In popular music circles, these days, very good instrumental technique is often considered bad form. I suspect this dates back to the mid-seventies, to year zero of the punk revolution, when the showoffy players (on the rock side it was guitar players like Steve Vai, and on the jazz side it was all those fusion players, like Al DiMeola, or Chick Corea) were suddenly held to have no feelings. While I agreed with this philosophy at the time, and still do on occasion—I think it limits what music can do if people who can play effortlessly are somehow verboten. One way that contemporary jazz and serious music have solved the philosophical problem of virtuosity is with extended technique, which is to say that the players use voicings and parts of the instrument that are not traditional at all. So the pianist will get inside the piano and pluck, and the guitar player will use different objects to strike the strings (a hairbrush or a comb, or what have you). The saxophonist will play only the overtones. In these instances, the virtuosity becomes about the instrument itself, about how the musician thinks about the instrument, and about music in general, instead of about how fast he or she can play.
Another approach to extended technique would include interfacing with new technological options: so that the trombonist has a wealth of foot pedals, including digital delay, and chorus. Or the vocalist applies an octave divider. This approach can be kind of dangerous, because technologies date so fast. This year’s surprising new effect (auto-tune, let’s say) is next year’s annoying cliché. Also: new technology in music is very economically bound, it’s often most available to the people who can really pay, so that a technologically adventurous album is almost always like a desert golf course: pretty, but indefensible since so inherently wasteful. The albums I’m going talk about below, all of which were cherry picked from CDBaby nearly at random, with little information about the players or where they come from, all, to one degree or another, explore the issue of technique, and they all solve it with enthusiastic and exuberant musicianship, without, it should be said, sounding like virtuosos. This is an old-fashioned solution, but an inspired one, in this era where almost everyone wants either to be sloppy on purpose or computer-enhanced.
Gustavo Aguilar, Unsettled On an Old Sense of Place
Aguilar is a percussionist from Brownsville, TX, but he’s not just an American composer. He knows his border culture too. The first piece on this album, “Xichalco,” which features great jazz-inflected harp playing by the composer Anne LeBaron (she’s also well worth your investigation), is based on a trip that Aguilar made to indigenous sites in Mexico. The music, which is full of strange twists and turns, drones, analogue synthesizer, distant operatic voice, and percussive waves that never settle into a traditional groove, touches on something we might associate with Mayan culture, without ever sounding obviously or exotically Central American. The second track, “Contrafacum for Scelsi,” is an extended technique piece in which the composer uses a guitar as a hand drum. It almost sounds like a tabla piece. Whether we should consider this an extended technique piece for drum or an extended piece for guitar is up to the listener, but it’s startlingly beautiful. Two ensemble pieces, full of an orderly chaos in which figure and ground shift back and forth, occupy much of the center of the album, and while they have percussion as their impetus, they also use homemade string instruments, and elegant washes of electronic noise, metal sheets, things that sound like kazoos. And the human voice. Just try to find a tonal center in here! You won’t be able to. There is a tiny bit of horn playing, I think—at least I think it’s a horn playing—on the longest track, “Suprachiasmatic Nucleii,” just to remind you that this music does have one foot in contemporary jazz (Aguilar, e.g., like many another great contemporary composer, has played with Anthony Braxton). But the lead instrument is really the white noise generator. The middle of the album has an almost-conventional hand drum solo, but the drum seems to be triggering some kind of electronic effect too. The last cut, “Wendell’s History,” includes a spoken poem by Wendell Berry. While Aguilar, in his liner notes, alludes to some sense of identification with this writer who left behind the literary life to become a farmer instead, Aguilar’s praxis as it is elsewhere rendered on the album is decidedly not rural, if by rural we mean backwoods or skeletal or oversimplified. There’s much experimental use of sound, here, as well as some dialectical notions of improvisation versus “pre-composed” sections, such that the result sounds anything but traditional or non-urban. (Besides, the composer lives in New York City now.) This is a lucid, fierce, placid, and moving album of jazz/classical/experimental otherness, and through it all you can tell that Aguilar can really play. I find the aesthetic coherent, rigorous, and dark. The label seems to be Henceforth Records, a new Indie Jazz label with some great releases, so look for other titles from their list too.
Briggan Krauss, Descending to End
Many things on CDBaby are self-released, it seems to me, but Briggan Krauss’s album, like Aguilar’s is on a legit record label, Knitting Factory Records, which I think may be defunct or has changed hands, such that some of the really great albums on that label that were once available are not so much anymore (here’s another tip Rebecca Moore’s Home Wreckordings, also available on CDBaby). Krauss is best known for playing in the excellent and venerable Sex Mob, who are rightly esteemed and deserve consideration elsewhere by more seasoned writers about jazz. If I were to oversimplify, I would say that Krauss’s solo work gives him more of a chance to get into synthetic textures and sound design. Which is not to say that Descending to End avoids an electro-acoustic feel, because you can recognize lots of old-fashioned analogue instrumentation—guitar, sax, and percussion—but there are also lots of electronic effects, played, it seems in real time. This album was made in 1999, but it stills feels as relevant and strange now as it must have seemed then. The long shadow that hovers over this work is the downtown jazz scene begotten by John Zorn and peopled by people like Wayne Horvitz and Bill Frissell. Or perhaps, more accurately, some of what I hear in this music is Naked City, Zorn’s pit bull-like cut-up band from the eighties, or perhaps the same composer’s Electric Masada. This is challenging music, and it’s music that sounds a lot like New York to me. And while there are real consistencies between what Briggan Krauss is doing, in terms of palette, and what Gustavo Aguilar is doing, Aguilar’s music has a wide open feeling to it, as though the composer were still in his native TX. But Krauss, who was educated in the Northwest, has an able grasp on the kinds of assaultive tones that motivated the NYC downtown jazz scene in the eighties, as well as what made the Knitting Factory a good place to see experimental music for a long time. I would single out particular songs on Krauss’s album, but it’s sort of a worthless exercise, since the record feels like a suite of compositions that explores the byways of possibility within a fixed range of instruments and ideas. Interestingly, however, there are a number of titles here that allude to brain structure and function (“Frontal,” “Parietal,” and “Occipital,” e.g.). These apparently have common cause with Aguilar’s “Suprachiasmatic Nucleii,” which, if I have done my research right, is a part of the human eye. The Krauss album is, it’s true, extremely challenging listening, sort of like dub reggae on bad acid, or lounge jazz configured for interplanetary marauders. But listened to against the predictable tonalities of contemporary pop music, let’s say, or contemporary jingoist country, it has a bracing and empowering effect. Krauss sounds elemental, or like he understands and relishes the relationship between music and the deepest parts of the body.
Carla Kihlstedt, Matthias Bossi, & Dan Rathbun, Ravish
Okay, it’s not the case that I knew nothing about these musicians. However, when I was wandering around on CDBaby, attempting to pick things just because the software program told me to, I did stumble on this album, which was created by musicians I know a bit. Carla Kihlstedt, to people who are familiar with the world of instrumental music, is the amazing violin player in Tin Hat, a sort of Weimar Republic country music outfit that manages to play music that is composed, lovely, and still has its experimental edges. Matthias Bossi is her husband (and the father of her just born baby!), and a very muscular, crisp, amazing drummer, and Dan Rathbun is their collaborator in another band, a sort of an art metal experimental band called Sleepytime Gorilla Museum. Bossi and Kihlstedt also play in The Book of Knots, which also includes Tony Maimone (bass player in the greatest lineup of one of the greatest bands ever: Pere Ubu), and Joel Hamilton (who did, full disclosure, engineer the first Wingdale Community Singers album). I was once lucky enough to appear onstage with the Book of Knots, and it was a high point of my performing life. But that has nothing to do with why I bought this album. I bought it because I really love Carla Kihlstedt’s playing, sensibility, and singing voice. She came out of a classical background, and a friend of mine who was also a classical music prodigy knew her at those summer camps where you send your amazing violin-playing daughters, where she was among the very best, apparently. But at some point she turned her back on classical violin—with a vengeance—and went off and started playing with experimental and avant-rock types. In this regard she has many many many many side projects, so if you listen to this album, as you ought, and want to know more, try Tin Hat (which is certainly her most accessible guise), or the excellent 2 Foot Yard. As to this album particularly, it is composed of incidental music for the stage, and in particular, as I understand it, for dance pieces. It is not quite as brutal as some Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, which is a plus for me, because sometimes Sleepytime is the rock equivalent of a Saw sequel, which is to say merciless, and I can almost feel myself losing upper frequency range. But not unlike that band, Ravish is dark and suggestive, sort of like Stravinsky, or Tuxedomoon. And I like the use of field recordings (auctioneer, on “Auction Block 1” and “Auction Block II,” partygoers on “Reclamation”). I like the Eastern European minor-key tonalities of many of the compositions. The whole is not song oriented like many of Kihlstedt’s projects (Tin Hat, e.g., despite being largely instrumental, is very song oriented), but, as you would suspect, more like a soundtrack. That means there is pastiche here, and there is instrumental ornamentation, all alluding to a performance that is invisible to you, the listener. For that reason, the album evades a direct gaze, but when approached more laterally, it’s full of really beguiling textures and unexpected passages. Best, for me, is when Kihlstedt’s smoky alto creeps into the work, never mixed too much up front (and I think it’s even backwards on one piece here), but just as though it’s another instrument. Another secret weapon, for me, are Rathbun’s homemade instruments, which I gather is a consistent part of his virtuosity. These unusual timbres move the listener’s ear out of its accustomed registers, away from instrumental ports of call that we know too well. Ravish may lack some of the album-oriented coherence of Aguilar and Krauss, since it has a decorative function, but it is texturally fascinating, frequently beautiful in its Germanic melancholy way, and of the three it’s the most acoustic. I bet there is not a synthesizer on the whole thing, and, because of what a good player Carla is, you therefore appreciate the music as something that was once, or could be, performed.
In conclusion, it’s easy to hate the players, especially when you are a modest player yourself! But in the cases I have stumbled on here, there are also times when a spectacularly good musician is simply a spectacularly good musician, someone who can find unpredictable potential in instruments and in musical forms that are otherwise unavailable to us, and I don’t mean by playing a solo fast. That lust for the original doesn’t have to be at some dialectical distance from the Platonic capacity of music to move us. The two can be one and the same. The original in music can suddenly lighten up areas of our emotional lives that we didn’t know were lacking for a voice with which to articulate them. It’s also true, however, that the original is anathema to record labels that would prefer to know how to taxonomize recorded music, so that it delivers, candy-flavored predictabilities, quality-controlled earworms. It gets harder and harder to find records like these nowadays. But apparently a lot of them are hiding out in spots like CDBaby. In plain sight. Have a listen.