[Disclaimer: Meandering abounds below…]

Many of my posts here are relatively evergreen — just because I write or post about something doesn’t mean that the topic is date-specific. For example, my “New Listen” reviews are, for the most part, only new to me (and sometimes I’ll sneak in an older one) and not new releases, and other topics are often recurring thoughts or experiences of mine that are finally hitting the digital paper. Of course, there are the more time-stamped entries, such as concert reviews (e.g., Liebman, Gustavsen, EOTB, Wagner), those meant to coincide with certain dates, be it birthdays (e.g., Wagner, Carlin, Sax, Verdi), concerts (e.g., Mitchell, James, my own), album releases (e.g., Mitchell & Harris), and more.

This evergreen approach wasn’t necessarily intentional at the start of this blog six years ago, but I eventually became mindful of it. The hope is that the majority of the 200+ posts here could be browsed and still be relevant in some fashion today and in the future.

There are other times, though, in which I feel like many of these paths at least overlap if not converge and compound, at least more than usual. Now – including the last several months’ goings-on and much of the last year’s posts – is one of those times. Some themes are related; others just occur near simultaneously. I’ll try to address many of them, though not in too specific an order.

1. 2015 has thus far been a wild ride. Admittedly, part of the reason it seems as if some of these topics have converged is because many of the last several months have blurred together. I regularly catch myself in conversation referencing “the other day” only to realize it was actually several months ago. Obviously, the biggest change this year has been becoming a parent. As I wrote in that post, H’s arrival not only logistically changed things – e.g., scheduling – but caused a complete realignment of priorities — in a good way, if you ask me. (I’ll stick to just his first initial. He’ll have plenty of opportunities to start his public digital trail elsewhere later. Besides, “H.” is also one of my favorite TOOL songs.)

I intentionally kept my schedule pretty clear the first half+ of this year in anticipation of his arrival. Consequently, 2015 has in many ways been my musically “lightest” year in quite some time. I’ve performed much less, recorded very little, and turned down requests and offers for various gigs. (Oddly enough, the blog has maintained some and even occasionally surged, but it helps that I can do that while at home in the middle of the night.) That said, 2015 also included one of my favorite performances ever: Borghi | Teager at Muskegon’s The Block. And other noteworthy gigs have occurred and will occur this year. So while the quantity is down the quality is up. But regarding my diminished frequency of gigs, there’s only so much time in a day. Between family and work and devoting what little time is left over to my own primary projects, time is at a premium, and leaving the house with my horns requires both a temporal opening and a monetary price. Hence the first big intersection: fatherhood, work, and competing “interests.”

2. As I wrote here, I work. (Gasp!) And given my overall flexible schedule, I watch our son during the day and work in the evening after my wife gets home from working. And while I’m not teaching adjunct this semester – the first in a long while; the measly pay wasn’t worth all that time – I’m just replacing one secondary job with another. It’s cliché, but I can confidently say that parenting is the most difficult “job” I’ve ever undertaken — most everything else is a cakewalk in comparison. Of course, I still have these weird conversations with people, often other arts-related folk, who assume that I’m “just a stay-at-home dad” (i.e., unemployed save for gigs), changing diapers, practicing, and just enjoying a leisurely life with reckless abandon. Having a taste of it, I can confidently say that stay-at-home parenting is as demanding as any taxable full-time employment. Second, I still do the latter.

With not teaching abroad this past summer nor teaching adjunct this semester, I’m somewhat off the academic grid. (Teaching private lessons is a separate matter.) It’s probably part of why I’m so temporally fuzzy, rarely immediately aware of what month it is. Along with that, the weird and often condescending exchanges regarding my “selling out” (“losing out”?) and being somewhat outside of the academy continue, despite my working towards next year’s study abroad already. Inevitably the conversation turns into something like the following:
Them: “Are you teaching this semester (with the baby)? Is your son in daycare?”
Me: “I’m not teaching this semester. I watch H during the day and work in the evening and at night for my FT job.”
Them: “Oh, that’s too bad. [Enter bizarre or pitying comment here.]”
And variations on some of those bracketed statements include:
• “That’s great. You can just hang out with your son all day.”
• “You poor dear. Don’t you miss teaching?” [If I reply that it’s not worth the time/money, they sometimes ask what I’ll do for work, willfully ignoring the fact that I already said I’m working.]
• “That’s great that your wife has a ‘real job.’ When do you practice?” [Though nauseating — and surprisingly not embarrassing for the questioner — this is often the type of response from another musician/artist. The “real job” remark is code for You shouldn’t be worried about a salary as an artist, but marry someone who does and isn’t.]

3. With fatherhood taking a top priority, I can safely say that I’ve felt it placed in the cold crossfire of competitive self-interest. Who knew that phenomenon would start to take non-musical pursuits into account? Although, I guess a zero-sum mentality doesn’t care what “the other” is so long as it exists. So if I am less available or have a conflict with one project because of a child instead of another musical project, it’s a nuisance or obstacle just the same. To be fair, I thankfully have not experienced this across the board, but it’s definitely reared its ugly head. (Though, I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised. I heard tale of a shedding of friends and acquaintances once you have a kid. And while I eschew personal non-musical details on this blog, I can anecdotally attest to that being true.) Granted, I admittedly don’t have the time I once had, but this is noticeably beyond that alone.

4. The more time passes, the more I’m convinced that “community” is little more than a buzzword. It sounds good, but I rarely see it in practice. This goes beyond the (SCENE) debacle, though that proved to be an illuminating real-world case study of balkanized local “scenes” and interests. However, I will say that I attended a wonderful potentially community-building event (and eventual series) a couple months ago: the Contemporary Music Potluck. I have no doubt that that particular series will do wonderful things.

5. On a related note, one’s “community” or scene certainly affects and is affected by money. Just recently we had a highly contentious Arts Commission meeting in which we discussed, debated, and ultimately distributed the City of East Lansing’s annual cultural grants. I was part of that discussion, so I can’t sit here and write only as an analyst. I won’t get into the so-called vexatious minutiae here (thank you, Dr. Campbell, for coining that phrase in my counterpoint classes), but suffice it to say that one of the larger fault lines fell between those who wanted to weight more funding towards newer and/or smaller events and organizations and those who wanted to give a large bulk of the money to the bigger long-running mainstays that continually receive financing. Or, if you’d rather, populist funding vs. establishment funding. Mathematically, the smaller organizations would’ve received a smaller portion of the grant funds than the larger applicants no matter what. The disagreement were about the degree to which these would be funded. As is typically the case, money begets money. So if you’re a startup and don’t have a long track record of raking in the dough or plans to take over the world, why come to the table hat in hand?

6. Another very timely topic is Apple Music. The free trial period ended last Wednesday for those like me who signed up at its launch. Well, Monday morning I logged into my account and set my subscription to not renew, lapsing just a couple days later. Speaking for myself, what a dud that turned out to be. I know I’m not the only one to think so. Just ask Bob Lefsetz. (Or don’t — he might start SCREAMING IN ALL CAPS.)

I suppose that’s as good as place as any to wrap this up. Whew, meandering indeed. While not completely pointless, this post was far from cohesive, which was expected. And, while not particularly evergreen overall, this post demonstrates that many of these topics are ongoing and, as a result, converge.

Talking Points Metro

I don’t do many short posts here, but there’s a tidbit worth quickly noting. It’s municipal election season here in East Lansing, with three of the five at-large City Council seats up for grabs this November. Six candidates are running, only one of whom is an incumbent.

Over the last 12-14 months, I’ve taken my political junkie tendencies and shifted some of the focus to the local level. (Hence my appointment to the Arts Commission, the (SCENE) drama, my East Lansing Info work, and more.) Consequently, I attended tonight’s candidate forum sponsored by the local League of Women Voters chapter. To my pleasant surprise, the (SCENE) divestiture was explicitly referenced by a candidate in one round of answers. While I can’t recall the specific question offhand — of course the answers sometimes shifted away from the questions a bit — I believe it had something to do with the city’s overall budget and approaches to development and fiscal responsibility. (SCENE) and the closure of a community childcare facility — both ostensibly for fiscal reasons — were highlighted as poor decisions.

[I should mention that the forum was very well run and moderated and featured excellent questions. The major networks should’ve been there taking notes…]

While I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see (SCENE) pop up in City Council meetings and discussions as an occasional talking point, I didn’t expect it to receive mention on the campaign trail. Interesting. (For the record, I didn’t submit the question.)

Since we’re on the topic: separately, earlier this week, the re-opening and new exhibition were discussed in a featured segment on WKAR’s Current State, the local public radio news program.

(SCENE) Unveiling

(SCENE) Metrospace re-opened to the public last Friday evening with a kick-off reception for its debut show under MSU/AAHD management entitled Place in Proximity. I attended. Given all my yammering on the topic, I felt that it was only right that I go and see it for myself.

I don’t often go to openings unless I’m working them, but I wanted to be there for this one. It was 6:00-8:00 PM and I was there for a little more than an hour (roughly 6:10-7:20). I give the time/duration, because I thought it odd that I saw no one I recognized from City staff, City Council, and/or the press. But I guess that’s understandable. As I reiterated in my remarks before City Council last week, the City wanted to get rid of the space (i.e., “get out of the curating business”) and didn’t much consider the divestiture too important. (In my remarks, I voiced various concerns detailed on this blog before the opening, particularly regarding submission fees and charged “special programming.”) The so-called partnership between COEL and MSU is one in which the City pays and the university plays. After all, not many landlords attend their tenants’ housewarming parties.

[It’s worth emphasizing, again, that my core frustration is with the City. COEL offered this — total control over a rent- and utility-free space — to MSU on a silver platter.]

I would’ve written about the opening sooner but the last week was tiresome. Besides, I was rather curious what else would be written about it first. However, I was surprised to see that no non-MSU entity covered the event. Today a local Fox affiliate ran a story, but it was just a re-post from MSU Today, an online publication. The only other news outlet to cover it was MSU’s State News. (If you look carefully, I believe you can see one of my ears in a photo. Cool.) Nothing else.

Oh well…

Some thoughts on the actual substance at hand, including credit where credit is due:
• The space is much improved. I never thought one would describe (SCENE) as beautiful, but it arguably is now. There’s a nice new floor and the walls are freshly painted. It appeared as if a couple of the standalone walls were movable depending on the show, which could help change things up spatially with each visit. The window graphics are particularly nice. No more paper flyers. As I wrote and stated many times before, I had little doubt that AAHD would run a fine visual art space. (It’s just that the venue was previously more than that.)
• Given the layout for Place in Proximity, if other shows are similar in floor design, I don’t quite see how a performance before an audience of more than ~20 would be feasible. Would such special programming only occur on weeks between shows?
• The AAHD Chair included in his public remarks bits about community engagement and year-round accessibility.
• The show itself was pretty good. Interesting work from a variety of regional artists.
• Simply as an observer with no other context of the politicking up to this point, it was a pleasurable experience.

I consider this post, like last week’s talk before Council, to be the last gasp of my regular “coverage” of this, at least until summer 2016 (when the space should, as I understand it, remain fully operational). I’ll of course be keeping up on new shows, developments, and special programming. It’s sad to see this whole mess go quietly into the night, but so it is. In City politics its spirit lives on through various talking points…



New Listen: David Torn’s ‘only sky’

[NOTE: I also talk a bit about this album and review on today’s episode of Matt Borghi’s The Sound Traveler Podcast, which you can find here.]


Artist: David Torn
Album: only sky (2015)

David Torn’s only sky is a wonderful addition to, and a unique artifact within, the ECM Records catalogue. While I don’t necessarily agree with the “New Age” genre classification that automatically appeared in my iTunes window when loading it to my library, Torn’s music certainly and quickly transcends jazz and classical labels and notions – however broad – within the album’s first few minutes.

only sky is my first foray into David Torn’s work, at least as a solo artist. Aside from being peripherally aware of his past ECM releases, I was keen on this release because of the cross-promotion he’d been doing with saxophonist Tim Berne, a longtime associate of his and someone whose own playing I’ve come to know and admire these last couple years. (Berne also released a new album on ECM this year – You’ve Been Watching Me, produced by Torn, which is quite good. Relatedly, Berne is credited with some of the photography in the Torn liner notes.) And, to put an oddly selfish point on it, before purchasing the album I was struck to learn that Torn performed at Baltimore’s The Windup Space on only sky‘s release tour, which is a small, hip arts venue where Matt Borghi and I performed during last year’s east coast tour. As much as I love ECM and not-so-secretly aspire (in vain, admittedly) to one day join its ranks myself, part of me just wanted to know why such an artist would play a venue suitable for the likes of me (i.e., someone of much lower status). However, having absorbed Torn’s solo work on only sky, I can say that his intimate approach must’ve been a perfect fit for that room in Baltimore.

only sky is a solo album, featuring Torn on guitar and electric oud along with myriad real-time effects and processing. So, even though it’s just one performer and his instrument, Torn creates a sonically expansive universe riddled with nine unique, engaging soundworlds. Improvisation is key, with each piece being heavily if not fully realized on the spot. The first track, “at least there was nothing,” is perfectly emblematic of this. The desolate, calm beginning includes multiple layers of sound. Without the liner notes, one wouldn’t even immediately know that a guitar is the source. This textural – almost ambient – approach continues for a while, with an electric oud eventually entering with the album’s first monodic statements after over five minutes.

Lest you think the whole album is one meditatively ambient work, each tune explores different sonic territory. “spoke with folks,” the next track, changes course and heads in an almost Americana direction. Beginning with a diatonic, folk-like melody, Torn speaks through various iterations that gradually add distortion and head into psychedelic territory, which opens the door for the more rock-based explorations in “ok, shorty.”

“was a cave, there…” returns to the ambient-friendly aesthetic of the album’s opening. But where “at least there was nothing” is like sinking into a warm bath, “was a cave, there…” is like exploring the cold, unpredictable realms of space, featuring dissonance, processing, and effects. Torn then turns your attention from cosmic considerations to those of the Delta blues in “reaching barely, sparely fraught.” Over the rhythmic ostinato of open harmonies, Torn plays a blues that often borders on the swampy. Just as with the previous selections, he’s venturing into new sonic and stylistic grounds. The near devolution into distortion and processing at the very end of the track foreshadows what’s to come in “i could almost see the room.” Here, Torn uses what I’ll call aggressive “harmonic processing” that sound more akin saxophone multiphonics than solo guitar. (I’m not a guitarist, so that’s all I’ve got. Sorry, gunslingers.) This piece features a rough ABA’ form, with with some soloing over self-accompaniment falling in between the multiphonic-like sections.

The title track is a contemplative ballad of sorts, cleansing the palette of the more dissonant and tense playing immediately before. In fact, one could consider this the beginning of the album’s descent, as only sky‘s golden section occurs within the aggressive “i could almost see the room,” suggesting a gradual coming down through the rest of the selections.

The peaceful “so much what” features a lot of washy, strummed chords that eventually give way to almost whale-like calls. This fades into an angelic sound bed, which decrescendos to make room for one of the few instances of “pure” (in tone) guitar soloing to close out the track. It’s a rare glimpse into what Torn may sound like before being fully plugged in. Finally, “a goddamned specific unbalance” picks up where its predecessor left off, with some more soloing, though this time with a more affected tone and starting out in a monodic fashion. This is one of the few instances of arguably jazzy riffing throughout the album. Almost as an inverse of the first track, the soloing eventually transitions to more robust textures after several minutes, eventually moving along and fading into the ether as skies often do.

As I mentioned at the outset, Torn transcends stylistic labels here. Furthermore, there are only a couple instances in which his playing reminds me of others, be it explicitly (though I doubt intentionally) or otherwise. For example, there are a couple brief seconds in the jazz-like soloing of the final track in which I hear shades of John Abercromie (specifically when playing with Charles Lloyd, though his work with Gateway could also be considered sonically related), and a couple of the quasi-ambient passages remind me of Matt Borghi‘s guitar work. No doubt allusions are made to Robert Fripp in various reviews, but, to me, Borghi’s more “orchestral” and arguably un-guitar-like approach to the instrument sticks out as more sonically related. Matt often refers to parts of his guitar work as “contemplative microsymphonies,” a term that, along with an extra dash or two of rock, safely applies to much of only sky.

If you’re looking for something different, thought-provoking, and intimate, I highly recommend this album. I’m glad I took the plunge; you will be, too.

ECM link here
Amazon link here
iTunes link here

[Hear me discuss the album on today’s episode of The Sound Traveler Podcast here.]

FYI: Branching Out II

As mentioned here, the blog is branching out some via some cross-publication content. The MT-Headed Blog coup is finally taking shape! Or something like that…

Similar to the East Lansing Info-related content, I’ll be publishing some posts here that can be found in different forms elsewhere. In this case, it’s Matt Borghi‘s The Sound Traveler Podcast. Regular readers or visitors (who may not read all the posts) know Matt as my friend and partner in musical crime. His podcast has been going strong for several months. For lack of a better term, it’s a behind the scenes look at Matt’s musical interests, processes, catalogue, influences, new finds, and more. In that regard, it’s not that much different than the format of this blog, only with Matt at the center and via spoken sound and audio clips. The Sound Traveler Podcast is eclectic and compelling, and it hits the web-waves weekly.

(I myself have kicked around the idea of doing a podcast of sorts since 2010 or so, but never seriously pursued it. On my own, I figured I’d do the blog or a podcast, but I opted to stick with this legacy format.)

All that said, I’ve already joined Matt for a couple of episodes (here and here), the second of which was a complementary episode to the last post. The former episode —  featuring a Borghi | Teager triptych (discussion en route to gig, portions of the gig, discussion returning home) — includes my going on a jag about the NEA Jazz Masters and referencing this post.

Looking forward, I’ll write some occasional posts here to coincide with my some of my contributions there when appropriate. The next instance will be the post immediately following this one, a “New Listen” on David Torn’s only sky. Admittedly it’s not the finest vocal work, as it’s the first time I recorded speaking an album review (with skeletal notes while hopped up on caffeine in the middle of the night). But I’ll hopefully get my sea legs before too long.