Sounds Like Now
A blog by saxophonist Brian Sacawa
Archive for January, 2007
All dressed up and no place to go? Allow me to suggest the following activities taking place this week in and around Baltimore:
+ Meet the Artist: Matthew Barney: The acclaimed artist and filmmaker best known for The Cremaster Cycle, and more recently for his collaboration with BjÃ¶rk in Drawing Restraint 9, will be at the Hirshhorn this Wednesday at 7pm with Guggenheim Museum curator Nancy Spector discussing the influence of Joseph Beuys‘ art on the evolution of his work. If you really can’t make it, dont worry: due to the anticipated overwhelming response, the musuem is offering a live webcast of the event.
+ Tim Feeney & Vic Rawlings: The better half of Non-Zero leads a double-life as an improviser and this Friday he comes tramping through Baltimore with fellow Boston-based musician Vic Rawlings (cello/electronics) for a 9pm set at the Red Room to make some sounds you’ve never heard before and will probably never hear again.
+ Cell Phone: Art and the Mobile Phone: Just-opened exhibit at the Contemporary Museum, featuring art created by/for small handheld devices.
Last night was rock night at the Red Room with two extremely divergent but complimentary takes on the music. Up first was Kioku, a sax-percussion-laptop trio from NYC, performing “traditional Asian folk music within a new context of collaborative experimentation and improvisation” and more than a touch of funk and free jazz. Central to the group’s gimmick is the use of asian percussion instruments, including a taiko drum and several varieties of gongs, which were not exploited for their inherent sonic uniqueness, but rather co-opted to form a sort of colonialist drum kit. I suppose since it was a Red Room show I expected the music to be a bit more free-form and stream-of-consciousness. Instead, you got the sense that each compositional decision was carefully orchestrated and structurally predetermined. The group’s polish and refined sound was the giveaway. Yet built into that structure were opportunities for each member to elaborate and saxophonist Ali Sakkal delivered an inspired Evan Parker-esque solo interlude between sections.
If Kioku was the sound of refinement, then Needle Gun, a pubescent noise quartet from Baltimore, was the antithesis. Their sound hit you like a ton of bricks and was a beautifully rich, complex cacophony of raw energy. Needle Gun played with absolute unfettered ferocity and abandon, providing a perfect counterpoint to the evening and allowing the superlatives flow freely from my pen. It’s nice to see the kids doing something productive.
I had planned to start this little review like this: Jonathan Franzen’s The Discomfort Zone is a rather unmemorable collection of personal essays dealing with and recalling, among other things, his relationship with his parents, adolescence, birding, and Snoopy, and is much less focused than his previous book of essays How To Be Alone. Then I thought, that’s not very nice, he’s writing about his childhood and baring all of his insecurities and quirks and self-consciousness that is, well, embarrassing. So of course it’s memorable for him. But besides the essay “Centrally Located,” which details many elaborate I’m-a-senior-and-graduating-from-high-school-soon-so-I-need-to-leave-my-mark pranks, including an almost-successful plot to thread a tire over the school’s flagpole, I wasn’t really enchanted by this one. I had planned to (and still intend to) end this little review like this: Read it if you’re a Franzen fan, skip it if you’re not.
A belated birthday greeting (one week off the mark) from SLN. Thanks to all our readers.
Franzen’s wonderful collection of essays tied together by the themes of privacy and how to be alone in a world of unparalled media saturation (and his search for the meaning of writing the contemporary social novel and whether or not anyone cares). With so many media options and outlets vying for our attention and for us to consumeâ€”TV, radio, books, magazines, music, the internet, et. alâ€”how do we ever have time to tend to everything we’d like to? What is the process by which we chose what we’ll consume? Ever feel overwhelmed? The book is called How To Be Alone, but paradoxically after reading it, you discover that you are not alone. One thing I wonder about is Franzen’s skepticism toward the internet and the role it will play in our culture and how, if at all, his views have changed in the 10 years since he wrote many of these essays. Highly recommended.
Shortly after Joan La Barbara delivered the closing line (“The old man lives in concrete”) in Robert Ashley’s new experimental opera Concrete on Sunday night, I was reminded of a favorite phrase that Don Sinta, my teacher and mentor at the University of Michigan, would produce when I had the gall to inform him that the story he had begun to tell me was, in point of fact, one that he’d related me before (although I always withheld the fact that it was routinely the fourth or fifth time I’d heard any particular story): “Just let the old man talk.” And I did. Always. Because who would forfeit the opportunity to hear such colorful stories and anecdotes from someone who’d been a part of so many important ground-breaking and history-shaping events and trends no matter times you’ve heard them before? But it wasn’t so much that we’d already heard the stories that Ashley was telling in Concreteâ€”my metaphor falls a little flat thereâ€”as much as that’s what the opera was all about: an old man telling a few stories.
Four singersâ€”Thomas Buckner, Jaqueline Humbert, Sam Ashley, and Joan La Barbaraâ€”sit around a card table playing with an oversized deck, gossiping, bickering, and pondering life’s imponderables in a modified brand of sprechtstimme. These ensemble episodes alternate with extended solo narratives by each singer, recounting a variety of unnamed acquaintances and instances of playing the ponies, an almost head-on car collision on a narrow mountain road, scoring and not scoring cocaine, and certain supernatural occurrences.
Mr. Ashley supplied the musical accompaniment for the opera through his computer, which if you’d read any of the press leading up to the opera’s performances, you were lead to believe was going allow for live manipulation of the singers’ voices and underlying texture, paving the way for each performance to be changeable and unique. Instead, the music throughout was more of an ambient wash that didn’t change much at all save for the few low bass grumblings and high pitched bell-like interjections that occasionally emerged from the digital drone. (N.B. More than once, these sci-fi-ish sounds scared me into thinking that I’d forgotten to turn off my cell phone.) And as for real-time manipulation, the computer’s interactivity never went past how much reverb or delay was added to or removed from each singer’s voice during their solos.
But you got the impression that the music wasn’t nearly as important as the text. So much so, in fact, that I felt like you needed to experience Concrete much like you’d read a novel. And the distinctive way in which each singer delivered their soliloquiesâ€”Ms. Humbert was sing-songy, Mr. Buckner’s delivery arched toward dramatic peaks, Ms. La Barbara seemed almost conversational, while Mr. Ashley’s cadence tended toward that of an auctioneerâ€”was instrumental in sustaining a sense of diversity against a rather static sonic backdrop. Yet for me, depsite the cast’s formidable individual talents, the most interesting parts of the opera were the ensemble sections. During these vignettes the singers playfully interacted with each other in an uninterrupted din of small talk about both the mundane and extraordinary and dead-pan banter. Sam Ashley’s understated delivery was marvelously monotonous despite his quick registral changes and abrupt hitches in speech, providing the most interesting contrast and counterpoint in the entire opera. And in a piece so focused on the text, that the cast was able to articulate it so compellingly turned out to be very important indeed.
I’m temporarily blacklisting the MoMA (no link = no love). I deliberately made a late train reservation back to Mobtown so that I might be able to catch a glimpse of Doug Aitken’s sleepwalkers, which was going to be showing on (yes, on) the MoMA beginning at 5pm. A little before 4pm, I decided that rather than wait around in the cold, that I would be somewhat ridiculous and buy a ticket for the museum, so I could wander around and see something for an hour, which sure beat standing around in the cold. As I attempted to enter I was reproached by the door guard for my coffee, which was not permitted in the MoMA’s lobby. So I finished it outside and then went in, got in line, bought my ticket (saxophone fully visible, an important fact for reasons soon to be revealed, and about 4:10pm by now) and proceeded to enter the gallery, where I was promptly stopped by the ticket-taker and said that I couldn’t bring that (my saxophone) in and that I probably wouldn’t be able to check it either. Optimistically, I got into the coat check line, where the ticket-taker’s hunch was confirmed. I got a refund and left, lodging my silent protest against the MoMA by refusing to see the free films they were going to project on the sides of the building.
I’m off to NYC to catch the final performance of Robert Ashley’s new opera tonight at La MaMa E.T.C. Report to follow.
DeLillo’s irony-clad postmodern critique of consumerism, media saturation, conspiracy, the potential positive effects of violence, and mortality. Written in 1985, there are times that the book is eerily prophetic: the pronouncement that in times of disaster it’s the lower class people who are forgotten sounds a lot like what happened in the wake of hurricane Katrina. Similarly, the predictions of a tabloid psychic sound a little too close to another recent Horror: “Members of an air-crash cult will hijack a jumbo jet and crash it into the White House in an act of blind devotion to their mysterious and reclusive leader, known only as Uncle Bob.” Recommended.
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I’m fond of saying that Baltimore, the Greatest City in America (formerly, the City That Reads), Charm City, Mobtown, has something for everyoneâ€”and restaurants are no exception. I’ve sampled my fair share of the city’s eateries and have put my experiences to use in the form of a map that records my adventures, both good and bad. It’s a work in progress so check back often. Bon appetit!
[N.B. Nod to yp for the tip.]