Thursday, 27 November 2014

The string quartet

The string quartet is my favourite classical form. Out of all the prototypes of the eighteenth century, the string quartet is perhaps the one which continued to be fruitful for post-war composer. (Even the symphony was largely jettisoned and perceived as being archaic.) They are also overlooked. The composers' symphonies and operas are celebrated while the quartets lie dormant.

String quartets have always been a medium where a composer reflects on his own language. It is not really a major statement of intent. Beethoven was being 'heroic' with the the Eroica symphony and the 5th, 7th and 9th. Or he was being contemplative with the pastoral and the 8th. Whereas with the string quartet, he was making no bold statements. He was just self-examing and commenting on his own art. As I will explore in this blog post, string quartets can track the musical development of an entire composer's career. The examples I will use will be Beethoven, Bela Bartok and Elliott Carter. Because the composer examines his own form, string quartets are often characterised as being emotionally dry. The examples I have chosen are all expressive and can be heard for emotional enjoyment. As someone who isn't very musically literate, I can testify that this is music which can be heard without a formal grounding in music theory.

I mentioned that the string quartet was a eighteenth century 'prototype.' Mozart and Hadyn churned out many. As with most of their pieces, for me they are uninteresting. Beethoven followed in the same lineage. As with his first two 'classicist' symphonies, you can tell that he is much more playful with the staid forms of the day.

The cream of Beethoven's music, for me, are his last five quartets. (During the same period, he wrote Missa Solemnis and Symphony No. 9.) These quartets see him abandon classicism altogether and see him adopt a romantic language. It's a real quantum leap from Mozart in that it's so much more expressive. He's not afraid to make unexpected chord changes or to modulate the dynamics.

My favourite Beethoven quartet is the 15th. The main leitmotif is announced as a tremolo in muted, brooding tones. It gradually gains some intensity, like a freight train about to start (sorry about the trite language, but as I'm not a musician I have to recourse to metaphors). The tempo modulates to allegro and the motif is repeated more vigour. The motif is revisted, with several permutations, until until it is resolved. The second movement is somewhat whimsical. It is more formally rigid, until it modulates to violins/viola playing levitating trills. These are contravened by an ominous figure played by the cello and is repeated by the violin/violas. The rest of the movement alternates between these three strands. The third movement is by the most beautiful. The main theme is announced. There are a few variations until it ends expansively expressively. The fourth and fifth movements alternate between more a more classical themes and a whimsical melody I adore.

All of Beethoven's musical development can be traced through his string quartets. The same is true of Bela Bartok. His first quartet straddles the line between late romanticism and early modernism. It is actually redolent of Beethoven's 13th. His second quartet is more oblique and has fragments of a melody scattered about (which is modeled on a Hungarian one). His third quartet is modeled on Alban Berg's lyric suite.

My favourite is the fourth. Bartok's music is aggressive and punchey. It is neo-romantic in the sense that it is highly expressive. The movements are all interconnected. The first and fifth movements mirror each other, as do the second and fourth. The lone third movement is quiet and hushed and seems to be a kind of intermission. Bartok was an admirer of Debussy and his music is not atonal but hovers around several keys. The main theme - presumably Hungarian - is of an eerie strangeness. Bartok is a real jewel within the classical canon in that he is very eccentric. He has not spawned any imitators in that he was highly individualistic. At the same time, he managed to write a modernist nationalist music for Hungary.

As Bartok is seen as a development on Beethoven, Elliott Carter quartets could be seen as a development on Bartok. His first quartet does have a smidgen of romanticism. As you progress to the second, third, fourth and so on, his musical language becomes increasingly fragmented, almost pitchless. He was influenced by Ives; they were friends when Carter was a teenager. As such, Carter was interested in the notion of different strands of music going on at once in different metres, keys, etc. Whilst Bartok's music can be contrapuntal, Carter takes this to extremes. In his third quartet, he divides the two strings in two. The instrument are visceral and harsh. In multiple hearings, you can hear the voices interacting. It is highly expressive and, dare I say, as moments of lyricism.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Big band free jazz

Improvisation has always been an integral aspect of jazz. In the early 60s, it became common for jazz musician to get together in big groups and collectively improvise without any playing in any fixed key. Free jazz is largely attributed to having started with Ornette Coleman in the late 50s.

Ornette Coleman certainly was one of the revolutionaries of jazz. Bebop was a major shock to consumers of jazz after the second world war. Unlike swing - Duke Ellington Woody Herman, Stan Kenton etc. - you actually had to sit down and hear it. Over the years, the structures of bebop became looser and looser. Ornette Coleman arrived in 1959. It sounds nowhere near as shocking now as some of the music of his progenies (say, the ilk of Albert Ayler). Most of his albums have tunes and melodies. They sound like bebop melodies. However, there was no overriding tonal centre. Ornette and his superb sideman Don Cherry would play solos which would have no tonal or harmonic relation to the main melody.

Ornette's most radical album, and the one he is most renowned for, is Free Jazz. (It's odd how some artists are most well-known for their most radical stuff while their more accessible output is overlooked. Think of Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica or Ayler's Spiritual Unity.) Ornette was uncomfortable with the label as he felt that many people overlooked him as a writer of tunes. Nonetheless, the label stuck and it bred a plethora of imitators.

The idea of having a large group of players improvising was ground-breaking yet, at the same time, primitivist. It led to new directions yet it also harked back to a more primeval form of music. It was a type of music that was less rigid. It was also very communal. It was a type of workshop in which a group of players with their own unique style could share their ideas. It was dialogic. An interesting conversation would be established. Unlike the later genre 'free improvisation,' it was still very much within the idiom of jazz. The players very much stick to scales and keys. In many ways, they play what they know. (Derek Bailey called free improvisation a way of 'erasing memory.')

There is a tune to the piece, which becomes increasingly knotted and garbled. The tune is revisted later on. Otherwise, the structure generally is that there is a collective improvisation followed by a solo improv.

The ingenious production technique that this album has is that there are two quartets in each channel. It could be seen as a 'doubling' of the standard Ornette quartet (sax, trumpet, bass, drums). In addition to the classic Ornette quartet (Coleman, Cherry, Haden and Blackwell), they are joined by big names in avan-jazz: Eric Dolphy, Freddie Hubbard and Scott Le Faro. Dolphy is a highly idiosyncratic, creative and versatile player (he played three wind instruments expertly). His interactions with the rest of the ensemble are very sharp. On some occasions his bass clarinet can be heard laughing. It's an expression of joy. Hubbard was a more conventional player and he does not fit in as snugly with the rest of the msusicains. The pairing of Le Faro with Haden is particularly stimulating when they both get to solo together. They play with a bow or pluck the strings intermittently.

I mentioned in the preceding paragraph that in Dolphy's playing there is an 'expression of joy.' Coleman stated in several occasions that his saxophone playing was a way in which he could express his own feelings. Ayler said about free jazz that 'it became less about notes and more about feelings.'

Meanwhile, John Coltrane's playing was becoming freer and freer. An extremely dexterous and talented player, there was a sense that he took tonally-oriented jazz as far as it could go with his masterpiece A Love Supreme. There was always a spiritual dimension to Coltrane's playing. At this point, Coltrane was becoming more and immersed in oriental religions.  Like Ornette, he very much saw the practice of improvisation as a kind of spiritual expression. As a sideman for Davis, he once played a solo which lasted for over half an hour. When pressed by Miles as to why the solo went for so long, Coltrane replied that it took that long to express everything he needed to express. Davis understood where he was coming from and let him off the hook.

Ascencion initially can be a very intimidating album. One may buy a Coltrane record expecting it be lush and melliflous. This is anything but. The occasional tonal centres in Free Jazz are absent here. Once more, there is a peculiar structure. There is a leitmotif which I simply adore: ascending and descending lines. It is a somewhat melodic, but it all soon crumbles down. The structure is the same as Ornette's ensemble: there is a collective improvisation, followed by a solo allocated to each player. Once more, there are big names (Freddie Hubbard is on this album too). The wind instruments are the most abrasive - they squawk, shriek and wail. McCoy Tyner's piano solo is entirely tonal (it's actually hard to differentiate his playing on this from earlier Coltrane records). There is another bass duet, which is once more very stimulatingz. The chaos is resolved with a repetition of the title theme, which I characterised earlier as 'ascending and descending lines.' It is lushly embellished by Elvis Jones' crashing cymbals. Coleman's records at times sounds like a free-bop recording. This is pure, distilled free jazz.

Coltrane's premature death is something many jazz buffs plaintively mourn. What uncharted territory would he have pursued after this? Would he have reached a point of no return with his atonal playing? Had he perhaps transgressed so much, he would simply play ballads? (His record of ballads is great, by the way!) Would he take the exciting path that Don Cherry took and embrace world music? (He did this to an extent with the African polyrhythms in Kulu Se Mama.) Would he have embraced electronic music? I doubt the last possibility. Coltrane's music just does not seem compatible with electronic instruments.  

Another musician who embraced collective free improvisation was Sun Ra. He started out in the vein of swing, but very quickly become implementing exotic rhythms and unusual harmonies into his music. An Ellington-esque tune could swiftly turn into a polyphonic cacophony.

His most renowned collective improvisation is The Magic City. It is a lot stranger than the records discussed above. There are strange synth sounds which are abruptly interrupted by the squeaks and shronks of the ensemble. I obviously hate it when people like Wynton Marsalis pontificate about certain recordings that 'this isn't jazz,' but one would be hard-pressed to call this particular recording jazz. Incidentally, Sun Ra would probably pleased by that judgement. He'd rather call it 'space music.' Like a lot of Sun Ra records, it is an exhilarating practice in willful mayhem.

As you have noticed, I have embeded the YouTube videos of the full recordings. Somewhat sad that it is now quiant to recommend someone a record and to expect that person to save up money and buy it in a record store. If I had to pick a favourite from these three 'big band free jazz collective improvisations,' I'd pick the Coltrane record.

Monday, 10 November 2014

'Digital' by Michael J Brooks

This is a review I wrote for a book written by my friend Michael Brooks. You can buy it for a very reasonable price here.

Michael Brooks' debut self-published novel is a British dystopian novel the likes of which Huxley and Orwell wrote, except that it is designed for the present day. Whilst those authors were scarred by the horrors of two world wars, this novel is unhinged by the threat posed on civil liberties posed by security services. Given a number of recent incidents - the Snowden leaks, civil liberties privacy rights, Google goggles, etc. - it is a chilling vision of what would happen if this type of surveillance became even more intrusive. It also examines the effect such technology has on our ontology. `Digital' dissects the breakdown in communications and the resulting emotional coldness that results from our own over-dependence on this media.

Although everyone is wired up to each other's consciousness, and everyone can access the minutia of each other's private lives (including one's sexual life), there are no meaningful/healthy relationships. You are seeing this development right now - although everyone can access other people's private information, we all seem much more alienated from each other. There is a sense that, despite this heightened communication, people are even more alienated than ever before. It was interesting to see how the lead character, though introspective and of a thoughtful disposition, cannot free himself from these shackles. The level of the indoctrination, and the need a select few feel to dissent, certainly reminded me of Huxley's Brave New World.

Brooks treats consciousness and the way in which reality is perceived through the prism of this cyber technology. This is similar to the way the internet works today - a single image triggers a series of associative ones. This technology is wired up into the cognitive structure of the brain. The scenes with the Wheeler were very interesting. One of Brooks' several satirical bites is on the media craze on neuroscience. The new reality, superficially, is more kaleidoscopic and three-dimensional. The excesses of this result in a life bereft of inquiry, knowledge and contemplation. This is despite the fact that knowledge is far more accessible than it ever has been.

The Ballardian/Gray-esque themes on violence, primeval instincts and human progress were embedded very well. The exposure to hardcore violence, conversely, appears to dull these instincts. Again, this reflects recent phenomena where excessive exposure, instead of leading to desensitisation, seems to merely dull our appetite for adventure, freedom and excitement. Also like BNW, where everyone can engorge in an orgy and sex and drugs, the desire to dissent/rebel is vanquished. This reflects a lot of contemporary society, where rebellion is commodified as a distinct form of conformity.

In terms of the structure, the novel is holistic. The opening and the ending come full circle and complement one another (the suppression of violent impulses and, later, their realisation). The timing was excellent - particularly the way the narrative seamlessly shifts to the 2nd and 3rd parts.

The dialogue voices the thematic concerns of the novel. This is reminiscent of `the novel of ideas.' The characters are essentially ciphers through which Brooks voices his thematic concerns. This will irritate people who are interested in three-dimensional characters and naturalistic dialogue. This is, in fact, fitting - people have ceased to care and love for one another because of our increased exposure to violence and pornography. We are apathetic and numbed.

The novel is very zeitsgesty. This is why a prompt publication would be welcome. Many of its prophecies may well seem dated in twenty or thirty years' time. (Perhaps they might be prescient?) The societies BNW and 1984 have both materialised in certain societies. The former in the first world, the latter generally in the 2nd and 3rd world. However, those two novels had more timeless elements: the importance of art and Shakespeare in BNW and the idea of semantics and propaganda in 1984. Perhaps Facebook etc. will embed itself so irrevocably on our culture that it will indeed become timeless?

One of my few quibbles with the novel is that certain aspects could be developed further: its satirical swipes on the idea of `progress,' technology, `the death of affect,' etc. could be expanded on. Brooks' style is influenced by J. G. Ballard: an eye for scientific and methodical jargon yet still infused by a kind of lyricism. Whilst this works to great effect, I do find a tendency for similar lexical choices (`haemorrhage,' etc.)

These are only very minor quibbles, as this is an exciting novel - a coruscating attack on excessive surveillance and the effect technology has on human cognition.