Welcome Distractions

Distractions are often very welcome, aren’t they? Quite often lately, I simply beg for distractions. Likeminded readers will know why. Nightmarish state and national political scenarios have us almost constantly either shaking or scratching our heads in painfully confused and irritated wonder.

Everything’s a bit of a blur. photo by Michael Rucci.

Everything is moving so quickly – everything’s a bit of a blur.

So it is a welcome distraction to enjoy the anticipation of new work from two of my musical favorites: Alison Goldfrapp (my very English Queen!) is releasing a new record in March with band mate, Will Gregory; and the group, Real Estate, will likewise release a new record in March.

Queen Alison.

Of course, I have written here before about Goldfrapp, (and my obsession with the band’s vocalist and namesake, Alison Goldfrapp.) Most recently there was a post at the end of 2013 when the band slotted this page’s top selection of that entire year with the brilliant record, Tales of Us. Looking back at it, that post contained some thoughts on loveliness that seem timely and still very relevant. Resistance in not futile; differences are not to be feared, but treasured. Here are a few of the words from that post:

Tales of Us is “… Magical. Sometimes being just exactly who you are is an act of defiance. [Being oneself] is not easy for everyone, and the simple act of your own expression is courageous. Tales of Us is made up of ten songs, each a distinctive journey of self-expression. The song titles are names, (Jo, Annabel, Drew, Simone, Clay, etc.,) and in each song, Alison Goldfrapp either presents us with, or bravely inhabits, a different persona. All of them (quietly, defiantly, courageously) being exactly who they are….

“Fantastic and liberating, deeply private and still somehow seductively inclusive, the record successfully plays both ends against the middle. Simple acoustic guitar songs trade time with hugely wrought symphonic pieces, slow jazz, and tripped out electronica. The binding element of Tales of Us is her exquisite voice. Breathily playing out through the dreamy range of the songs, she draws me in absolutely. Alison Goldfrapp does not merely sing, she occupies her songs, and she transports her listeners. The beauty, the elegance of her, the certainty – she makes me lightheaded. She is delivering her art from a castle on a cloud, and I want to be where she is.”

Clearly, I am enthralled by this artist and her group, (I still listen to Tales of Us regularly,) and had hoped that when Goldfrapp returned with new music that it would be in the same intrepid vein of introspection and emotion. If the first single is an indication, it appears that will not be the case. The band dislikes repeating themselves, though they may have elected to go back a bit further in their career to investigate and mine some fresh ideas from dancier periods.

However, Goldfrapp is forgiven — I think this single is thoroughly excellent. The album will be called Silver Eye, and features the work of the trusty American producer John Congleton, and darkish, London-based Haxan Cloak. This music, my friends, is about urgency. Queen Alison can do whatever she wants. I can’t wait…

Anymore by Goldfrapp from Silver Eye, due 31 Mar (2017 Mute).

I have also written on this page about Real Estate, most recently about the jangly observations that they made on the terrific album Atlas that ranked as my number one selection for 2014. I wrote:

“There is an unforced earnestness to each beat, note, and syllable that makes this collection of songs feel not only brand new, but also somehow like an album that’s been around a while. Along with the rest of their catalogue I will continue to enjoy it for years. All three of the band’s records have a wistful summery feeling that I think a lot of people pick up on and dig. What it is: That feeling that something wonderful is happening, and you have not processed how important it will be to you in the future. You know that something wonderful is going to end – soon – and that the freedom that comes with that something wonderful is evaporating.”

The boys got new jackets! Real Estate, the band.

The band has released a single and it indicates that Real Estatewill be building on their fine ideas of low key, richly examined, (and, yes, summery,) guitar driven pop.

Darling by Real Estate from In Mind, due 17 Mar (2017 Domino).

What else is good from this young year? Well….

Since everything is moving so fast, thank goodness for Missy Elliott. She has the sense to slow it down a little here, giving us some blessed space and a delicious taste of her special flow. As ever, sick.

Missy Elliott – thank goodness.

I’m Better by Missy Elliott w/ Lamb (2017 Atlantic/Goldmine).

And check this:

Run the Jewels 3, (this link leads to a free download of what is easily the best record of 2017 so far.) It has been on the old headphones about four times a week, and each time I listen I marvel anew at the lyrical genius, the brilliance of the music, and especially the strong personal bond shared by the insanely gifted musicians and rappers Killer Mike and El-P.

Best in the game – Run the Jewels.

This is the lead track:

Down by Run the Jewels from RTJ3 (2017 Run the Jewels, Inc).

Fear not. Increase loveliness.

31 Jan 2017

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J writes about Life’s pathways and the stuff we carry along the way

We just moved to a new house from the first house we ever bought 21 years ago. New House is only a mile from Old House, not far, but still…we made a move. I don’t make changes all that often. I don’t embrace change.

Specialists on cognitive development through the lifespan will tell you that new learning is good for the brain as we age. Changing your routine changes your brain. Doing new things, learning new processes, requires cognitive effort, and this sort of problem solving – more than doing a crossword puzzle or word search –  helps generate new neural pathways. I was thinking this on my run the first morning we woke up in our new house. We’d been moving all weekend and I was in need of some exercise beyond bending and lifting. So, after some coffee, and before more bending and lifting, I hit the trail for a short run. Since New House is in the same neighborhood as Old House, I ran my same trail, but with a different entrance point and a slightly different route. It occurred to me that I am changing the neuropathways of my brain in the same way my running pathways are changing.

A new, slightly different, map for my morning run = a new map for my brain.

As that satisfying thought floated away, my mind wandered over to the topic of Stuff. The amount of stuff we have accumulated over the years is unbelievable to me. Why is it sometimes so difficult to part with the physical past?

My mother-in-law, Florence, was a saver. She obviously felt a responsibility to take on items, keep them, and pass them down, trusting others would do the same. Why else would she have kept these shoes belonging to no one in the immediate family? (evidently made for a witch baby.)

Creepy

Or an ashtray of her uncle’s?  (she never smoked a day in her life.) After she passed away, I found odd knickknacks throughout our house that I’d never seen before. Matt would smuggle them in after a day of sorting with his sisters—nestling tchotchkes in places around the house as if I would not notice. Florence attached notes to many of the items, …”this was so and so’s, please keep it in your care.” The notes were her ace in the hole. Hard for a son to ignore for sure. So we packed up and moved shells, and ceramic elves, and baby shoes, and vacation souvenir coasters with which we had no direct relationship.

Kermit T. Frog

I can’t put all the blame of our superabundant amount of stuff on Florence though.  A few years ago, a lady I had never met drove through town and made a stop at our house to drop off belongings of my Uncle Bernie. The items had nothing to do with me: some expensive rustic looking silverware with wooden handles; a sterling silver tea server; and a wooden chair. Bernie was a beloved uncle, though, a sporadic part of my life growing up. He and my dad—brothers—went through alternating periods of estrangement and closeness for reasons which I will never be able to guess. When Bernie died, I hadn’t seen or talked to him since I was a child. His significant other, I think, had a hard time with his death and made a trek cross country on I-80 as a part of her healing. Having inherited all his things, she took advantage of the fact that a few of his relatives, (me, being one of them,) lived along the path of her intended journey. She contacted me, told me it was important to her to give these things a home, dropped off the stuff, stayed long enough for a glass of water and a chat, and went on her way – free as a bird. The items went in to my basement closet. And now I have moved them to my new house. What to do with them?

I might sound like it, but I’m not judging.  I am as guilty as anyone else for all of our stuff.  I have saved toys from my childhood I haven’t even looked at since our last move (remember, 21 years ago.) Ring-a-ma-Jigs I got with green-stamps my grandma gave me. These are plastic building pieces that were never a popular fad. Why do I still have them? Why is the memory of this uncool toy not enough?

 

A stuffed Kermit The Frog and a Cookie Monster puppet that can swallow cardboard cookies.  (He can also barf them if you’re a talented enough puppeteer.) A Dressy Bessy and a Snoopy with a complete wardrobe. Am I afraid that someone else won’t love these toys as much as I did? Do I have some deep-lying suspicion that they have souls and am afraid to determine their future?

Unfulfilled promise of Ringamajigs.

Do my old toys have living souls?

I have records I don’t (can’t) play. Clothing I never plan to wear again. I have items passed on to me from family members that have been sitting in a dark closet. While I have fond memories of them from my childhood, I have nothing else really to do with them.

A friend who is a professional organizer once told me she thinks people keep things as a testimony to their personality. “See? I earned 13 girl scout badges and went to Camp Pine and Dunes three summers in a row. Look at my Prince pins—I was cool. Check out my worn-out ‘Property of KKG’ sweatshirt.”

Jonathan Livingston Seagull on my right sleeve, a giant embroidered hotdog across the back of my shoulders.

Jonathan Livingston Seagull on my right sleeve, a giant embroidered hotdog across the back of my shoulders.

I think there’s some truth to this theory.  If you see me at different stages of my life, you’ll understand me now because I am now the sum of all these different mes: I am youngest sister of three girls, clarinet player, pet-lover, reader; I am also new kid at school, awkward tween, last place swimmer, fast food server, casual runner, weekend chef, speech therapist, road-tripper, non-traditional student…and so on.

These mementos I’ve collected and carried through life so far. And as I circle back to the topic of pathways, I am reminded that even a straw weighs heavy on a long journey. So I have vowed to shed some stuff to make my trek lighter. I’m starting with the “simply no longer functional or needed” and working my way up to the “sentimentally valued, but alas, also not needed.” I am making baby steps. So far, the Ring-a-ma-Jigs are with me no longer, but Kermit still claims some closet space.

Kermit T. Frog

 

I am trying to live by the words of the sage, Jack Handey:

When I saw the old bum pushing his grocery cart down the street, at first I felt sorry for him. But then when I saw what was in his cart I thought, well, no wonder you’re a bum, look at all the dumb things you bought.”

 

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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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What a Difference a Day Makes

Matters of Perspective

For some today brings feelings of elation. For many, the day brings feelings of almost total devastation. Individual matters of perspective are at work. For me, on this exquisite autumn morning, walking in a neighborhood I love, in a city I love, things were just somehow less beautiful – and for the time being, loveliness is diminished.

Road Closed.

Road Closed.

But perspective is hard at work. I thought of President Obama on my walk, and of how differently people have viewed him. How beloved he has been by many – a distinguished, dignified, intelligent, and reasoned man. Others have despised and vilified him. Baffling.

And today on my neighborhood walk, I thought of the puzzling modernist story In A Grove, by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa. (Akira Kurosawa adapted In A Grove into the landmark 1950 film Rashōmon.)

Matters of perspective.

Matters of perspective.

The story is very short and filled with violence. There are three characters – a young man and young woman are traveling through a wood where they meet another man who abducts them. The young woman is raped, and the young man dies. There is a trial, and each of the three characters retells the story from their own perspective, none of which agree.

Again, objectively, there occur abduction, multiple assaults, theft, and the story in the wood ends with a death. But what is the truth about how the events played out? Each story is different. For instance, the death is retold variously as a brutal murder, a matter of honor, and a suicide. Matters of perspective are at work, but there is objective truth.

Right? Isn’t there objective truth?

Here is a good lesson on perspective from Peanuts.

Peanuts by Charles Schultz.

Peanuts by Charles Schultz.

It’s nice to have songs to help us experience things – to celebrate or to heal. Fall is great for finding new songs.

This is new and I just love the vibe, the young woman’s voice, and the simplicity of the song.

Song 36 by Alexia Avina (2016).

And for perspective, she reminds me of this artist who was an enormous favorite from over thirty years ago.

Some Journey by Suzanne Vega from Suzanne Vega (1985 A&M Records).

Here is another pair of similar songs I love that are thirty years apart.

To Know You by Wild Nothing from Life of Pause (2016 Captured Tracks).

It’s My Life by Talk Talk from the album It’s My Life (1984 Manhattan Records).

How much has changed! How much has remained the same…

What a Diff’rence a Day Makes by Dinah Washington from What a Diff’rence a Day Makes. (1959 Mercury).

Drinking Again by Dinah Washington from Drinking Again (1962 Roullette).

Dinah Washington.

Dinah Washington.

Bottoms up. Be good to one another. Take deep breaths. Increase loveliness.

9 November 2016

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Party Like It’s 1909

for Halloween…

Jude and I were recent guests of the gifted hosts, (and our very dear friends,) Diane and Howard Coffin. They held a dinner party for 14 at the historic Brandeis Mansion in Omaha, and on a warm Friday evening in October we arrived as directed – just at dusk and in “semi-formal, macabre” attire.

The 1904 Brandeis Mansion in Omaha's twilight. One of the mansion's owners, Mark Mazer,

The 1904 Brandeis Mansion in Omaha’s twilight. One of the mansion’s owners, Mark Maser, was on hand with a warm and conversational orientation to the home and its history.

Beethoven was playing softly as we walked through the yard’s gates, up the wide stone stairway and through the two sets of heavy double doors. Inside, we were greeted with hugs, Chambord Kir-Royales, and the spectacle of an exquisitely decorated and ornate wonder of marble, dark wood, porcelain, silver, crystal, and silk.

In keeping with the period of the incredible and opulent 1904 home, (and, of course, with the Halloween season,) guests were invited to secretly prepare and share “parlor entertainment.” After more Champagne, a delicious dinner, and festive punch cocktails, we wrote our names on slips of paper and dropped them into a decorative goblet. When it was time for the performances to begin, Howard and Diane made sure our glasses were full then arranged us comfortably in one of the mansion’s parlors.

A Tom Waits number also inspired the main piece that I performed, (a strange coincidence with what Bob had prepared.) From the opera Alice, co-written by Waits with his wife, Kathleen Brennan, I rewrote and freely adapted the lyrics of a song called Watch Her Disappear. I love Tom Waits, and it is challenging to try improving on his great writing. I was crazy about the seed of the idea, but really needed to change the context of the piece, and to re-set it in autumn for the occasion of the dinner party. I was pretty happy with what I came up with, and I used the beautiful music of the song Barramundi by This Mortal Coil as the background from It’ll End In Tears (1984 / 4AD).

From the opera Alice, with lyrics by Kathleen Brennan and Thomas Alan Waits, and directed by Robert Wilson. Here is my finished adaptation from…

One of the beautiful parlors.

One of the beautiful parlors.

Standing in lamplight before an intricately carved, giant fireplace mantle, Howard announced that he would draw our names to perform at random. In between our individual parlor entertainments, Howard kept things moving along by giving us a few of the spooky traditions and interesting histories of a variety of cultural festivals of the fall and harvest seasons. These traditions have evolved into what we celebrate now as Halloween.

Among the many performances: Some people told ghost stories – our friend Denise recounted an eerie one set in Maine, and our hostess Diane did a wonderfully mysterious reading from C.P. Gilman’s spirit-tinged The Yellow Wallpaper. Friends Bob, Claudia, Denise, and Diane enacted the witchy scene of the Weird Sisters from Act IV of Macbeth. Our friend Steve brought passion to E.A. Poe’s freaked-out narrator, Roderick Usher. Pal Bob conjured a tight and angry paranoia for the Tom Waits number, What’s He Building In There? Jude spoke calmly as the woman Death from the introduction of John O’Hara’s novel Appointment In Samarra. New friends Rod and John donned top hats for their fun soft-shoe version of Dem Bones. Friends Gary and Diane filled the parlor with violent tension while adapting Stephen King.

Together, Bob and I resurrected an old song, written by myself and Pete Acheson, called Rats. It was fun to dust off the lyrics and hear Bob’s guitar version of the song. And it was probably as scary as anything else during the night to hear me attempt singing. To introduce the song, we remarked that it was a tune neither publicly performed nor requested in some thirty years. Since we live in different cities, it was a tune that we had not rehearsed, either. It was a blast.

A Tom Waits number also inspired the main piece that I performed, (a strange coincidence with what Bob had prepared.) From the opera Alice, co-written by Waits with his wife, Kathleen Brennan, I rewrote and freely adapted the lyrics of a song called Watch Her Disappear. I love Tom Waits, and it is challenging to try improving on his great writing. I was crazy about the seed of the idea, but really needed to change the context of the piece, and to re-set it in autumn for the occasion of the dinner party. I was pretty happy with what I came up with, and I used the beautiful music of the song Barramundi by This Mortal Coil as the background from It’ll End In Tears (1984 / 4AD).

From the opera Alice, with lyrics by Kathleen Brennan and Thomas Alan Waits, and directed by Robert Wilson. Here is my finished adaptation from…

Watch Her Disappear

Last night I dreamed that I was dreaming of you

Dusk’s descending pluck and strum

And from a window across the lawn

I watched you undress

Wearing an amethyst sunset tightly woven around your hair

That rose in strangled ebony curls

Moving in a pale yellow bedroom light

The air was wet with sound

The faraway bark of a puzzled dog

The ground somewhere drinking a dark, slow, swirling leak

Your room is so soft and

Fading as it soaks autumn’s last golden heat

A light goes on and the door opens

An amber cat runs out

On the lemon stream of hall light and into the yard

A wooden apple scent is faintly breathing the air

The sunless air goes suddenly cool

I hear your champagne laugh

You wear two lavender orchids in your hair and

A string of saffron carnival lights comes on with the dusk

A tender swaying constellation

Circling the lake with a slowly dipping halo

The wind-washed waves nipping the sand

And I hear a frolicking calliope

And you dance into the shadow of a black poplar tree

And I watched you as you disappeared

I watched you as you disappeared

I watched you as you disappeared

I watched you

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

At home in the mansion - fancy pants and lacy cape.

At home in the mansion – fancy pants and lacy cape.

It was the best party! We are so grateful for our creative friends and the cool idea that our dear Coffins conceived of and …. executed! Happy Halloween…

Laughing With A Mouth Of Blood by St. Vincent from Actor (2009 4AD).

Tom Waits - Alice.

Tom Waits – Alice.

(The Tom Waits version can be found here: Watch Her Disappear from Alice [2002 Epitaph Records]).

30 October 2016

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