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Monthly Archives: April 2012

“I rap – but not that bullshit they’re putting down now. I play fundamental beat music.” – George Coleman, a.k.a. “Bongo Joe” in 1991

Fundamental beat music. Fundamental beat music… Keep that in mind as you listen to this:

Can’t get any more fundamental than that… It’s a style that’s so raw that it makes Sun Ra sound conservative.

George Coleman, not to be confused with the saxophonist who didn’t have the nickname “Bongo Joe,” was born in Haines, Florida in 1923 and, after working odd jobs and serving in the Army Air Corps, ended up in Houston in the late 40’s. At the time, Houston was known as “Baghdad on the Bayou” among black people (yes, Baghdad was actually a great place to live at one point) because of great job security and a bustling social scene with a thriving music scene to match. It was all so exciting that George Coleman wanted to be a part of it. He asked a local bandleader to play drums in his group, despite never playing the drums before. He was rejected not because he couldn’t play but because he didn’t have his own set. He tried solving the problem by getting together some tin cans and some oil drums and calling that his drum set. Obviously that didn’t work but his career took off nonetheless.

He would make his living by traveling to Galveston, the tourist capital of Texas, and playing his “drum set” near tourist attractions. He actually made a decent living at it. During the off-season, he would play in Houston. This continued for 15 years before settling in San Antonio, where he played at more prominent tourist attractions. He would still travel around Texas, though. He released his only album, Bongo Joe, in 1969 on Arhoolie Productions and the song “Innocent Little Doggie,” the first song that you heard in this post, became an underground hit in Texas and even in England where the BBC “aired it repeatedly.”

He also played piano. Before Texas, he lived with his older sister in Detroit, where he was exposed to the jazz scene. He took up the piano and played with local musicians, including Sammy Davis Jr. Apparently, he played well enough to get invited to play in the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival nine times, including one time where he played with Dizzy Gillespie. I couldn’t find much else on that but who cares? It’s not fundamental beat music!

Bongo Joe is music at it’s most fundamental and most expressive, comparable to Moondog and Ray Sipe (who, as you so vividly remember, I already wrote about on this blog). Some dismiss him as a novelty act but while he does come off as such, the music is pure, inspired, and honest (as you could tell from the title “I Wish I Could Sing” the opener for Bongo Joe). The lyrics are truly unique to Bongo Joe; they express his own philosophy of life by telling some weird stories. He expresses the cannibalistic bitterness of man toward his fellow man through is quick wit and biting tongue. I would say that he is a pure musical act that just happens to have a sense of humor. “Science Fiction” is quite poetic and philosophical:

And “Transistor Radio,” the story of a man who steals transistor radios.

I’ll leave you with one of my personal favorites, “Dog Eat Dog.” I like this because I have no idea what the hell is going on but only Bongo Joe would come up with this.

Special thanks to YouTuber “playerpianoJH”!

It’s odd to imagine machines playing music beyond human capabilities before synthetic sound and computers. This of course wasn’t the first time we had performable music played by non-human entities (mechanical orchestras, anyone?), but the whole culture of musique concrète (music that exists as a single “performance” by a machine or recording) developed around tape manipulation and analog synthesizers, and flourished when digital techniques became advanced and accessible (see my previous article on Easley Blackwood for examples of this era). However, there was a remarkable predecessor to this and all electronic music that must be discussed: the player piano. You can probably remember the player piano from period pictures of the late 19th century, a relic of la belle époque, quaint and lacking in depth. While it’s true that the majority of music for the instrument was either transcriptions of popular classical works of the day or forgettable dance music, it contained a secret power. Beginning in the mid-1910’s (with the above piece by Stravinsky) modernist composers started to see the instrument for what it was: a vehicle for superhuman music, unplayable by normal people.

The Three Pieces by the Italian composer Alfredo Casella are a beautiful demonstration of the new capabilities of this mechanical beast. The Prelude features fast chord jumps that would be impossible to play by three people at the speed required, and also has a chord that would require hands as wide as your legs are long to play. The Waltz uses a melody that stretches across several octaves. The ragtime seems more fitting for exploding cars than dancing people, or maybe somebody attempting to swat flies with a refrigerator door. In a way these pieces are musical jokes, because anybody listening to them would scoff at their byzantine player requirements and the loud and abrasive tone of the instrument, which was attractive to composers at the time because of how it fit into the current craze for “grotesque” music. Casella was no stranger to massive stacked chords, either, and these pieces are chock-a-block with gigantic piles of notes. In the same spirit but taking the unplayability (and some would say unlistenability) up a few levels is this absurd piece by Hans Haass, who I had never heard of before finding this piece:

I personally feel that the work is better art if one looks at the piano roll than if they listen to it (I imagined a scenario where Haass glanced at his patterned wallpaper one day and declared “This is the future of music!”). There were many other pieces (all availabe on the same YouTube channel) but it is necessary for us to jump ahead a few decades. Enter Conlon Nancarrow, an American composer who had been exiled to Mexico after some time tinkering in the murky waters of modern music. Unsatisfied with musicians’ inability to play his exceedingly difficult music, he discovered the player piano and its ability to play extremely complex rhythms very quickly. He got himself a manual piano roll punching machine so he could make his own pieces, and then proceeded to write some 50 studies for the instrument during the next 40 years, entirely in seclusion in Mexico. When he was rediscovered in the late 70’s he was lauded by the likes of György Ligeti as one of the greatest composers of his time, and it’s pretty hard not to appreciate his work, in its intellectual aspects and its emotional and entertainment qualities. All of them are worth investigating, but here I’m just going to feature my current favorite:

The use of harmony, the captivating and totally original approach to rhythms, and a number of truly miraculous moments make this piece a real joy, and is a great showoff work for the instrument. As the description notes, all modern player piano compositions stem from Nancarrow’s work, and the channel features a number of contemporary works by many interesting composers. Because of the many wonders to behold on this channel (you really should get cracking on the Nancarrow studies) I’ll leave you with a particularly funny piece by virtuoso pianist Marc-André Hamelin that transforms a moldy oldy piano lesson staple into something wholly sinful. Have fun and don’t bang on normal pianos too hard to replicate these works. You might hurt yourself.

~PNK

At least I think it would be called “avant hard.” I don’t know. How would you describe this sound?:

“Avant Hard” is how they describe it but you never know. For example, this guy describes it as “cat-rock” for no apparent reason.

Named after a computing function, Add N to (X) is a three-piece experimental electronica band from London. Their music is played almost entirely on analog synthesizers, as the members of the group are apparently aficionados of old and proto-electronic music, with influences ranging from Emerson, Lake, & Palmer to Iannis Xenakis to Can. Their sound is very flexible and can sound either very harsh or very beautiful. Sometimes their music is somewhere in between but normally, the sound is very harsh. It is quite trippy. The band carries the aesthetic of the analogue synth with them, in their music and their album covers, particularly the cover of On the Wires of Our Nerves.  The band has been given offers from major labels but they’ve turned them down and signed on to Mute Records, a large, respectable indie label. The first song that I posted was certainly quite harsh but here is a more relaxing tune.

In addition to the analog synthesizer aesthetic, their music mainly tackles themes of fetishism. They have also created some pretty explicit music videos, which can be just as outrageous as the music itself (in a good way, of course). Here is one of them: “Metal Fingers in my Body,” which pretty much explains itself. (Warning: slightly NSFW but you probably figured that out from the title)

Or perhaps “Plug Me In,” which features actual porn stars and actual female nipples. (Warning: actually NSFW. In fact, I am surprised that the Youtube police didn’t take it down yet)

Unfortunately, they are no longer active. They’ve had a good ten year run but after things started to pick up with their last album Loud like Nature, one of the members was overwhelmed by the pressures of touring and either quit or got fired. The tour was still done with the other two but then the band broke up afterwards.

It had been dragged in the patchouli ditch, overstuffed by an uninvited foreign exchange war, and came up from the drink in a rented hangover costume two weeks behind in payments.  It was 1969 and, though the American Industrial Music Conglomeriana wouldn’t admit it for the better part of a decade, the Psychedelic movement was pretty much over.  As with all outgrowths of 60’s drug culture the original point had been lost and accessible and well-known headliner groups (such as the Doors) had catapulted what started as subterranean and murkily understood by its inventors into that ever-so-dangerous “clean-cut” realm.  And at the peak of the buzz two groups attempted to take things up a level: Vanilla Fudge (now considered a seminal cross-genre band and very much worth investigating) and Alexander’s Timeless Bloozband.

I don’t know who Alexander is, or the contents of the Bloozband.  I don’t want to know.  It would diminish the magic.  Careening wildly between a genuinely vervy psychedelic jazz blend (such as in the above Horn Song) and a Bouncing Betty in the form of back-of-the-basement blues revivalism, I’ve never heard a record capture a genre’s collective direction quite like this one.  I can’t be sure if most of you will like every track you hear.  That may be part of my point.  Actually, this first track is probably the best, with a neat grove and harmony, and less boozy than most late psychedelia.  However, many other tracks (all available for download on Amazon) smack of a different beast.  And all are defined, alpha and omega, by Alexander.

I can’t imagine a better descriptor than “big floppy lawnflamethrower.”. His voice is a hairball expo on karaoke night, almost too lovely to behold.  From what little information I was able to gather on the group they played venues all around SoCal in the late sixties.  I’ve never heard of any of them (Greasy Slew Duck Club?!), so I can only assume they were flattened by Alexander’s visionary warble.

In a way this record is a testament to just how much the psychedelic movement owed to the blues.  Perhaps if this record had sold better people would have latched onto this notion.  I think a big part of why nobody did is a central conceit to the genre, in that most psychedelia is about as bluesy as the Beatles.  One thing is for certain, though: Alexander was at least channelling the spirit of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and every whiskey he ever played footsy with.  He understood the Bloozband for what it was: a vehicle to let his wobbly soul dance.  Perfection is out of the question.

I apologize for rambling, but maybe I was trying to skirt the real reason this record exists, and has to exist.  It is the last genuine psychedelic blues statement of its time, and between the maybe-once-rehearsed ensemble effort, a recording quality that suggests a garage at the bottom of the Hudson, and the incomparable Alexander, we realized that it couldn’t go any other way.  It’s both glorious and disarming.  The glory is obvious, but the disarmament comes when the weight of the thing comes crashing to our shoulders.  Did the gods bless this as a living funeral, or was Alexander really as clairvoyant as I hope he was?  Was it planned from the start to mark the death of the psychedelic music in LP form?  Is this what a death rattle plays on the guitar?

I see now why the Bloozband is Timeless.  The gutteral cry of humanity’s search for answers in the face of oblivion can never be silenced.  Alexander’s unique art merely made it timely.

~PNK

The 70’s was a time of prodigious drug use.  I don’t mean to say that in any judgmental fashion, just as a statement of fact.  The bomb had detonated and previous established rules of conduct were scattered across the floor.  In this newfound, confused verve, electronic music was gaining a lot of speed.  After a couple decades of cloistered experimentation there were a handful of electronic works that broke into the mainstream, chiefly records by two individuals: Walter Carlos (later Wendy) and Isao Tomita.

These are from 1971 and 1974 respectively, and if you recognize them (or not) it is their defining trait to be electronic recompositions of well-known classical pieces (by Henry Purcell and Claude Debussy, respectively).  It was a stark contrast from the previous community of electronic composers, whose compositional devices were avant-garde and largely inaccessible to the general public.  I think that these records became so popular chiefly because, rather than composing new music, they offered new ways to hear old music.  Regardless of their creators’ intents, these works are much like walking out of your house while high: same shit, different glasses.  These records may have also struck a chord with enthusiasts of progressive rock, not just in the shared use of synthesizers, but also in helping bring classical music to the colloquial drug crowd.  Though never a drug user, my mother has admitted that hearing the Tomita record featured above (Snowflakes are Dancing) was her introduction to the music of Debussy, just as it can be easily said that the theme to A Clockwork Orange was probably most people’s introduction to Funeral Music for Queen Mary.  Both Carlos and Tomita went on to make a number of best-selling records recomposing the classical rep, and the arts community started to notice.

In the late 70’s the National Endowment for the Humanities approached a dynamic composer-pianist named Easley Blackwood with the idea of exploring microtonal music.  For the uninitiated, microtonal music that uses scales that contain more notes than the one most used in Western classical music, which has twelve evenly-spaced notes.  Composers had been tinkering with microtonal scales since the beginning of the 20th century, but this was a new bag for Blackwood, whose previous works had been described as atonal and polyrhythmic, but formally conservative.  His approach could have gone countless routes, including composing works like he had done for the previous twenty years, or adopting a different experimental style.  What he chose instead was not only remarkable, but extremely timely.

What you’ve been listening to is from the 12 Microtonal Etudes for Electronic Music Media, released on LP in 1980.  In what Blackwood likened to being a “sequel” to Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier, each piece is first composed in a traditional tonal harmonic language, and then filtered through a microtonal pitch set, a different one for each etude.  Glancing at the sheet music moving past the viewer of the included videos will reveal music that would have fit in nicely at the turn of the 20th century in Russia, with the works of Scriabin and his ilk.  The beauty of the use of scales is that the listener doesn’t need to be aware of each exact tone being used, or even how many there are in each scale.  He simply has to be anticipating what normal music sounds like, and become swept away by the new quixotic soundworld Blackwood presents.  The new scales don’t actually align to any of the notes in a traditional 12-note scale, but they’re often close enough to trick the ear, and listeners are taken on an aural roller coaster, following the tones up and down.  It’s intoxicating, and the music by itself would be rich and lovely, pleasant to the ear.  These new scales have the power to make good music even better.

The Etudes became some of blackwood’s most well-known works, and the record was reissued on CD in 1994 along with two other microtonal works: the Fanfare using a 19-note scale, and a Suite using a 16-note scale for a guitar with a modified fretboard.  These works actually had such a profound effect on Blackwood’s composition that he largely turned away from atonality, instead focusing on sophisticated use of traditional harmony.  It’s as if he went through the looking glass and came out even more conservative than he already was.  Not that his soundworld is a bad place to be.

~ PNK