comes back to that saying in Alice in Wonderland: "If you don't know where you're going, then any road will take you there." Given that Cage didn't begin with the end in mind when he started, he can't really be unhappy with what was turned out, right? I mean, if you try to remove all of your own tastes and preferences from a work, then you can't complain that it isn't to your liking when it's finished. And I don't think that was the point.

I wonder how this works with other experimental composers. Not everyone goes as far as Cage in their method of composition, so I wonder how they go about deciding what is performance worthy and what merits flop status... And what is an experimental flop like?

Klang in Lexington Review

Klang played in Lexington last night.  Apparently, the band is equally comfortable in the soundworlds of Jimmy Giuffre, Benny Goodman, and, of course, John Cage. See the excellent music blog The Musical Box for a review. I hope to see everyone at the show tonight. It should be fun, and a nice chance for a Cage class reunion. 

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Eye of the Storm

My neighborhood is not a quiet place. In fact, it's a rather noisy suburb. The neighbor to my left rides a Harley, the neighbor to my right mows his lawn more than is probably necessary, and the neighbors adjacent to my backyard all own at least one rather vocal dog. My own family has three (sometimes four) dogs of our own to join into the chorus, my mother never learned to use an "inside voice" and my brother has to practice the electric guitar if he's ever going to get any good. It is therefore safe for one to assume that quiet time at my house is a very rare thing. Because it is. And that's too bad.

So in an attempt to find some sort of sonic solace, some reprieve from the constant audio stimulation provided by my "low-fi" neighborhood, I wake up very early on Sundays. Every Sunday morning I take a long walk just as the sun comes up and make my way down an old street that was probably, at one time, the only street in town. The houses on this street aren't so close together, there are no sidewalks, and there's a guy back there who has room enough for his four horses. In short, it's as close to a country lane as one gets in my neighborhood, and it's amazing how different it feels. Sunday mornings on this street make me feel like the world has slowed down, that everything has has paused to take a breath and -dare I say it- things are finally quiet. Without the traffic sounds and the barking dogs and the sound of children playing down the street, I can hear birdsong come to the foreground. I can actually hear the wind as it skims through the tree branches making the leaves whisper. I can pinpoint just exactly where each sound is coming from.

It's amazing how the quiet hits you, really. Hearing the absence of sound is just as powerful as hearing a very loud noise, and when I run into the quiet on this street early Sunday mornings, it feels like I'm someplace else. Like this soundscape is out of place, here in the middle of suburbia, and I realize just how used to the scoundscape I am. All this white noise around me all the time is something I've become so accustomed to that I really notice when it's gone. And I know, as I stand on this quiet street that the world around me is continuing to sound in its cacophonous way... even at 7:00 am.

It's what I imagine being in the eye of a storm must be like.
And I am aware that this post makes me look very hypocritical after my post yesterday.
Oh, well.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

U2 Fined for Noise Pollution

The City of Dublin has fined concert promoters MCD 36,000 euros (that's about $53,000) for breaching noise levels during their Croke Park concerts last July. Now, if I were Bono, it would seem that if I were asked to give a concert, noise would be a given, but the Dublin City Council levied the penalties against MCD for allowing U2 to exceed allowed noise limits on a number of occasions during the shows. Twelve times over three nights of concerts, U2 is reportedly responsible for breaching these noise limits, racking up 3,000 euros for each violation. Now, I can't help but wonder if anyone bothered to tell them they were running up the tab, or if they decided to send them the bill later as a surprise...

In addition to being party poopers about all the "noise" that comes with a musical performance (oh, heaven forbid!) the shows elicited many complaints from area residents. Apparently, they weren't too happy with the continuous 44 hours it took to dismantle the stage, and would have liked to have their park back sooner. I suppose I can understand their frustration, especially if they weren't all too keen on the concert being held in their backyard in the first place, but really, is the $53,000 necessary? But perhaps I shouldn't be so quick to judge. If some concert crew trampled by azaleas, I might seek retribution as well.

Then again, considering the 20 million euros amassed in profits from the three stadium performances, some don't consider these fines quite so bad. And apparently, someone enjoyed the "noise."

Friday, November 13, 2009

Cage-Inspired Jazz at Thomas More

Our friends James Falzone and Tim Daisy from Vox Arcana are visiting Thomas More next Wednesday with Falzone's ensemble Klang (German for "sonority"). Falzone will deliver a talk at 12:30 on the topic of music and meaning, and the band will present a full concert at 7 p.m. Both events will take place in the Student Center. Klang's main inspiration is the sound of the 1950s groups led by the great jazz clarinetist Jimmy Giuffre , whose records are well worth checking out if you have not done so already. Klang has received numerous glowing reviews for their new album Tea Music, including a very nice article in the New York Times. Tim Daisy (drums) recently performed with the Vandermark 5 at the venerable Newport (Rhode Island, that is) Jazz Festival. By all accounts, the group's performance was a memorable one. Please come out and enjoy the energetic and creative music of Klang. Together we can work to make Crestview Hills the jazz  capital of northern Kentucky. Brought to you by the Thomas More College FYS Program and the Friends of John Cage . 

Sunday, November 8, 2009

A Well Prepared Instrument

A prepared piano is a marvelous instrument. It's hardly a piano anymore, really. You take a normal piano and alter its sound by placing objects (preparations) between or on the strings or on the hammers or dampers. The wonderful thing about this is that all it takes are some screws, washers, pie pans, or any other object you have lying around that you can stuff into your piano, to transform a mild mannered instrument into a super piano (or "supiano", if you will).

Having coined the term "prepared piano" himself, John Cage first prepared a piano when he was commissioned to write music for "Bacchanale", a dance by Syvilla Fort in 1938. He had been writing exclusively for a percussion ensemble, and then someone was so kind as to casually mention that the hall where Fort’s dance was to be staged had no room for a percussion group. In fact, the hall was exceptionally small and the only instrument available was a single grand piano (minor detail, right?). After thinking about it, Cage said that he realized it was possible “to place in the hands of a single pianist the equivalent of an entire percussion orchestra ... With just one musician, you can really do an unlimited number of things on the inside of the piano if you have at your disposal an exploded keyboard.” Exploded keyboard... yeah, no problem, right? So Cage prepared this single grand piano and even quipped that by preparing it, he left it in better condition than he found it. Not sure what the owner of said piano thought...

In Cage's use, the preparations are typically nuts, bolts, and pieces of rubber to be lodged between or entwined around the strings. Some preparations make duller sounds, while others create sonorous bell-like tones and the individual parts of a preparation such as a nut loosely screwed onto a bolt will vibrate themselves, adding their own unique sound. Often, the pianist would be instructed to pluck and scrape the strings of the piano directly, a technique that Cage himself said was inspired by Henry Cowell's experiments with the so-called string piano (and I thought all pianos had strings... silly me). And in the end, it really does sound like an entire percussion orchestra.

The first time I heard a prepared piano, I would never have guessed that, well, for one that I was hearing a piano, and for another, that a single musician was producing all of the sounds I was hearing. In addition, watching a pianist play a prepared piano is just so much more interesting. One can't expect any of the sounds emanating from the instrument -and I wonder if the pianist even knows what it will sound like- and the way the musician plays, banging on the keys with fingers and fist, reaching inside to pluck the strings, well, it's all very energetic and exciting.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Out of Context

The earth is crammed with heaven

And every bush aflame with God

But only those who see

Take off their shoes

That's a poem by Elizabeth Barret Browning that I've always liked and I think it describes very well the way people regard the world. Beauty is always there, everywhere, in everything, but only those who stop to see it appreciate it. And there's a phenomenal difference between looking at things and really seeing them. Too many people simply look... and subsequently miss out.

The philosopher, Paul Ziff, wrote an essay examining on the possibility of anything to be art. (Really, anything. He begins the essay with the exclamation, "Look at the dried dung!") So what constitutes a work of art? According to Ziff, a work of art is simply something fit to be an object of aesthetic attention. In today's world, this is widely viewed as something built by man, tailored for the purpose of being viewed aesthetically. These works need not even be beautiful. Picasso's Guernica and Grunewald's Crucifiction are two examples of paintings that one wouldn't describe as especially lovely, and yet they are recognized as masterpieces without opposition. They are paintings done by man, and so they are art.

By chance, some objects of aesthetic attention are naturally produced and are not recognized as works of art. They are not artifacts, and are accordingly disqualified, as it were. That they are not artifacts does not suggest nor establish that they are unfit to be objects of aesthetic attention. In fact, the status of "artifact," in my opinion, says little about an object's suitability to be regarded aesthetically. There are many man-made objects that are not widely recognized as works of art: a watering can, a screwdriver, a green paper plate. And yet, placed in the correct context, society's perception of them changes such that they can be viewed and appreciated as art. Put that green paper plate on a pedestal in an art gallery, under just-so lighting and talk it up as a sculpture. Is it art now? Some would say so.

Perhaps the work of an artist is to present the world to others in the context that allows them to see it the way the artist does- or simply allows them to see it. Paul Ziff states it well when he says, "To suppose that anything that can be viewed is a fit object for aesthetic attention is not like supposing that anything can be put in one's mouth and is a fit object to eat. It is more like supposing that anything that can be seen can be read. Because it can. [...] Not everything has meaning, but anything can be given meaning."

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Color of Sound

Synesthesia is a neurologically based phenomenon in which stimulation of one sense leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sense. All very scientific, but what I really want to talk about is how people with this condition (which occurs in one of every 200 individuals) can, when they hear music, see certain colors associated with the sound. It's often described as something like fireworks, with voices, traffic, music and all sorts of sonic phenomena triggering the experience of color and simple shapes that arise and then fade when the sound stimulus ends. And different sounds elicit different colors, changing hue and brightness with variations in pitch and volume. Individuals with this condition often disagree about which sounds correspond to what color, but many agree on certain things, like how louder tones are brighter than dull, soft tones, whereas higher tones are smaller and lighter than low ones, and low tones are both larger and darker than high ones. One synesthesiac described the sound of an acoustic guitar as shades of yellow, while an elcetric guitar was bright red.

There are actually composers with this condition who have incorporated color into their musical compositions. Russian Composer, Alexander Scriabin was pioneering the multimedia performance as early as the nineteenth century and used his perception of music as color in the composition process. Rimsky-Korsakov, who was a contemporary of Scriabin, was a fellow composer with synesthesia and the two often disagreed about which colors were created by which notes (both maintained that the key of D major was golden-brown; but Scriabin linked E-flat major with red-purple, while Rimsky-Korsakov favored blue). Even modern composers have utilized light shows in their performances, matching the music to specific colors.

Being a visually-oriented person, I find myself wishing that I could see music too. Even as one not having the experience of the dual stimulus provided by synesthesia, I find myself thinking about which colors match which sound. I think it would come down to pairing the feelings evoked by music and those by certain colors. Irritating sounds might be orange, fast tempos red, slow, sonorous bass, blue. And I wonder how much influence the power of association might have in this situation...

Someone once told me that the sound of flip-flops was definitely yellow, but I would have to say they're a rather annoying shade of pink.