Increasing Loveliness

The Chiara String Quartet and Dave Hall

“There’s a way of playing safe… and there’s the way I like to play which is dangerously –

where you’re going to take a chance on making mistakes

in order to create something you haven’t created before.”

Dave Brubeck

The Dave Brubeck Quartet.

While others are compiling their year-end lists, I have been looking for some music that is completely out of the ordinary and also reflecting on a musical year that has left me mostly cold. I loved Jeff Runnings

Primitives and Smalls, David Bowie’s Blackstar, and Radiohead’s monumental A Moon Shaped Pool; each of these and a few other favorites from the year have space on this page and can be found by scrolling. But I have not been inspired to recap 2016.

Are there times in your life during which only something new and unusual will satisfy you? A craving for a cuisine you have never tasted? I get that way about music, and I had mostly been in a droughty season – listening to lots of music but finding nothing to latch onto. Until something happened at a recent concert at Kimball Recital Hall on the campus of the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Since then, I have been giving a lot of thought to the creation of art that is truly original.

Behind the creation of difficult artistic work there is massive toil. The ability to mask that toil by making it all look effortless is a form of sorcery. Nearly everyone has had the experience of overhearing some dragged-to-the-museum cynic underestimate the talent needed to make fine abstract art: Falling low and breathily from the mouth of such a caviling, clueless grump: “I could do that,” while standing before, say, a magnificent Mark Rothko, or Jackson Pollock painting.

Jackson Pollock at work.

O, Jackson Pollock, the wizard who, with his energetically flung and dripped liquid paint on canvas, created an entirely new way to make art – something original and wildly innovative – a form often imitated and never matched. But, in addition to being a master of abstraction, Jackson Pollock was also an amazing realistic draftsman who could draw expertly from life. He developed under the mentorship of the artist Thomas Hart Benton, and for years before Pollock conceived his groundbreaking drip methods for merging color-and-light chaos with the nuances of shadow-and-balance, he worked to perfect his ability to simply draw. You must learn to crawl before being able to walk, run, and dance.

Untitled drawing by Jackson Pollock.

Take just a small analogous leap from visual art to music — consider and compare the countless hours of pencil-and-paper work of drawing to the hours of repeating passages and scales in the rehearsal room. And then, to make the artwork and one’s own mastery seem effortless – to take all those hours of slavish practice and hide them away from the listener, well, it is wizardry.

Such witchcraft was recently on display at Kimball Recital Hall in Lincoln. On the final Tuesday of November this year, Chiara String Quartet, (my favorite Lincoln group, and the city’s finest resident musicians,) took the stage with their colleague, composer, percussionist, and jazz musician Dave Hall, and it was on. They launched into a performance of a new work, Andy Akiho’s 2016 composition LIgNEouS for Marimba and String Quartet, and an unexpected and energetic journey was underway.

I mean to directly compare the talents of these musicians with the talent of Pollock – they are all artists who devote themselves to increasing loveliness in the world. I really wish I could show you, because the performance mainly defies my ability to describe it. I contacted the members of The Chiara Quartet and Dave Hall to ask for any video or audio they may have to share on this page from their extremely jarring recent concert. The piece was so complex and even bizarre. The players appeared to be equally riveted by their own duties and to be having a blast. It would be best to just let it speak for itself. The musicians contacted me to say that no video or audio from the concert is available yet.

For now I have picked a couple of pieces to share of each act performing separately with the hope and intention of turning you on to them, and a dear hope that sometime soon I may be able to supplement the links below with something from that special night.


The Chiara String Quartet – Photo by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco.

–Stupendous. There is such a depth of feeling in their playing, and it is always evident. I think this is about perfect, and there is something very stirring about the performances Chiara does from memory and instinct, with no sheet music:

Chiara String Quartet Plays Ravel by HeartMaurice Ravel’s String Quartet in F Major, 1st movement (1903). Performed live in 2013 by Rebecca Fischer and Hyeyung Julie Yoon, violins; Gregory Beaver, cello; Jonah Sirota, viola.

–And check this out! Athletic and cerebral – second-to-second excitement and mystery:

DisArchitecture (2011) by Dave Hall. Performed live at the University of North Texas in 2012 by Matt Penland, Chris McWilliams, Ryan Kilgore, and Dave Hall.

Athletic and cerebral – Dave Hall.

More on this soon, I do hope! You should attend the next Lincoln performance of The Chiara String Quartet on Wednesday 1 February 2017 at Kimball Recital Hall.

–Of course, during droughts we hope for rain, and I have still been searching with hope for great music. For the best sounds I have been hearing lately on the pop/indie front, Radio 3 from the Canadian Broadcast Corporation (Sirius XM 162) has provided delightful little cloudbursts in an otherwise dry musical world. There is something liberating about listening to so much music and so many artists with whom I am unfamiliar. The context is limited. For one thing, all, or very nearly all of the artists on Radio 3 are Canadian, so while there are some acts I am familiar with (like Grimes, The New Pornographers, Arcade Fire) sprinkled in the mix, most of the acts are new to me.

The band names themselves often bring a little smile to my face, like His Clancyness below. Here are two super inventive songs from a group of Canadian ex-pats who are now living in Italy. These have really grabbed me during repeated listens:

Uranium and Pale Fear by His Clancyness from Isolation Culture (2016 Maple Death Records).

–We should always be grateful for a few old songs that we can revisit that are so far out, and so groundbreaking, that somehow they seem brand new. I love everything about the song and video linked below. Clearly borne from the kind of dangerous playing and improvisation that marked Brubeck’s greatest work, there is effortlessness in the performance of surely difficult music. There are the unfakeable smiles on the faces of the players, (never calling attention to the complicated rhythms and the sustained, freaky time signatures,) and there is the super cool atmosphere of the room, (check out the smoky audience surrounding the Quartet.) This can make a fellow feel born out of his time:

Blue Rondo à la Turk performed live by The Dave Brubeck Quartet, from the album Time Out (1959 Columbia Records).

–And mentioning the masking of effort, Jon Brion is a composer and producer whose breadth of abilities as a player and conceiver of music are staggering. This seems simple, and it is not:

Little Person by Jon Brion and Deanna Storey from Synechoche, New York (2008 Lakeshore Records).

–And then there is Merle Haggard. You think things came easily for Merle? It is not as easy as we imagine sometimes to just say a thing plainly. This cat could do that and he was so cool doing it he made it look effortless:

Wishing All These Old Things Were New by Merle Haggard from If Only I Could Fly (2000 ANTI-Epitaph).

Be good to one another, increase loveliness, and treasure originality!

13 December 2016

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