Tuesday, April 28, 2009

a pummeling by soft blows

Among the mystic cabal of falsely-monikered "American primitive" guitarists, Peter Walker is becoming my favorite. He offers a more internalized look at the acoustic guitar's innate exploratory properties; one gets the sense that he is playing guitar from the inside, peering through the strings like they are powerlines spied through a basement apartment window. This collection Long Lost Tapes 1970, rife with temple bells, flutes, and tabla/bongo outbursts, VU guitars diffused in the imagined light of Far East speakeasys, further plumbs the depths of Walker's sonic mystery. (listen)

I have to be primed to take in music as delicate and tender as Vasthi Bunyan's, otherwise I can barely feel her songs made of whispers and dust motes and shed feathers as they land on my skin. (listen) That pummeling by soft blows, though, does set an ear up for Robert Wyatt's difficult and enchanting song un-writing. I'm tempted to say Wyatt invented lo-fi, not the sound quality, but the aesthetic. I wonder is so much slapdash indie rock would have been deemed allowable without old Rottenhat telling us to loosen up. Ruth is Stranger than Richard is one of the greatest Wyatt records, right at the fulcrum of weirdnee and sweetness. The velveteen buzz of the organ on this record sound like someone fell asleep on the keyboard in just the right position to release the dream chord into the air.

Alvin Lucier has likely done exactly that at some point in his career. He takes a scientific approach to experimental music, allowing the answers to simple questions of acoustic phenomena become poetry, revealing the often ignored wit of the universe. Here are his notes on Music for Piano with Magnetic Strings.

Years ago I met a music critic who said he didn’t like music made with wires. He was referring to my Music on a Long Thin Wire which had just been installed at the Landmark Center in Saint Paul, as part of New Music America Minneapolis 1980. I retorted that he must not like the piano; it contained over two hundred and fifty of them.

When Lois Svard asked me to write her a piece, my mind flashed back to that encounter and I imagined a work in which the strings of a piano would sound by themselves. In Music on a Long Thin Wire a large horseshoe magnet straddles the wire creating a flux field around it which, in conjunction with a current from an oscillator, causes the wire to vibrate and sound. For a piano work I would need several small magnets to activate more than one string at a time. I bought several EBows, small electromagnets used primarily with electric guitars. I experimented, placing them on the strings of my piano. I discovered that if I waited long enough, certain strings would begin sounding.

I wrote Lois a prose score, describing the process and suggesting she freely position and reposition five EBows on the piano strings, creating strands of sounds of varying density and texture. Much of her time is spent listening for harmonics, audible beating, occasional rhythms produced as one or more magnets vibrates against adjacent strings, and other acoustic phenomena. (from here)

Lucier's music is all about the waiting, and sixteen minutes in, the hums of the magnets start to overtake the piano as a whole; you can hear what may be the rattling of the hardware. One wonders is you had the right vibrations going, you might coax one of the hammers to hit, effectively closing the loop and having the piano play itself.

Anthony Burr is one of Lucier's great interpreters, but this album The Clarinets is the first music of his I believe I have heard. Burr, along with Chris Speed and Oscar Noriega on clarinet and bass clarinet, engage in a number of trio improvisations with telling names like "Constellation" and "Mockingbird" exploiting the instrument's haunting and flatulent qualities in an orderly and imaginative fashion. I know that description sounds more clinical than evocative, but it fits and sometimes even I just want the bare facts and not the gilded life story.

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