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Archive for the ‘music’ Category

Arthur Hall: Village Under Snow; Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas

Every holiday season for the last 8 years, I’ve put together a mix of favorite music for the quiet winter months. Once the snow starts to fly in October, and on through March, winter is my quiet time and music is a fine companion.

Starting with A Winter’s Solstice, released on LP in 1985, Windham Hill Records set the standard for non-Christmas/non-Santa music for the cold seasons. They produced two superb volumes under that name, followed by four more of variable quality, and four excellent Celtic Christmas collections. But at some point Will Ackerman sold the label and the holiday collections lost their way. Jim Brickman and Yanni, among others, crashed the party, then there were Christmas carol collections, jazz holiday collections, and anything else the new marketing department could come up with. The series hit a low point in the travesty Winter Solstice on Ice, a 1999 double CD with a companion DVD that had artists miming their work in Arctic locations and, yes, ice skating.

Still, a few keepers slipped through along the way: The White Album (1997), A Winter Solstice Reunion (1998), and A Winter’s Solstice Silver Anniversary Edition (2001, thankfully curated by Dawn Atkinson, one of the original forces behind the label) are all excellent (well, there may be one or two tracks that can be skipped on each). As I’ve made my playlists each year I’ve borrowed liberally from these collections, and added similar tracks from other folk, acoustic, and classical artists, like David Darling, Pierre Bensusan, Roger Eno, and Tim Story.

Which brings me to today’s musical recommendation. A lovely new CD of Tim Story’s work, Collected, was released last fall. It’s got several tracks from the Windham Hill holiday collections as well as his contributions to In Search of Angels and Prayer, two other Windham Hill collections worth a listen. Overall, the CD is a wealth of soothing music with just enough of an edge to keep it from being overly sweet. Here’s a representative, short piece:

Tim’s work has generally been based on piano and synthesizers, and many of his albums over the years have been notable for their dark, almost ominous edge in a field of beautiful calm. Reviewers typically use words like “sparse” and “delicate drama,” “elegant” and “understated” in trying to describe his peculiar slant on music that could be ambient, classical, or avant-garde, and usually all at the same time. Tim refers to his own “considerable predilections for ambiguity and shadow” in the liner notes to this CD, and notes that these pieces are more accessible than usual. Given that he also collaborates with the likes of Hans-Joachim Roedelius (founder of the German experimental groups Cluster and Harmonia), I suppose this CD is more accessible, but it’s delicious music nonetheless.

I’ve been a fan for more than 25 years, and have enjoyed Tim’s accessibility as well as that mysterious, dark, curious side to his music. And he’s a nice guy, too: In the late 1980’s I had bought an import copy of Norwegian composer Ketil Bjornstad’s Three Ballets box set just to get his brilliant solo piano album Pianology, which had a nasty warp in the vinyl. The Norwegian label that distributed the album, Uniton, had an American contact address that turned out to be Tim’s own address. After I wrote asking if anyone knew how I could get a replacement, I got back a note from Tim with a new copy of Pianology.

Anyway, Collected is on the top of my recommendations for 2010. (Click the picture to order a copy directly from Tim.)

And if you’re curious about my winter playlists, here’s what’s in the 2010 version:

When the Snow Melts – Phil Cunningham & Mánus Lunny (Celtic Christmas)
God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen – Steve Erquiaga (A Winter’s Solstice V)
Oran Mhor Mhic Leoid – Aine Minoghe (Celtic Lamentations)
Anuhea’s Song – Sonny Lim (Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Vol. 2)
Bethel – Paul Cardall (20 Years of Narada Piano)
Sometimes Love Is – Jane Kelly Williams (The Patchwork of Lost and Found)
Emmanuel – Will Ackerman (The Carols of Christmas)
Driekruisenstraat 111 – Jan Swerts (Weg)
Winter Music – Roger Eno (Between Tides)
She Is Love – Parachute (Losing Sleep)
Song of Gratitude – Anja Lechner & Vassilis Tsabropoulos (Melos)
Kiholo Moon – Charles Michael Brotman (Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Vol. 2)
Embers – Max Richter (Memoryhouse)
Alkenstraat 9 – Jan Swerts (Weg)
Snow on High Ground – Nightnoise (Celtic Christmas)
In Memory – Anja Lechner & Vassilis Tsabropoulos (Melos)
Walking in the Air (The Snowman) – Fred Simon (The Night Before Christmas)
Carolan’s Farewell to Music – Aine Minoghe (Celtic Lamentations)
Almost Dark – Roger Eno (Between Tides)

That’s what I like in the winter: quiet music that goes well with a walk through a snowy landscape, or spending a dark evening curled up by the fireplace.

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Since my first Walkman in the early ’80s, I’ve tended to carry music around with me, listen in the car while driving, listen while walking or jogging, listen while at work. I’ve driven my family crazy with music playing, especially because once the music’s on, I don’t listen to them as attentively.

Some calm music can carry me along in a reflective sort of way. That’s usually how I like to unwind: a quiet walk with equally quiet music.

[from Emile Bremmer's Flickr set]

In the last couple of years I’ve tried meditation as a spiritual and health practice, but I’ve been frustrated with the shift from busy mind to quiet mind. It’s not an easy change to make, especially in a culture where sounds, images, and words are constantly in motion around us on television, billboards, radio, and any retail experience.

In the last month or two, I’ve spontaneously turned off the music. I drive to work in silence (interrupted only by my cajoling stupid drivers). I leave the radio off. I limit the iPod to maybe an hour at lunch, at the most. I didn’t consciously try this, but I’ve found a quiet mind anyway. Now, music is a choice, not a continuous background in life. And I’m loving the quiet.

[M.Shirani Flickr set]

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When I returned home from France in January 1981, the world had changed. I came home to a new house that was built during my two-year mission, my parents had separated, most friends from high school were away at college or married, and somehow I no longer knew how I fit in. I had a couple months to figure out what I would do before the next term started at the U. I found a campus job, and moved in to my grandmother’s house just below Foothill Drive, a tiny cinderblock structure that she lived alone in for decades. She was volunteering her time at the Washington, D.C. LDS temple at that time and needed someone to stay in her house, so my sister and I paid a very modest rent and lived close to campus.

By the time I left home in January 1979, my musical tastes were expanding into mildly adventurous places in the wake of the punk and new wave trends that took their time making it to Utah. Between 1979 and 1981, Salt Lake City developed an alternative music scene of sorts. The Police traveled through on their first tour of the U.S., with The Specials opening. Clubs in town started booking punk acts. The Cosmic Aeroplane (book and music store) was transitioning from a post-hippy vibe to a punk hangout. And a community radio station, KRCL, started broadcasting in late 1979 from a room above the Blue Mouse theater.

The Blue Mouse and The Cosmic Aeroplane, 1980s

(Steve Jerman, Flickr)

At some point in the spring of 1981, I discovered KRCL while scanning the FM radio dial. It was fascinating, and it was very different. Volunteer hosts played literally every kind of music. I was hooked into this culture of rebellion, and many Saturday evenings at Grandma’s house were just me with the lights down and a 1970’s console hi-fi radio cranked up. Saturday afternoons on KRCL were given over to “Smile Jamaica” (and they still are), which merged into a rockabilly (later ska) show, which gave way to the Saturday punkfest starting at 7:00: Jon Bray hosted 2 hours of pop-oriented new wave and punk, followed by Lori Mehan’s “Up Another Octave” from 9 to 11, which crashed through all kinds of avant-garde, pop, punk, no wave, atmospheric sounds. From 11 on, “Behind the Zion Curtain” was the all-punk roller coaster hosted by Brad Collins.

Lori’s show imprinted on me an amazing range of new music: Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman” and “From the Air,” Bauhaus’ “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” and Tuxedomoon’s “Desire” will forever be associated in my mind with the glowing tube-radio dial in that old stereo. So many edgy, noisy bands filled the evenings: Gang of Four, Joy Division, the Slits, Devo, the Pop Group, the Raincoats, Cabaret Voltaire, Chrome, Liliput, U2, Killing Joke, Bush Tetras, Sonic Youth, the Cramps, Richard Hell, the Clash, the Go-Go’s, the Stranglers, the Suburban Lawns, Liquid Liquid, Siouxsie and the Banshees.  Lori preferred bands with women, and bands that stretched out beyond the two-minutes punk slams that made up Brad’s show.

That’s how I’d spend my Saturday evenings, in my own private little rebellion. I didn’t go out to clubs, although I’d occasionally venture out to live shows. Salt Lake didn’t produce  much in the way of leading-edge music, although I fondly remember 004, a great little ska band, and the way-out-there avant-garde collective Subminiature Basic: they did a chaotic summer evening show at the U’s Fine Arts building plaza that was broadcast live, and a brown-bag lunch noise assault at Exchange Place on 4th South and Main, taking reverb and tape loops to new heights, that had business people running for cover; most memorably, I remember a show in an old downtown building that was completely improvised and started with dark silence and a red laser light pointed at the heart of the lead singer, who gradually vocalized from a murmur to a full-throated scream as the music, noise, and lighting built incrementally. Watching those live shows was exhilarating, and was a good fit with my own searching for direction and something to call my own. Like most groups of the era, Subminiature Basic disbanded after about a year.

But that Saturday night vibe got me started down the road that led to my own radio shows after 1983, and writing music reviews for the national alternative music magazine, Option. The irony was that it started with a very private, very lonely sort of longing for rebellion. If I had to pick a song to represent that first year or two listening to KRCL, it would be this one:

I recently heard this for the first time in 29 years, and it personifies that awkward, angry, lonely, rebellious, and (in retrospect) very young attitude that seemed so right to me in 1981. The Au Pairs lasted for an album and a couple of singles, for the most part working over one basic funky-punk vibe. But their lead singer, Lesley Woods, had a dark tinge to her voice and a commanding presence, and “Diet” was their great exception, capturing the social criticism and tired existential angst that works so well for college kids. Well, it worked for me, anyway, the rebel who’d get up and go to church on Sunday morning.

Lesley Woods

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a perfect pop song

I don’t do best-of lists (typical for this time of year), and I don’t like to rank songs and artists. I’m more of a generalist: there are good songs, great songs, and then there are absolutely untouchable songs that will always be perfect.

I found a classic TV clip of one of the perfect songs from the 1960s. I’m not sure which TV variety show it’s from, but I love the quirky stage design and Petula’s awkward stage presence (poor thing, they glued her shoes to the floor and she’s handling it with such grace 🙂 ).

Petula Clark won the 1965 Grammy for Rock n Roll song of the year, the first British woman to do so. I think this is one of those rare times that the Grammys got it right. Even though I was 5 years old when this came out and was more interested in the Beach Boys and the Beatles, I heard this song on the radio constantly. And later on I came to appreciate its sweet pop perfection.

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musical me: wim mertens

In April 1979 a plane touched down at the Brussels airport. It was a slightly rainy but lovely spring day in Belgium, and it was the first time I’d set foot in Europe. I was beginning my two-year sojourn serving a mission in France and Belgium. After returning to the USA in 1981, I returned in the summer of 1983 for a couple of weeks of seeing London, France, and Belgium on my own, no restrictions. I had just graduated with a B.A. in French from the U and wanted some time to visit friends from my mission and discover Europe again. Along the way I spent a bunch of money collecting albums: French folk music, punk, new wave, and pop. Among the treasures I brought back was a 7″ single by Belgian composer Wim Mertens, titled “Close Cover.” It was the coolest thing I had, because on the b-side there were three tracks running in parallel grooves. You’d drop the needle of the record player down, and one of the three short pieces would play.

Close Cover 7inch

“Close Cover” was a magical piece of music. I used it for an opening theme to my French music program on KRCL, and over the years it’s been included in many musical compilations, from Windham Hill’s In Search of Angels to the dance chill-out compilation Cafe del Mar vol. 5 (in a misguided remixed version). It’s been one of Mertens’ two standout tracks, the other being “Struggle for Pleasure” that was used by a Belgian cell phone company as their theme music (and a prominent ring tone).  To most people in Belgium and the Netherlands, he’s the Proximus theme song guy.

Too bad, because he’s done so much more. Since 1980 Mertens has released over 50 albums, some containing 2, 3, or 4 CDs. Tons of music, some of it really hard to listen to, but much of it very accessible and lovely. Like this early piece, “Circular Breathing,” from the same period as “Close Cover”:

From a somewhat conventional start as composer of romantic/minimalist music, Mertens expanded until he was writing huge conceptual projects, releasing multi-CD sets that were monumental and usually listenable. While those compositional cycles had their challenges, they also had some amazingly lush pieces that really should be better known. A nice excerpt is this piece for strings (violin, cello, bass), “Al”:

Mertens has backed away from the giant cycles, and since 2000 has been recycling a lot of material in live albums and compilations. In Europe, he has performed regularly (if not frequently), but has chosen not to tour in America or even in the U.K. So it’s a bit of work to find his albums if you’re not in Europe. There are musical excerpts and an extensive list of works on his official web site.

I have almost everything he’s released, and for over 25 years it’s been a constant musical companion. All because I got off that plane in Brussels in 1979.

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A meeting with myself at 24 would be awkward, to say the least. Not as bad as, say meeting myself at 13. I don’t know anyone who’d want to see themselves at 13, in the worst of their gawky adolescent years. My second worst awkward period was in college, when I was trying to find my way with so many landmarks from the past gone.

My first year at the U was just painful. No more high school friends to hang out with, no reference points on campus since I lived at home. So I quietly tried to look intelligent, or at least not panicked, in my classes. I got a job on campus and had a bunch of motherly officeworkers who looked out for me, but I pretty much lived in a bubble that year. And then I went on a mission.

In Mormon culture, a mission is a rite of passage. You enter a geeky teenager, and you exit a young adult ready to start living life with confidence. I didn’t quite feel that way when I returned home to Kaysville in January 1981. Too many things had changed, my parents had divorced, friends had moved away or married, and I was more or less set adrift to figure out my college career.

So I declared a new major, French, and moved in at my grandmother’s house. Rent was minimal, it was a couple miles from campus, and there were just enough comforts to call it home. Grandma Bushman was living in Maryland at the time, volunteering as a genealogical record-keeper at the Washington, DC temple. She came back to Utah a few weeks every summer, and the rest of the year my sister Beth and I lived there and took care of the house.

I found another campus job, started taking French grammar and literature classes, and slowly began to feel at home. But oh, how I cringe to think back at the awkward ways I tried to fit in, or not fit in. I remember my friend Martin, who I met in a linguistics class, pointing out to me one day that I had a look, my own fashion sense. Although I hadn’t planned it, I did: baggy khaki pants and slightly oversized cotton shirts, shirttail always out. I went for neutral colors and lots of textures in those shirts. My favorite would have been the one with a subtle purple, gold, green, and red plaid—much more colorful than the usual grays and blues. It was a kind of “look at me, I’m unconventional/don’t look at me, I hate the attention” style of dress. Both anonymous and near-bohemian. Well, in my mind, anyway.

I made my way through that French degree, and with no better offers, started a Master’s degree with a TA job teaching freshman French classes. At the same time I started my radio career. I had listened to KRCL, the local community radio station, since 1981, and decided to volunteer. I ended up on the air hosting three different radio shows over the next five years. As awkward as I felt, they took me in and I found myself in an incongruous state of broadcasting a couple hours a week, out on public airwaves, and at the same time feeling intensely shy. Not quite agoraphobic, but a solid introvert at best. It made for some odd radio moments, when my inner world collided with the fact that people heard my voice on the radio, all over the state.

In that DJ studio, I could lose myself in the music. But there was always an edge to the experience because I had to stay on top of making station announcements on the hour, playing public service announcements, and talking in between music sets. I was not a great announcer, but fortunately on KRCL the standard was not terribly high. I had a lot of fun, even though for years I had recurring nightmares about being in the radio studio and realizing the music had stopped playing and I had nothing cued up on the turntables. Those were my radio version of the standard “didn’t study for the final exam” nightmares that many people have about college.

My first regular program was a French-language disaster. I had a backpack full of albums I bought in France the summer of 1983, and managed to find a few other things along the way. But really, the French community in Salt Lake City numbered about 50 people, and the show wore thin after several months. Plus, I was not all that comfortable speaking French so publicly.

My second show was ahead of its time, but not because of me. I inherited it from an old Kaysville friend who had been one of the first to try a world music mix. In 1984, reggae and African pop were not all that well known in Utah (although KRCL already had a long-running reggae show Saturday afternoons). Still, it made sense if you knew the host. So let’s back up a little.

I had a month-long job one summer in high school, doing grounds work at a golf course in Layton with about a dozen guys under the supervision of one of the high school coaches. My friend Mark was on the crew, and we met one of the regular grounds crew workers named Michael Huerta. Mike was a true bohemian to us suburban kids, son of a Canadian and a Mexican, with long curly hair under a straw hat and endless stories about his slightly wanton lifestyle. Mike was a sort of counter culture hippy type, listened to all kinds of mid-70s rock/folk/blues/jazz, and was truly a funny guy to hang out with. A few years later, when I lived in Kaysville and rode the bus into Salt Lake to go to the U, I’d cross paths with Mike. One day that stuck with me was when he playfully, kindly teased a Down Syndrome guy on the bus, making an absolute fool of himself as he’d pull down the guy’s hat over his face and then laugh with him. Mike was just open to people and experiences, and he always laughed.

I was a bit surprised when I ran into him in 1983 at KRCL. Mike had restyled himself as Mic Huerta, man about town and DJ of dance beats, reggae, and world music. The hippy was gone, replaced with an urbane, metropolitain guy embracing the hip-hop side of his Latino heritage. His afternoon drive time show was on Tuesdays, and if I was at the station doing production work I’d say hi. Mic was almost legendary for a while there at KRCL, but after doing the show for a couple of years, he started to drift. Whoever was on the air at 3:45 on Tuesday would get a phone call from him that he was running late, and would they mind getting out Gregory Isaacs’ “Night Nurse” single to cue up for the start of his show? It was almost 10 minutes long, and gave him time to get to the studio and gather up some other records.  As his reliability drifted it seemed his interest was waning too. So I was offered his drive time slot, if I’d keep the world music and new dance music format. Why not?

That’s where today’s musical excerpt comes in. In taking over Mic’s Tuesday Drive Time I had a two-and-a-half hour show where I’d play reggae and African pop and dance remixes and 80’s pop and whatever else I could find that had a beat. Quite a stretch, in some ways, because I was painfully uneducated about some of those genres. I’d try almost anything, including occasional rap and hip-hop stuff I’d find at the station. The first two hours would fly by, but by about 6:15, I was usually a little tired and tried a few last songs that might stretch the boundaries just a bit. But mostly I looked for longer songs, tunes to relax to, before Pacifica News started up at 6:30 and I could go home.

This was my favorite show-ending track: Anna Domino, an American who moved to Brussels and recorded a fabulously sophisticated mix of classic pop and electronic beats, sung with that silky voice. It’s a song that takes a minute to get established, but once you’re there, you never want it to end.

It popped up this morning on my iPod as I was driving to work and immediately transported me to a rainy spring evening in Salt Lake City, relieved that my show was done and driving home (now to my grandfather’s house) in my 1972 Dodge Dart, wearing baggy khakis and cotton shirt, trying to figure out where I was headed in life but happy to be here, now, with this gently lulling song playing over and over in my mind.

Anna Domino (self-titled album)

["Caught," from Anna Domino, originally on Les Disques du Crépuscule;
reissued on LTM; available from LTM mail order or Darla in the USA]

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Now that most popular music doesn’t really exist physically, only as data files to be played on little computer devices, the joys of the Long-Playing Record seem quaint. I still have a motley collection of old albums and I’m always surprised when I put one on the stereo and hear the rich, high-fidelity sound that came out of that “primitive” technology. I remember the day I put on Bob Marley’s Legend album, cranked it up, and my kids came running in to see what that amazing music was. There is absolutely no comparison between a 128kb-quality data file and spinning vinyl that creates that deep, full bass sound.

Beach Boys - Summer DaysWhen I turned 6, my dad gave me the first album I ever owned: The Beach Boys’ Summer Days (and Summer Nights). I was thrilled to say that I had a record of my own, and even more excited that those exotic Beach Boys had put on record a song about Salt Lake City, my home town. Gee, they even sang about Lagoon, the amusement park that was every kid’s summer dream hangout. I guess they played there regularly from ’62 to ’65 or maybe longer, and who knows what possessed Brian Wilson to write a little memorial song to our little town.

Owning this album was the beginning of my obsession with musical objects. The thing about vinyl recordings is that you got not only the music, but an album cover, sometimes inserts or other stuff inside, and it all was something solid you can look at, read, and connect to as you’re listening to the music. It’s a complete package, and if I can borrow from something I read once (maybe by musician Peter Blegvad?) it becomes a numinous object. It is something that is “wholly other”, a transcendent object that holds a near-sacred meaning, or at least it can be invested with quasi-sacred meaning to people like me. (I am no philosopher, so anyone with any sense of what the word “numinous” really means is probably laughing out loud about now. But I’ll abuse the word anyway.)

For me, each new album or single has been an experience of discovery: opening the plastic wrap, taking out the record, reading the liner notes or looking at the cover art, hearing that music for the first time, letting it become a part of my consciousness. That’s been my inner adventure for pretty much my entire life. I could write a blog with nothing but memories and appreciations of the records that have been part of my life, but if I did that I’d turn into one of those obsessively geeky music people. I better stick with a little balance here. Still, it’s worth saying that I relate to music with as much intensity as I do with people. Music was my other reality for a long time, a place to retreat into and live another life altogether. It still is. Drives my family crazy when I put on the headphones and drift off, but they understand. It’s just where I go.

Back to the Beach Boys. That album was a cool novelty for me at the time, but now I appreciate so much more the incredible musical gifts of Brian Wilson. Sure, he wrote a dorky little ditty about Salt Lake, and the album has a goofy little blues number called “I’m Bugged at My Old Man,” but at the same time he wrote some insanely beautiful melodies with harmonies that are just stunning. The last song on the album, “And Your Dreams Come True,” is an a capella number that you just want to go on forever, so sweet and complex.

And then there’s a song that I find myself humming even today, “Girl Don’t Tell Me.” The melody weaves around a constantly shifting set of chord changes that are, well, sublime.

Close your eyes, and savor a bit of summer love.

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