Sunday, October 4, 2009

Furniture Music

Just read these liner notes from the Ken Vandermark solo album "Furniture Music". Really cool shit:

“Nevertheless, we must bring about a music which is like furniture — a music, that is, which will be part of the noises of the environment, will take them into consideration.” — Erik Satie

This album has been under personal consideration for quite some time, several years in fact. Throughout the time I have worked as an improvising musician I have been fortunate enough to work in a wide variety of settings — from duos to large ensembles, groups that work with predesignated material or bands that are free from this, ad hoc settings as well as long term collaborations — but the issue of creating what I could consider as “my own” solo improvised music remained elusive despite my many efforts to deal with it.

There have been a number of reasons for this. The legacy of improvised solo reed music now goes back decades, even if you begin to examine it after the early works by masters like Coleman Hawkins and Eric Dolphy. My own awareness of this more recent history began with Joe McPhee’s album, Tenor, which I heard when I was seventeen. After this I found the solo recordings of Anthony Braxton, Peter Brötzmann, and Evan Parker. During a period in the mid 1990s the Duets Dithyrambisch double CD on FMP (with Evan Parker, Hans Koch, Wolfgang Fuchs, and Louis Sclavis) became a “textbook” of extended techniques for me. (I owe John Corbett a good deal of thanks for his introduction to many names and recordings [in some cases the people] from the European improvised music scene while I’ve lived in Chicago.)

To me, it started to seem as if performing and recording solo music was a necessary aspect of creative expression. Almost all of my favorite contemporary improvisers have done important unaccompanied work. This includes almost every kind of instrumentalist in addition to reeds: drummers (Han Bennink, Paul Lytton), guitarists (Derek Bailey, Joe Morris), bassists (Barry Guy, Peter Kowald, and recently Kent Kessler), trombonists (Paul Rutherford, George Lewis), violin/violists (Mat Maneri, Leroy Jenkins), pianists (Cecil Taylor, Misha Mengelberg), trumpeters (Axel Dörner, Bill Dixon), musicians who utilize electronics (Kevin Drumm, Thomas Lehn), vocalists (Jaap Blonk). However, aside from the players I mentioned earlier, reedists Mats Gustafsson and Ab Baars have inspired me to find my own way the most. Their solutions to the issues of performing unaccompanied, since the innovations made by McPhee, Braxton, Brötzmann, and Parker, are to my ears the most strikingly personal of my “contemporaries.” I felt that if I was going to be successful in my exploration of the solo format, I would need to develop methods that would hopefully stand up to and apart from their work and the ideas of the previous generation.

For a very long time I was unable to develop an approach that would fulfill this obligation and warrant documentation. When I used pieces by other composers as an unaccompanied soloist it always felt like something was missing. If the music worked it was because I and the listener were sustaining an illusion that supplied missing components (a rhythm section for example). If I played without compositional materials it seemed to me that I was delving into territory better realized by the musicians who had developed the ideas in the first place. My own compositions up to this point were written for specific ensembles and players and didn’t function well as solo source material.

Periodically I’d try different concepts at home and in a rare solo concert, give up on the results, and come back to the problem again some time later. The first solution that yielded workable results was an extrapolation from the “language types” of Anthony Braxton. In the middle ’90s I wrote “sound components” down on cards and would select a number of these from a deck of thirty or so (sometimes intentionally, sometimes not). Then I’d place these in a series, improvising from one card to the next. What resulted was something that in the end sounded more like an academic exercise than music. It also didn’t allow me the freedom to move in the directions that the spontaneous playing might indicate, so this was abandoned and no other ideas seemed to lead anywhere that was useful for a period of several years.

The, in June of 2002, I was scheduled to play on a concert of solo music with Peter Brötzmann, Mats Gustafsson, and Mars Williams. The performance took place in Montreal during the second North American tour by the Peter Brötzmann Chicago Tentet. The four of us were to play for about fifteen minutes each. As I waited for my turn to go on, I became more and more tense; I knew that my lack of success with the solo format was going to be more than apparent when played side by side with these other musicians. Most likely, my fears were realized, but one piece indicated what would be the way for the solo music to come. I had tried it before on tenor, but on this night I chose to use the baritone and suddenly something clicked. The piece was a reinterpretation of Jaap Blonk’s version of Tristan Tzara’s “(brüllt)” found on the CD, Flux de Bouche.

Based on a dadaist poem by Tzara, Jaap’s performance was an extreme repetition of the word “brüllt” (which, according to his liner notes, means “roar” as well as “scream”) until his voice gave out. With the baritone’s large overtone range I felt that I had discovered a way to recreate the intensity of Jaap’s approach to Tzara’s text. His schematic gave me a template which I was able to reinvent in later solo concerts. It provided me with a specific set of parameters to follow, but it also allowed for flexibility in interpretation and an open way to interact with the performance environment (Parameters: low Bb hit as hard and as long as possible. Variables: rhythm, duration of tone, complexity of overtone structure, motion of overtones). This conceptual breakthrough led me to a number of connections between a set of artists whose work I have long admired:

Bernd and Hilla Becher
Samuel Beckett
Morton Feldman
Mississippi Fred MacDowell
Piet Mondrian
Mark Rothko
Erik Satie
Michael Snow

The creative action of these individuals has a commonality in its use of fluid repetition. Through studying their catalogs I was able to “break the code” preventing me from finding my own self contained approach. By creating a solo music based on “typologies” (borrowing a term used by the Bechers for one of their photo collections) which represented open patterns, I was quickly able to develop a series of workable pieces. Here are simplified descriptions of the template methods used on this album; I’ve also included the manner in which some of the ideas from the artists listed above have impacted the music.

Resistance: exploration of difference tone motion in the upper register of the Bb clarinet.

Horizontal Weight: use of an image from one of Franz Kline’s black and white paintings as a source for a graphic and emotional score

So Is This: (the title is taken from a film of the same name by Michael Snow) interpretations of a “structural” film from Snow that examines pattern variations in a leaking faucet on dishes in a kitchen sink

Lines: attempt to spontaneously construct an open ended solo phrase using Lennie Tristano’s piano style as a model.

Immediate Action: use of pitch based speed to try to express the motion contained in a Jackson Pollock painting.

Panels: intersection of the visual aspects of Piet Mondrian with the flow of an Erik Satie piano piece.

Color Fields to Darkness: exploration of an open sequence of bass clarinet overtones to aurally represent the shift in color of Mark Rothko’s paintings towards black.

Would a Proud Man Rather Break Than Bend: approach towards an improvised blues with Mississippi Fred McDowell’s elliptical guitar phrases in mind.

Beck and Fall: integration of the physical action (Act Without Words I) and language patterns (End Game) of Samuel Beckett with the “crippled symmetry” of Morton Feldman’s music.

Melodica: construction of a sequence of “pure” melodies in the time of performance.

Indeterminate Action: utilization of Irvine Arditti’s approach to the “Freeman Etudes” by John Cage (move as quickly as possible through the violin sound combinations in the score), improvised and applied to extended technique possibilities on the bass clarinet.

Leaves: incorporation of the image and sound from the park scenes in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up, and the newspaper sequence from his film Red Desert, then cross cutting them (I owe a great deal of debt to Axel Dörner’s sound innovations for inspiring the first part of this piece).

(brüllt): the methodology of this composition has already been discussed.

I’ve included second versions of five of these pieces in the hope of illustrating the improvisational variety possible with this typological system. They were recorded at a solo concert held at 3030 in Chicago; the performance took place between the two “studio” sessions documented in my living room.

The search to find something worthwhile to say when improvising on the stage or in the studio can always be difficult. My attempts to find a workable and self-contained approach to solo improvisation has been particularly challenging. I feel that I’ve found something personal to express from the results of this struggle; my wish is that in experiencing this music the listener may agree.

— Ken Vandermark, March 2003