Lyn Horton: On writing about music

September 28th 2008 11:32 am

Copyright © 2008 Lyn Horton

by Lyn Horton

Since no day in my life passes without the consideration of music, the range of my exposure is wide. The direction I could go in, from the most conservative to the most edgy that is available, denotes a steady non-exclusionary absorption.

Writing about any kind of music requires compatible listening ears. Just this morning on the radio, Bill Frisell’s Unspeakable was playing. I never wrote about this recording — only listened — and I put it on my top ten a couple of years ago. At present, I am thinking about a new release from Chico Hamilton. The drummer is as smart as they come. He has been around the block several times. And his concept for this record overrides the concepts that even the most “sophisticated” of traditional and vanguard musicians working today try to encapsulate in their recordings. Another record in my stack exudes a contemporary modus operandi: to mix electronics and acoustics up the wazoo. Yet, another record is from vanguard pianist, Eri Yamamoto, whose improvisations open up and break through networks of bar lines. Right now, I am listening to Glenn Branca’s “Symphony No.1.”

It is not easy for some people to break a pattern of listening or even take the time to do it. Perhaps breaking that pattern resembles changing a means of traveling from one place to another, as in taking a detour. Ofttimes, taking detours means going over bumpy roads and through tough neighborhoods and this creates anxiety. Because the way is unknown and unknowable. And moving along requires trust and faith that point B will eventually come into view. The route may no doubt have been chosen by some one else or a wrong turn may have been taken. The only consistency between the customary route and the new one is the person taking the trip.

So, putting that analogy aside and directing the argument towards the music. The first “free” improvisation experience I had was in 1998, hearing the quintet, Other Dimensions in Music. Roy Campbell, trumpet; Daniel Carter, sax; William Parker, bass; Rashid Bakr, drums; and Matthew Shipp, piano. The venue for the gig was small but acoustically alive. I was aware of the penchants of the performance organizer. He is a believer in the freedom of expression and song. In no way did I carry any preconceptions to the concert.

The music simply started. Daniel Carter wailed on his sax. Matt Shipp pounded voluminous chords on the piano. William pizzed deep reverberant tones on his bass. Bakr darted his drumsticks on the skins and Roy’s fingers flew on the valves of his trumpet like there was no tomorrow. The group was telling a story, not unlike the stories that any good storyteller would tell… the kind of storyteller who passes on legends to grandchildren, to neighborhoods, to children in school. Legends of innocence and wonder and life.

The band mapped out no real thematic destination from the very beginning. The instruments conversed with each other tonally, contrapuntally, diametrically, harmonically; they merged, they diverged; they argued; they agreed. Each of the musicians contributed their own details to the story. Each musician used his own instrument to color the language, give inflections to the notes, create sentences, paragraphs; instrumentally punctuate, emphasize, embolden, temper and test the rhythm inherent in maintaining a direction. The music never fell apart; space and time held it together. The music’s development depended on the mutual trust of the musicians to, as a group, determine their common sense, their common goal, their common instinct. The music simply ended as it had begun. There was no Beethovenian conclusion.

The way in which Other Dimensions in Music operated is exactly the same as the way in which Bill Frisell organizes his 2004 Unspeakable orchestra. The instruments are no less exercised to their capacity. Certainly, each musical group is eccentric in its own way. The electronics and strangeness in Unspeakable accentuates the musical essences of the people who make the music. Their musical origins may be completely different from those of the band members of Other Dimensions in Music, but they strive for a similar camaraderie for the purpose of communicating. The Unspeakable band rolls out abundant rhythmic elements. The bass guitar and drums lock into the ground from which the density of the lead guitar, violin, and electronics can grow; a trampoline of vibrancy allows experimentation to start and become huge with jubilance.

Music continues to come to a mergence of what seems to be incongruous. Somehow, cultural worlds are uniting. It is through this kind of union that the most is done for the political world. In John Szwed’s book Crossovers, he cites a comment made by big band leader Stan Kenton about a Downbeat critic’s poll in 1956 when most of the recipients of honors were African-American. Kenton was disgusted with the results. He exclaimed that whites were the new minority. Thank goodness, it seems that that frame of mind has changed. Or has it? Look at the way that the 1960’s gave birth to a bulk of new music societies which subsequently dissolved for lack of sustenance. These groups cultivated cross-culturalization; their members were African-American, Caucasian and European. The sixties for music was like the beginning of the 20th century for science and art: a great period of invention, most of which is still being studied, analyzed and thought to be “new.”

So many people have no room for adventure. But it is the adventure that is necessary. The adventure stimulates the senses and inspires human interconnection. A mid eastern frame drum keeping a diversified pulse behind the complex and bright tunefulness of a flute which union blends into a seeming directionless cacophonous barrage of three saxophones collected with hard driven yet often suppely applied strokes on a trap set tom and snare recorded on an album that has a title originating in Yogic practice perfectly exemplifies the borderlessness of music’s future. Is this eclectic? No, it is global. Does this music address a wide population? No. What does this music do? It transcends formula. It achieves openness. It addresses the soul. It is nearly parochial. But not really. The music partakes of the shift, a paradigmatic shift. What may seem to create more separation is really creating more unity.

Free improvisation employs broadly accepted ensembles of instruments, speaking a language that is sometimes foreign to the instruments; but also within this music is used, among countless others, the doson gouni, the kora, the shenai, the cello, the violin, the oud, the djembe, accordion, synthesizers, amplifiers, samples, vocals, spoons, mouth-harps. Box drums. Table tops. Stages. And instruments still to be invented.

There is no drawing the line between one kind of music and another. The lines have disappeared. The lines have transformed through time, silence, will, and heart. Instruments and musicians symbolize the way the world can work. All it takes is an atypically congealed awareness. And consciousness that leads itself.

In every culture, there is a burrito.

Posted by Lyn Horton under Lyn Horton | 1 Comment »

One Response to “Lyn Horton: On writing about music”

  1. Avant Music News » On writing about music responded on 01 Oct 2008 at 1:05 am #

    […] of AMN Lyn Horton writes about writing: Free improvisation employs broadly accepted ensembles of instruments, speaking a language that is […]

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