Sunday, September 21, 2008

Piles of Leaves and the Rake of Art

First, 1970-71 Burdocks by Christian Wolff is maybe one of the strangest, loveliest pieces of undone music ever. It unfolds in seemingly disparate events: a twinkle of a xylophone, a slight crash of percussion, a muted whimper from a violin, who knows what all and yet instead of being a jumble of notes, forms compartments in which the whole of the world may be placed. German composer Daniel Wolf goes deftly explains the technical aspects that go into creating this piece on a 2006 entry from his blog Renewable Music should you be curious, and maybe the success of pieces like this - scored partially with a piece of text that says "flying"- depend on the musicians assembled, and it would hard to imagine anything short of levitation from this assembled cast, but wow what a perfect musical moment.

Almost too perfect for yesterday morning as I puttered around, sweeping up debris from Gustav still in piles in my back yard. My back yard is a little hard to take now, because recently, before the storm, it was a sweet oasis of shade and moderate order. Sitting in lawn chairs by the back fence under the tree (now fallen) over the mild expanse of green, looking at the back of my cute house and cute little fences was a balm, and now surface of he lawn is a confluence of ruts from the tree guys and scorching hot blinding sun. It is far from ruined mind you, and has given me some gardening ideas now that we have enough sun to raise goddamn corn back there, but it still is a little rough.

Same for walking down my street. My neighborhood still sits on the cusp of city-neighborhood and rural lane in tenor, but its melody is muted by the eye-level high piles of brush everywhere you look. It reminds me of Max Ernst's Europe after the Rain II,

where intrepid explorers look solemnly over the vast tangled wastes of war-ravaged Europe. All of my bemoaning the environmental horror of my surroundings is, of course, a little ridiculous. We could have had it so much worse. I went to see the Silver Jews in New Orleans earlier in the week and caught up with some locals at the show. One mentioned, I heard y'all got it bad in the storm and my friend and I proceeded to unload our woeful tales of 10 days without power, thankful for fresh ears I guess, but then I realized who I was talking to - people whose whole city was devastated only a few years ago.

So upon shock and post-traumatic stress and general wear I pile guilt and that is exactly how depression works, for those bewildered souls who think it’s about being sad. It's not, it's about feeling sad, and then feeling sad for feeling sad, and then feeling sad for feeling sad for .... until you feel everything and nothing and all you can do is force your way through it.

Anthony Braxton's Composition 211 is spot-on sonic portrait of the self-loathing I was feeling over all this. The hour long piece begins with what can best be described as a prolonged bout of forced chuckling by his "Ninetet" desperately, pathetically laughing themselves into not feeling so miserable. It is a little maddening to listen to actually, but it was a necessary wedge to pry me out of my psychological corner. As with most great Braxton pieces, the main motif devolves into a long introspective stretch, descending into clouds of contemplative mist, sparsely populated like the Wolff piece, but the landscape through which these lonely squirrels of sound scamper and forage is barren and hostile.

Braxton has been on my mind lately because I came across an interview with him in The Wire from a couple years back where he professed that we are entering a new dark age, and to expect a rise in cult activity, which tickled my apocalypse bone the absolute wrong way. During the storm, when I walked into the grocery store in my neighborhood operating on generators, with the lights flickering and the already near-lunatic staff sweating and emotionally threadbare I got a twinge of this is what it will be like when it all goes down. It will not be a flash of light or a mass ascension of souls accompanied by a loud trumpet, it will be a slow degradation, things falling apart and never getting fixed, planned paths will be choked with weeds.

This line of thinking became too much to bear, and right at the moment where I thought my head might cave in, the Ninetet worked their way back to the chuckling from the beginning, and the trash can was filled with leaves. I pulled out of the apocalypse by pulling out my earbuds and just sat there for a while.

Later that afternoon, an opportunity to drive around alone and go to the used CD store and the bike store and the guitar store arose and while I wasn't willing to pull away from sphere of the avant-garde, I needed something more fun to listen to and John Zorn’s Masada Rock fit the bill. Zorn's Masada catalog is rendered as surf and affable hard rock, impeccably performed. I am continually struck by the breadth and quality of John Zorn's catalog, he's really up there with Ives in being able to pull the world into his insular processes and inversely express his genius back through those channels. This record is a hoot.

Today, as I type all this catharsis out, purge my anxieties through records that have nothing to do with me with hopes I can maybe find something universal in them, I'm lulled by the dim glow of narcissism and the flawless pips and tweets of Benjamin Britten's Six Metamorphoses after Ovid. In the original, the Roman poet muses on the creation and history of the universe, using the entire Pantheon of Gods to scare love out of the hedges into the light of cognition, and Britten reduces this massive work into some small figures for solo oboe. Sometimes I wonder why I spend so much time on things like this, and then there are days when the threads running through these records and myself glow white-hot and like Britten does with the whole of the Universe through and oboe’s fragile reed, I can hear a sweet melody in it all.

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