Red Bats, Future and Past

Here I sit, once again writing about coming out of a musical rut and referencing older recordings from my library

I watched more TV this summer than I have in quite a while. Part of it was my gradually lifting music-making malaise. Though, to be fair, it’s rare that I have “so many” new shows (i.e., more than one) I’m trying to stay current with at once. But over the last few months I juggled all of The Leftovers, the second season of SENSE8 (a crime that it was canceled, even if a fig leaf of a finale film is to come), and the peerless Twin Peaks: The Return. On top of the obligatory Game of Thrones, of course, but, particularly in light of the latest season, it’s a cut below the others–entertaining but not compelling. Whereas I was utterly spellbound by The Leftovers and Twin Peaks: The Return.

I know. Four shows, big whoop. In this era of Peak TV, there’s so much content to choose from and absorb. However, concerning TV, I’ve always been more the type to get really into a show and just watch and re-watch my favorites as opposed to watch many different shows. Depth versus breadth of intake. If I don’t like a show, I’ll quickly abandon it. If I do like it, I’ll give it my full attention and likely see it again. If I love it, look out. I’ll watch to the point of memorization and go quickly down the rabbit hole. If a show has a mythology, like Fringe or Twin Peaks, then clear my schedule.

Furthermore, part of me is hesitant to glom onto a new show (new for me, even if not new itself), as I feel somewhat cursed in my tastes. In the last ten years, there’ve been two new shows that I started watching while they were actually new and was immediately attached to, John From Cincinnati and Sense8. The former was critically panned and swiftly canceled. The latter received mixed reviews and was abruptly ended despite the last episode’s mid-mission cliffhanger. I admit that, even if a show is uneven, I give more weight to and prefer to watch something that takes a chance and is different, even if it may crash and burn in the process. (Hence my quibbling with The Force Awakens, and my rolling my eyes why I saw that Abrams will return for Episode IX…yikes) For example, some of the performances on John From Cincinnati are downright abysmal. Yet JFC contains some of my favorite characters, performances, and moments in any show. (Ed O’Neill’s Bill Jacks and Dayton Callie’s Steady Freddy are absolute gold.)

Anyway, before I get too off track…

(I could write an entry or three on John From Cincinnati…that may come yet…but for now I’ll just enjoy being one of the few dozen folks who visit what old message boards remain. If you happen to be a fan that found this post vis the occasional search, feel free to drop a line…)

Twin Peaks: The Return also deserves its own entry at some point. What an enchanting score and sound design (and I do love ambient sounds…), both in and out of The Roadhouse–arguably more so outside of it, in my opinion. There’s been enough laudatory criticism recently, so I won’t go there. Such a triumph by David Lynch. (But I will note that when re-watching Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me after seeing The Return, it’s a revelation–almost like seeing it again for the first time.) Instead, I wanted to note a funny little indirect connection between another of Lynch’s works and my recent resurgence of musical productivity. In this case, it’s 1997’s Lost Highway, shades of which can be seen in The Return.

I do love the original Twin Peaks, though I came to it late much later. I recall coming across snippets in the past and it being in the ether when I was young (I was six when it debuted), but I didn’t fully dive into it and its prequel film until several years back. David Lynch, however, was certainly on my radar in my adolescence. I saw Lost Highway in early 1998, and I went in mostly blind. I knew that it was supposed to have a good soundtrack and be a little different, both of which were understatements. Lost Highway was the first film I saw that left me utterly baffled at the end. Not yet fifteen, I liked it but couldn’t really articulate why. It was years before I saw it again and I remained bewildered by it, but I was just as spellbound as the first time.

I got the soundtrack around the time of that first viewing. Nearly twenty years later, I still regularly listen to it. (Fittingly, it’s a good driving album.) One piece, a selection from Angelo Badalamenti’s original score, in particular often stuck out above the rest, both then and now, especially in light of my recent trifecta of productive practice, heavy listening, and wallowing in The Return. That is Badalamenti‘s “Red Bats With Teeth.” It’s probably a throwaway piece for many, considering the soundtrack features Trent Reznor (with and without Nine Inch Nails), David Bowie, Marilyn Manson, Smashing Pumpkins, Rammstein, and more. Reznor produced the soundtrack, and it’s worth noting that 1997’s Lost Highway shares some similarities, in terms of overall sound, with 1999’s The Fragile, my favorite Nine Inch Nails album.

Considering my fondness for the the album and the fact that it’d be years before seeing another David Lynch work, it’d be accurate to say that Angelo Badalamenti was seared into my consciousness long before his filmmaking colleague.

lost highway

Initially “Red Bats with Teeth,” a jazz tune, stuck out to me because it featured the saxophone, and it was around 1998 that I started developing a strong interest in the horn. (Bill Pullman’s character, the protagonist for the film’s first half, is a saxophonist and “plays” this in an early scene. The tenor saxophone part was played by Bob Sheppard.) I was listening to a little jazz by this time, but it was pretty sporadic. Pretty much all of it was straight ahead though. “Red Bats…” was one of my first tastes of something even approaching atonal or avant-garde, with the use of extended techniques and noise toward the end of the piece. In just under three minutes, the band goes from a smoky and laid back quasi-West Coast cool vibe to screeching over a frenzied groove. It sounded odd to me at first, but something about it drew me in. A young me recognized that it was intentional even if it sounded foreign. (A couple years later I threw myself down the jazz rabbit hole, but at that time it was still largely new.) The only thing I could really square it with was LeRoi Moore‘s playing on some early live DMB recordings, as he would occasionally get noise-y in the early years. But because one was jazz and the horn was the focus (“Bats”), and the other was rock and the horn was but just one element (DMB), they were different enough to be in separate categories for me.

These days, of course, I hear it in its various contexts. And it’s certainly Badalamentian–almost as if The Black Lodge had a jazz night.

I won’t get hyperbolic and say that “Red Bats” itself led me down the path to eventually purchasing Evan Parker recordings. The line isn’t so direct. But it did open a door for me, and when I really think about it now, it was my patient zero in a way, at least when it comes to a very particular sort of saxophone vocabulary. But even with that loaded sentimental history, I still enjoy just throwing it on for a good jam. Especially these days, now that I’m starting to get back into a groove, and with Lynch again in the air.

Those Red Room inhabitants are right to ask: “Is it future, or is it past?”

Is this thing on?

It certainly has been a while.

Though this site is never far from my mind–and often near the very front of it–I just needed some time away from the toiling at the keyboard. In normal times, what actually gets posted here represents a small percentage of the myriad drafts and notions and fits and starts. But, as with most things over the last many months, I’ve put things on hold. Some out of my own desire to do so, and some for reasons beyond my control.

When we made the family decision last year to move to Buffalo, I saw it as an opportunity to wipe the slate mostly clean. I figured that clearing out my schedule and routine would help me to de-stress some by shedding the years of accumulated obligations and busy-ness. It worked out, in ways both good and bad, but here I am a year later feeling ready to lay the foundation and start anew. We finally closed on a house here in April, and we’re settled into the new location and routine.

I thought I’d at least write more here in the interim, but I suppose the world survived without my completing those half-finished drafts of concert reviews (Liebman at Toronto’s The Rex and the Canadian Opera Company’s Götterdämmerung at Toronto’s Four Season Center, on successive weekends in February, Dave Matthews & Tim Reynolds at SPAC), passionate meditations on you know what, an ode to the now-closed Record Theatre, a celebration of the twentieth anniversary of my first Tool concert (07.26.97…an important and formative date), and a rumination on “the long 1996”–a pivotal year of music for an adolescent me. Yada yada.

The summer came and went unremarkably, mostly filled with work and getting the house and property in order. Not returning to Austria, coupled with my not teaching during this upcoming year, has seemingly put me off the academic grid with less of a sense of time. The first few months of 2017 were focused on closing on and moving into our house. And since then it’s been a whole lotta parenting and nesting.

For a while, ambivalent practicing was the best I could do. Thankfully, though, over the last couple months I’ve been able to settle into a good routine, enjoying what could arguably be some of my more productive practice sessions since my son’s birth.

More notable is that despite the valleys and eventual peak of my own music-making, I’ve been listening a lot, much more than in the few preceding years. I’d been taking in a lot of music, but it seemed to be in spurts, and overall pretty passive, and I’d go long spells without getting too excited about anything new. This year my ears are hungrier than ever. Part of it is related to my actively reducing both my daily news consumption–which had been at junkie-status for a decade–as well as my podcast intake. But also I’ve had just a genuine desire to dig back in. It’s been great for my mind and soul, even if my wallet has taken a hit. The renewed urgency around listening is no doubt related to my increased desire to play for the sake of playing (as opposed to maintenance).

Hopefully I can find the time to get back into some sort of rhythm here also. I mean, I do intend to actually proceed beyond a half-draft and publish a review of Chicago Lyric Opera‘s Die Walküre in a couple months…

Further Down the ‘River of Fundament’

Here we are. December 2016, nearly 2017. It’s been almost two-and-a-half years since I saw Matthew Barney’s River of Fundament exhibition at Munich’s Haus der Kunst. Ten months have passed since I saw the film at Cleveland’s Museum of Contemporary Art. In that time, I’ve read and listened to quite a bit on the topic — including finishing Norman Mailer’s Ancient Evenings, and Okwui Enwezor’s Matthew Barney: River of Fundament (Haus der Kunst’s official exhibition catalogue), and devouring what relevant interviews with Mailer and Barney I can find — and have dug farther into Barney specifically, including material on The Cremaster Cycle. Needless to say, I remain under utterly fascinated by River of Fundament. Not only that, but my appreciation continues to grow deeper.

I don’t intend to dive too far deep into the weeds, but I’d like to add some thoughts to the initial review.

It took a while for me to finish Mailer’s Ancient Evenings. Work and parenting leave time for little else, and it’s difficult to find long stretches of time to fit in chunks of substantial reading. Though, I am glad I read it as I did in relation to seeing the film. I read the first portion of the book — until the beginning of the Night of the Pig — before heading to Cleveland, and it helped to have Mailer’s re-telling of the myth of Isis and Osiris (and Set and Nepthys) fresh in my mind in addition to the characters and context of Mailer’s original tale. For the rest of the novel, it was great to have River of Fundament as a reference, as there were many subtleties that stuck out to me that otherwise wouldn’t have. I made notes throughout the book and won’t catalogue them all in this post, but here are a couple of examples:

1. “Some life like none I had known before began to tremble in the metal.”
“The magic is in the metal itself.”
– p. 204 (Mailer, Norman. Ancient Evenings. New York: Random House, 2014.)

These are two quotes of many that reference metallurgy and its surrounding mysticism — a core facet of Barney’s entire cycle (film, sculptures, engravings, and more). Norman and Menenhetet seek higher power through reincarnation, and this is expressed in parallel through Barney’s ritualistic destruction and rebirth of the three automobiles. Along with this, however, is the hierarchy of metals that is referenced by Barney — lead and zinc giving way to copper and brass in an attempt to achieve gold.

rouge battery(Matthew Barney’s “Rouge Battery” at Haus der Kunst; photo by me)

2. “Before our eyes the river began to fester.” – p. 270
“I have made them see Thy Majesty as a crocodile, The Lord of Fear in the water…” – p. 303

These quotes evoke the imagery of Horus’s birth as depicted in River of Fundament. Before the deceased Trans Am crests the water, the river does indeed fester. (Furthermore, Mailer references froth or frothing at various points in the novel, which is also a visual and vocal device employed by both Barney and Bepler.) A dying Isis gives birth to Horus inside the Trans Am whilst a crocodile calmly lies below her feet and newborn.

birth of horus(River of Fundament production still, “Birth of Horus”)

nepthys(River of Fundament production still, Nepthys)

And that’s to say nothing of the myriad references to orchids, pigs, bulls (evoking Barney’s Guardian of the Veil, the cycle’s antecedent), gold leaf, and much more. Thinking back to River of Fundament, a number of other questions arise: Was Mailer’s Honey-Ball portrayed as one of Barney’s Ptah-nem-hotep’s little queens, specifically the one who serenades Norman I? Was Hathfertiti I’s tuneful and catchy “Ballad of the Bullfighter” inspired by Honey-Ball’s “sweet and innocent song” that, in its own way (but different from the film), gives way to “[crying] out”? (p. 476) And many more…

Some instances reference specific imagery; others are more abstract evocations. Nonetheless, I came across many such connections while reading Mailer’s tome. Despite the host of negative reviews, many, but not all, of which were a consequence of uninformed or lazy criticism (I guess program notes are optional these days), I’ve found Barney and Bepler’s work to be a richer experience than I had initially thought. (It was quite positive to begin with.)

Visuals and text aside, memories of the music regularly play in my mind’s ear. There are the few samples hidden throughout the official website, and snippets in the various trailers and interviews, but nothing too complete. After all, it’s operatic, and there are no real neatly-isolated arias. (Even if there were, I don’t think a Greatest Hits would be released, much to my personal chagrin.)

My growing interest feels like a nascent “project” of some sort. I don’t quite know what that may be, but the “work” slowly continues when I have the time. Perhaps I’ll log more here as I go.

More importantly, though, I feel it’s necessary to note some of these “findings” (subjective though they may arguably be in part). The mostly negative reaction to both Ancient Evenings and River of Fundament have led to scant information being available save a few diamonds in that rough. I may not change minds or alter the course of either’s reception, but I can certainly do my part to justify what I consider to be an important artistic achievement by Barney and Bepler.

(All River of Fundament-related posts are here.)

The (Supposed) Mediocrity of Now — Canonical Musings

(Rambling in multiple directions below, holes and all…)

They don’t make ’em like they used to.
Dead artists sell more.
If only they went back to the roots.

Yada yada…

While the above statements can convey a fair amount of truth in a great many applications, they also carry with them an implied bias against the now, be it for better or worse. One way in which I’m regularly dubious of these claims is when discussing artistic style and merit, particularly in music. (Since I’m a musician, that’ll be the focus, though I see it in various media.) By and large, there’s an inherent institutional bias in favor of those artists and works that have come before. The argument in support of this is that an artist or work must “stand the test of time” — whether it holds up under prolonged cultural, critical, and communal scrutiny. Those are noble criteria. After the initial fanfare of a premiere or release, it’s important to look under the hood and see how much there is there and how — or if — it influences the field. But, ultimately, this of course begs the questions: WHO is dispensing this approval and HOW and WHY?

In music, one aspect of this criticism is that pretty much everything’s been done before (until it hasn’t, that is), and so to really appreciate something one must just go back to the “original sources.” One doesn’t get Lady Gaga without Madonna. Fair enough. One can of course give credit where credit is due, but that doesn’t mean that anyone who likes Gaga should just shut her off and go back in time. She also plays piano and can sing (can Madonna do much of either consistently?) and wears costumes — enter Elton John. (And I do love Elton.) But, again, does this mean that Gaga’s Monsters should just listen to Madonna and Elton for the “authentic” Gaga experience? It’d be a good frame of reference, but it’s no substitute for Lady Gaga herself. In appreciating Gaga, they are footnotes, and footnotes and references are important. Go read them. But a series of footnotes does not automatically synthesize to create a new and original idea or argument. (Of course, this says nothing of the influences of Elton and Madonna, and their influences, etc…)

Having influences — and/or building upon their work — doesn’t automatically strip an artist of their originality. Also, yes, there are plenty of derivative artists working today. Just as there were decades and centuries ago. (The new wave of blue-eyed soul singers is but one exponent of this.)

One current group making noteworthy, original music is Bon Iver, having recently released another jaw-dropping album. I’ve been listening to 22, A Million on near-repeat for weeks, which is how I reacted five years ago when I first heard its predecessor Bon Iver. I received Bon Iver as a birthday gift a couple weeks after its release. At the time, I recognized the name and peripherally noticed praise online, but I hadn’t listened to anything from the album or artist. But I clearly remember being floored the first time I listened to it. (Specifically, I was in my Houston apartment packing late at night for my first stint teaching abroad.) I was transfixed and utterly distracted from the task at hand (packing). I gave the album three full listens back to back. And then I just kept listening to it. I never wrote much about it (except here), but it quickly became a desert island disc for me. Fast forward five years and 22, A Million seems to be on a similar trajectory. It’s an engaging and beautiful extension of Bon Iver, taking Justin Vernon’s project to new sonic and artistic planes.

All this is to say that, even though Vernon is in his mid-30s, I don’t hesitate to say that he’s written some truly great albums, and I easily place them alongside other, older works.

In a related vein, I praised Mette Henriette’s self-titled ECM debut as a wholly original statement. I thought then, as I still do now, that one of the album’s strengths was that, artistically, I could only really hear Henriette’s voice and vision. I can make a couple of leaps and say that a couple sections may sound similar to this or that, but overall it’s a pretty self-contained statement.

Of course, my argument isn’t to throw out the titans and disregard history. (My various entries on Wagner, Liebman, and Einstein on the Beach, among others, are evidence of such.) However, they have their place, just as newer artists have theirs.

In pop music, “the good old days” are roughly the late fifties through the mid-seventies. There was a lot of great music produced then, and my music collection is a testament to my agreeing with that sentiment. It was the result of countless factors, including but not limited to various cultural, political, and technological developments. That said, is nostalgia on behalf of the baby boomer establishment — those who were young fans at the time but now old enough to be the journalistic gatekeepers — not also a factor? I often think so. In another twenty years, will canonical focus shift to emphasize the nineties and aughts?

Another aspect of this phenomenon is older artists, who themselves created now-classic pieces, who continue to work today. Generally the argument is that they’re not producing at their former (“classic”) level. (Sub-argument: does the new, “lesser” work degrade their overall output? Or, as asked in High Fidelity: is it better to burn out than to fade away?) Consider two sides of the piano rock coin: Elton John and Billy Joel. I’m a fan of both, but, admittedly, much more so of the former than the latter. (I think Joel’s The Stranger is a near-flawless masterpiece, but I think a number of his other albums sound like good imitations of other styles/artists rather than good Billy Joel records.) They’re both held up as rock icons, and they both continue to sell out arenas throughout the globe. Joel, similar to many of his musical generation, hasn’t released new material (save a couple songs in the mid-aughts and a classical album in 2001) since 1993’s River of Dreams. Elton, however, keeps putting out new albums every couple of years. (His 32nd studio album was released this year.) Sure, they’re of varying quality. Wonderful Crazy Night (2016) doesn’t really hold up against 2010’s The Union and 2013’s The Diving Board, but he’s still creating and regularly releasing quality material.

I’ve noticed similar criticism regarding Matthew Barney and Jonathan Beplers’s River of Fundament. (AKA, the piece that has dominated my attention in 2016.) In many of its mixed-to-negative reviews, one criticism often levied against it is that it’s not as good as The Cremaster Cycle, Barney’s 1994-2002 film pentalogy. Other than what I’ve read about it (and its few connections to Fundament), I can’t speak to Cremaster because I haven’t yet seen it. (That’s not out of lack of interest, of course. Many of Barney’s works are difficult to see outside of controlled exhibitions. There’s always YouTube, but I haven’t yet gone done down that road…) Sure, my view of River of Fundament is hardly objective at this point. Instead of mainly considering the work in relation to Barney’s ouvre, I’ve tried (and continue to do so) to consider the work itself in relation to what it was trying to do by, among other things, reading Norman Mailer’s Ancient Evenings and its review by literary critic Harold Bloom (the former is the basis for the film and the latter also strongly influenced Barney’s interpretation), and also the exhibition book produced by Okwui Enwezor, director of Munich’s Haus der Kunst. Yes, criticism itself should take the larger picture into account, but the artist’s overall output can’t be the primary focus — just part of it. Alone, “Was it as good as _____?” isn’t a fair assessment.

(As for Fundament itself, I could write another several essays on the work after reading Mailer’s source text. Only if you’re lucky, I suppose…)

To reiterate, this isn’t to say that “new” is inherently better than “old.” Rather, new and old can both be important. Furthermore, going back to the post’s beginning, when considering The Canon, it’s worth remember that who’s granted membership to that esteemed club isn’t an apolitical decision. As Bob Shingleton has wonderfully documented over the years at On An Overgrown Path, plenty of the recent past’s first-rate composers and pieces have been neglected by the artistic establishment. (One example of many here. Also notable is the highlighting that Simpson is often compared with past composers at the expense of his own originality.) Exploring neglected works of the past can be as illuminating and offer as much discovery as absorbing new works of the present.

More music is being written, recorded, and released than ever before. Similarly, access to music is more open and universal than ever before. However, the canonical narrative of the good old days remains, and at the expense of what’s happening now.

‘Einstein on the Beach’ on Video

I rarely publish such posts, but given this blog’s regular discussion of Philip Glass, Robert Wilson, and Lucinda Childs’s Einstein on the Beach over the last several years, I should mention that it is now, for the first time, available for purchase in full on video. It was released in the US on DVD and Blu-ray on October 28.

I’ve been watching my Blu-ray in surround sound this weekend and it is lovely. While I certainly don’t want to dilute my memory of seeing it live, the camerawork allows the viewer to see small nuances that are easily missed in the live spectacle.

The filmed performance is from January 2014 at the Théȃtre du Chȃtelet in Paris. (The same one that streamed online for a few months that year.)

Fervently recommended.