Friday, 28 December 2007

Oscar Peterson, R.I.P.

Second blog post of the day from me, and this one's not really one I'd have wanted to make, but, as Corporal Nym says in Shakespeare's 'Henry V', "things must be as they may." So it is then, that the latest jazz great to pass away this year (in what is becoming a regular procession), is Canadian pianist Oscar Peterson, who died last Sunday at his home near Toronto, aged 82. This tribute post is a brief assessment, not in terms of chronological terms, or career, but what his style as a whole meant and contributed to jazz. It's not entirely positive: I have to confess that I've no really been that thrilled with Peterson's style - I'd rather hear any number of other pianists: Tyner, Hancock, Powell, Monk, Ellington, even Basie. I just feel they have something which OP doesn't. But then again, his success, both critical and commericial, speaks for itself, and he was certainly one of the top men in the music.

"He fills his work with riffs and repeated figures, sometimes a single note hammered out relentlessly. This approach offers rhythmic intensity, but from a melodic point of view it often leaves his lines fragmented and somewhat chaotic." (James Lincoln Collier, 'The Making of Jazz')

Collier devotes only one paragraph to Peterson in his history of jazz, and while his judgements can sometimes be rather old-fashioned (to give two examples, he makes a valiant attempt to understand the modern avant-garde, but ends up going down the old simplistic conclusion that it's simply a lot of angry chaos; and his dismissal of Miles Davis' soloing style is also rather peremptory), I think what he says about Peterson does have some relevance.

He lumps together Peterson, George Shearing and Errol Garner as three pianists who had a wider impact on the public than the perhaps ultimately more important Art Tatum, Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell -
they constitute a subschool of modern piano playing. All three were working with established styles before either Monk or Powell recorded. They thus began as swing pianists...before the beginning of the bop movement. All of them to one degreee or another moved into the new music, but none of them was firmly committed to it, and the swing feeling has always remained an important element in their playing. All of them were rhythmically forceful; all of them concentrated on popular standards instead of originals or the more difficult bop tunes; all of them tended to present the song's original melody frequently in a performance. This combination of straightforward driving rhythm and recognisable tunes in an idiom that owed much to swing made their music a good deal more accessible to a broad public than the music of Monk, Powell, and the beboppers...taken together, [they] were the major architects of a light jazz piano style that has become central to modern popular music.
Cocktail pianism, pehaps, as Collier goes on to imply, and I think the critic does a good job in capturing the somewhat old-fashioned feel that pervaded Peterson's output. (Someone in a review of Dave Brubeck's latest album said the same thing about him, which is an interesting point of comparison).

Maybe that was what attracted him to the public - he ploughed his own furrow all the way through the noisy experimentation of bebop, then the 60s New Thing and jazz fusion, carrying on in basically the same style, and often the same group (trio, with bass and either drums or guitar - though of course he was a sensitive and prolific accompaninest to the likes of Louis Armstrong, among others, despite serving no real apprenticeship as a sideman - he went straight into being a leader with a much-heralded debut, and never looked back). As Colin Larkin puts it in the Guinness guide to jazz: "he has maintained a certain steady consistency of style that has withstood the buffetting of fashion." This consistency, this steadiness, meant that you could always be certain that he would deliver a performance that was at the very least capable and polished and proffesional, at best truly inspired.

"Nearly everything Peterson plays, he plays with the same degree of force. He leaves no holes for the rhythm section." (Miles Davis, 'Miles: The Autobiography')

"Peterson's powerfully swinging style does tend on occasion to overpower his melodic sense and he is apt to become repetitious, and, less often, banal. After four decades in the business, though, he understands its workings better than anyone. Above all, Peterson delivers." (Richard Cook and Brian Morton, 'The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD')

As the above quotes illustrate, he wasn't exactly subtle, with all those enormous arpeggios and glissandi, and thick, heavy chords threatening to swamp things. Sometimes it seemed as if he'd got carried away with the dizzying brilliance of his own virtuoso technique, and was deciding to show it off - sometimes he didn't employ his undoubted gifts in the best way he could. He might have learned from Miles or Wayne Shorter or Herbie Hancock to leave space, gaps, breathing points; he might have learned from McCoy Tyner how to build inexorable momentum, and then to sustain the climax at a pitch of intensity for minutes at a time. I don't think he really did, though, more's the pity. In contrast to Bud Powell's modernist shidangle, Peterson's virtuosity is almost schmaltzy - more Liberace than Rachmaninov. Still, that said, it's not as though every piece becomes a showcase for virtouso display, irrespective of the needs of the tune; Peterson was a fine ballad player, if lacking the gift for space that many of the jazz musicians had (Bill Evans especially).

As a little personal aside, my favourite Peterson album turns out to be the one that Cook and Morton describe as the single OP record you should own (I purchased it before reading their review, incidentally), a rather obscure 'Compact Jazz' compilation containing performances from Peterson's 1960s heyday, with various trios (all of them featuring Ray Brown in the bass spot), and trumpeter Clark Terry guesting, in puckish, sprightly (if slightly subdued) form on a couple of tracks. A particular highlight is the opening piece: his reading of 'Let's Fall in Love' is irrestistible, full of delicious virtuoso flurries of Tatumseque intensity. And the way he plays the melody seems somehow just right - he catches it spot on. Also on the record are excellent versions of 'The Shadow of Your Smile', 'Autumn Leaves', his ballad 'Wheatland', which manages to convey a sense of shimmering, slightly melancholly delicacy and down-home gospelly fervour at the same time, and John Lewis' sober tune, 'Django': in comparison to the composers' performance with the MJQ, Peterson's reading of the main melody is that of a sentimentalist (Brown's accompanying bowed bass work is faultless), before he moves on to an easy, trickling, tinkling blues solo.

OK, back then to summaries, to evaluations of legacies (which I suspect I am uniquely unqualified to give)...In many ways, OP defines what most people's idea of jazz piano is. Other modern greats - Tyner, Monk, even Hancock -are more modern, more idiosyncratic, but OP IS jazz tradition, and played with the makers of that tradition (Armstrong, Holliday, Fitzgerald). I guess it wouldn't be stretching it too much to describe him as something of a populist, yet and that's unfair, in that it implies he had no artistic integrity, which is certainly not true. What it all boils down to is the fact that I shouldn't let my personal prejudices cast too big a cloud on a pianist who was capable of performances of undoubted greatness, so, R.I.P., O.P.

And finally...A fascinating short animated film from 1949 called 'Begone Dull Care', made by film-maker/artists Norman MacLaren and Evelyn Lambart in collaboration with Peterson, who improvised the music, over a 4-day period. The abstract images conjured up (by painting and scratching directly onto film-stock) resemble some of William de Kooning's charcoal-like paintings in the black-and-white accompaniment to the 'first movement', and Jackson Pollock's colour splashes later on (though the visual style is unique), and might thus seem somewhat inappropriate to Peterson's basically rather old-fashioned, traditional style, but the result is never less than fascinating.

The Dumb House: A Review

I've just finished the first novel (now 10 years old - it was written in 1997) by the Scottish author John Burnside. It's called 'The Dumb House', and I posted a review of it on, which is reproduced below. I've started working on an extended essay on Burnside this month - not sure when it'll start to expand, or what it'll coalesce into (I'm thinking about bringing it into my academic studies, but I may keep it as a sideline, so that it remains more of a hobby than a chore). I need to read more of his stuff, as I've only read two of his novels (this and 'The Devil's Footprints') and some of the poetry, and there's a lot more out there. Anyway, for now, here's are some thoughts on this one book.

John Burnside - The Dumb House (Vintage, 1998)

I very much admire Burnside as a poet, and many of the themes he addresses in his poetry are present here too, as are some of his turns of phrases, his ways of talking about the world. The only other of his novels that I've read is his most recent, 'The Devil's Footprints'; what they have in common is a solitary narrator, observing with a detached, cynical eye the activities of other people, with whom he may occasionally come into contact, but with whom he rarely interacts on a normal level. Here, even more so than with the ambiguous narrator of TDF (who may or may not have paedophilic feelings towards a girl he runs off with), this virtual misanthropy leads to dangerous courses of action being taken, which often lead to harm for other people, and, one feels, a kind of spiritual betrayal for the narrator too (in contrast to the genuine epiphany experienced at the end of TDF).

It's hard not to see at least some elements of Burnside himself in these figures - they're crafted with too much care, they have too much of a ring of truth about them, they feel as if they emerge from experience (the sort of experience which appears, in flashes, in his collections of poetry). He is anonymous - we only learn his name late on in the book, in a flashback to schooldays where an admired teacher addresses him by name. In a way, it doesn't matter; I never found myself registering him as Luke, but as a presence, the presence that the narrator senses when out on his own, in the garden or on the road - something watching in the bushes, watching, waiting, coldly observing before pouncing with a violence all the more menacing for being premeditated and cold rather than ferociously hot-blooded.

This distanced, dangerous loneliness is not the entire story, however: both narrators share, with Burnside the poet, a deep appreciation for the subtleties of nature, for its changing moods: extreme detail which might normally be overlooked becomes extremely important, and much time is spent on poetic description and philosophical enquiry. It's this that really fleshes out the novel - no, more than this, that provides it with its substance, as the story itself is somewhat bare, a series of events which do not always have a clear narrative arc. Here's just one of many examples, from page 25: a meditation prompted by a visit to Sillbury Hill, where he encounters groups of New-Agers looking at a crop circle.
While I was there, I felt there was nothing to stop me from getting into the car and driving away, back towards the west, moving from one crop disturbance to the next, pretending I was solving the mystery, growing into it, vanishing from the world I had inhabited all my life. I could have become someone else as easily as that; maybe I could even have become the person I had suspected all along, less clearly defined, but also less contained. I could make a game of my own life, like those people I had read about in magazines – the woman who disappears on her way home from work; the man who steps out one summer morning to buy a newspaper, or a loaf of bread, and never returns. He cannot have gone far, dressed as he is in a shirt and a pair of jeans; he only has five pounds in his pocket, but nobody ever sees him again.
Note the exquisitely balanced tone – humour (“he is an ordinary man, quite sane, no known problems – or nothing serious at least” – no, nothing serious enough except it means he vanishes without trace, dressed in only a shirt and a pair of jeans, with £5 in his pocket) the sinister (perhaps they didn’t choose to disappear, but were killed by someone like the narrator), the mysterious and elusive. It has a peculiarly beguiling quality unique to Burnside’s writing – it draws one in, and one ends up pondering on things that it would never have entered one’s head to think about for. Burnside draws us into the world of the forgotten, the unknown, and makes us inhabit it as naturally as he does, and as his narrator does.

In terms of plot, Burnside's starting point is a Persian myth, which describes how Akbar the Great built a palace to be filled with newborn children, attended only by mutes, in order to learn whether language is innate or acquired. None of the children learned to speak, and in the end, the 'experiment' was inconclusive - the legend does not say what happened to the children, only informing us that the building became known as Gang Mahal (The Dumb House). In the novel, the narrator becomes convinced that, by discovering the roots of language, he can discover the human soul: earlier, as a child/teenager, he tries this by dissections, by cruelly murdering animals, cutting them open and watching the life flow out of them to see if he can catch a glimpse of something passing out (the soul). Of course, he never gets very far, and he decides to try a more drastic experiment, which is similarly doomed to failure, only leading him to take life in a destructive and futile quest for personal satisfaction: the philosopher's quest for the roots of knowledge and ideas, for some sort of elixir of life, taken too far, perhaps. Later, he will kick a tramp to near-death and set him on fire; break the fingers of a mute child; and poison his own twin children, whom he has treated as laboratory rats.
(Below - The tomb of Akbar the Great.

It is this latter case that forms the centre of the book, which everything else leads up to. What starts out as "the single most important experiment that a human being can perform: to find the locus of the soul, the one gift that sets us apart from the animals" evolves into a sadistic, bizarre exercise whereby the narrator, in a twisted variant on Akbar the Great's experiment, imprisons his own twin children in a locked room, depriving them of language, and playing them only music over speakers. When they develop what seems to be a musical language of their own, constantly singing, improvising to one another, their gaoler feels excluded and becomes fearful: at one moment, they somehow manage to escape and stand, smiling, watching him asleep, at the door to his bedroom, like the knowing, innocent children we're all familiar with from horror fiction and films (of which the ultimate example is surely the angelic child who turns out to be the anti-Christ in human form, Damian from 'The Omen'). Unsure what to do, he first cuts out their larynxes to silence them (perhaps the most uncomfortable moment of an often very unpleasant book), then poisons the food he brings them. The novel ends with him taking in a desperate, probably instance, alcoholic woman (the mother of the mute child whose fingers he had broken), whom he has earlier had a sexual relationship with in the course of his research into the roots of language, and the cases of mute children. She seems to have taken the place of the mute, homeless woman who has born him the twins, and it is implied that the whole cycle will begin again. The final sentence of the novel comes with a shudder: he locks the woman in his mother's old room, prompting him to remark: "I experienced a sudden thrill of joy, as if I were locking away some hidden treasure that I'd been waiting years to find, the one thing I had never expected: a necessary gift, an indisputable moment of divine grace."

One thread seems to be the inability of science to cope with life's unknowable mysteries: the narrator writes with a poet's language, with many metaphysical passages on the nature of language, man's relation to the world, to nature and to other humans, the relation between life and death, and the existence of the soul, but, every few pages, keeps referring back to his "experiment," reminding himself of the objective, scientific nature of his 'research' into the ephemeral. At one point he relates a story of how, at school, he criticises a teacher for talking about the soul, something which is beyond the knowledge of science, something far more important than any poet's vague ideas of something beyond explanation. But this is clearly a paradoxical view, considering his own poetic inclinations, and Burnside clearly shows him up for the deluded psycopath he essentially is. In the end, perhaps the 'moral' of the novel is that we shouldn't probe too far into the unknowable, else we risk madness in trying to grasp something we can never reach. Just as the religious man's search for answers in religious truths and laws can lead to violence and intolerance, the destruction of human life, so can the scientific man's search for objective fact in realms that are far beyond factual explanation. That would seem to fit very much with Burnside's agnosticism, and whatever we think of such a conclusion, the novel is filled with moments of striking and thought-provoking meditation on these important issues.

Another thread would be the unknowability of evil, which is, we have to conclude, what the narrator is - of course, there are strong suggestions of motive: the strong mother, weak and distant father (unloved by both son and wife), lack of friends, lonely wandering along with little supervision, abusive encounter with a paedophile (p.17-18 – skimmed over so quickly that one almost forgets it has been mentioned). Simplistically, he has a Norman Bates mother-fixation - but, like Bates, he is not merely a crazy psycho (pardon the pun); he is intellectually attractive, sees beneath the surface of things, notices truths hovering in unlikely places(very similar to those that Burnside the poet notices), and can be dangerously beguiling. This is what makes him so troubling: Luke has a cold logic. His choices seem to be, except at the most extreme moments (such as when he breaks a child's fingers, or the chilling last 20-30 pages of the book, detailing his 'experiment', and treatment of the twins as isolated laboratory animals), natural steps in an inexorable series of events. These steps, these acts of violence, are described as if from a distance, as acts meditated on rather than as in-the-moment - unlike Camus' stranger, who kills the Arab in a moment of what one could, I suppose, call temporary madness, blinded by the sun and who knows what else, Burnside's Luke is able to reflect when kicking the tramp to death, on how the body becomes a lump of meat, how it is jarred out of place, broken from its perfection into something non-human - and reflect in this without a trace of remorse or regret or revulsion, but with a curious, detached, almost apathetic curiosity. While the apparent ‘reasonableness’ of what he does disturbingly show how close ‘normality’ is to evil, shows convincingly how someone could do such terrible things and believe that what he is doing is normal, Luke is obviously not normal. There is a total absence of objective morality, the worry some of us non-scientists may share about scientists who become too disengaged emotionally, who, in probing for the meaning of reality, end up going beyond it into an abstract world of facts and figures, experiments and hypotheses. In this sense Burnside's novel offers a probing critique and a valuable corrective. Unlike many other poets, he was a scientist himself, and he has a clear understanding of the traditionally opposed realms of science and art, recognizing the limitations and dangers and singular beauties of both.

It is a very disturbing book, quite nasty in places, perhaps overly so, and one that left me with a curious feeling when I had finished, which I can best describe in religious terms, as 'unclean.' For all its poetic and philosophic grace and depth, it has a nasty, sordid, reality about which is very modern and rather tasteless. One can't help feeling that a slightly less unpleasant theme might be more to the point of Burnside's gift for language; or maybe he reserves that for his poetry. I'm probably being squeamish, but it makes it an immensely hard book to like, much less love. I feel that it's an important book, and one that I would recommend having a look at, but I would find it hard, myself, to read the whole thing through again.

Friday, 21 December 2007

A still, small voice.

VINGT REGARDS SUR L'ENFANT JESUS, by Olivier Messiaen. Performed by Joanna MacGregor. St George's, Bristol, Thursday 20th December 2007.

Well, seeing as 2008 is the anniversary year of one of my favourite composers, Olivier Messiaen, I did a spot of internet browsing to see what concerts were being offered up as part of the tribute. Quite a few as it turns out - there's a festival going on at the South Bank, his complete organ works are being performed at King's College Chapel in Cambridge, his opera 'Saint Francois d'Assise' is being staged (in the US and Netherlands, I believe, but unfortunately not the UK - that is one work I would love to see live, though I'd have to be in a suitably contemplative frame of mind, otherwise all that solemn ritual could bore me stiff...)

During this little spot of research, I realised that the celebrations seemed to be beginning early: at 8PM this evening (the 20th), in fact. In the converted Anglican church of St George's, Bristol, pianist Joanna MacGregor gave a performance of the very demanding 'Vingt Regards sur L'Enfant Jesus', a series of 20 'regards' -'gazes' would probably be the best English translation, although I suppose in essence they're really meditations in essence - on the child Jesus. So, for instance, you have 'regard de l'espirit de joie', 'regard de la Pere,' 'regard de la Vierge', and so on - all drawing on traditional Catholic symbolism and mysticism, both that of various well known thinkers and Messiaen's own, somewhat idiosyncratic version/vision (encompassing as it does Hindu and ancient Greek rhythms, ecstatic/erotic/religious desire, elements of atonality and dissonance sitting alongside almost lush/filmic melodies that might seem in bad taste in other contexts. Plenty of spicy harmonies, crashing left hand notes hanging in a pedal-driven haze under sprinkles of high-pitched right hand birdsong, chords inexorably moving their way up the keyboard, bizarre, off-kilter lullabies.

Digression: this picture, as should be obvious, does not show the concert I'm reviewing: I didn't take my camera with me, and this was the only decent picture of the St George's interior I could find on google image search. Shame it doesn't show the work of art above the stage very well, but I think it gives some idea of the setup.

The concert was advertised as being by candelight, which was something of a red herring, as there was also quite substantial lighting coming from ceiling chandeleirs and various other light sources as well. That is, apart from at one point, about three-quarters of the way through, when these were all turned off, leaving only the candles and MacGregor silhouetted at the piano - which I thought fitted in very well with the whole air of intimacy and mystery that the piece radiates, but which was apparently a mistake, as the other lights came back on afterwards (of course, the fact that she probably couldn't read the score in near-darkness was probably a major factor in that decision).

I arrived a few minutes late, due to waiting around for ages at a bus-stop (and, sure enough, after the wait, two came along at once...), and so missed the first movement, 'Regard de La Pere.' As I sat down and gathered my preliminary thoughts, I wasn't entirely convinced by MacGregor's performance - her jazz leanings were apparent with the dexterous way in which she handled the work's complex rhythms (although at times even she seemed to be showing signs (however miniscule) of strain - maybe just nerves, which disappeared as she really got into the music). However, I did feel that she took it a bit fast - admittedly Messiaen's extreme slowness can seem overly ponderous in the wrong hands, so it's a very delicate balance to be trodden, between dull plodding and seeming to almost glide over what he's written, thus losing the emotional significance, the nuance which has to be teased out of perhaps just single notes or phrases. The recordings I own (Peter Serkin, on an old triple LP set I picked up in an Oxfam shop - not sure if it's still in print - and Messiaen's prodigious protege, Pierre Laurent-Aimard) perhaps have the balance just slightly more to my liking. That said, there's no such thing as an ideal performance, and I'm not convinced by the idea that this performance can exist even in one's head - our idea of how a piece of music sounds is created by the performances we hear; we cannot just come to a piece completely fresh or completely new (unless we are competent enough musicians/sight-readers to decipher the score, and in the case of Messiaen, that's a pretty tall order for most people).

So, MacGregor soon settled in (perhaps taking things a bit slower, at a more considered, but by no means laboured pace), and, particularly during the second half, really got to the heart of what the piece is about. Obviously, there is the very dark, vaguely nightmarish writing, symbolising the awe and grandeur inspired by God, by creation, and so on. This is something Messiaen perhaps addressed most notably in his piano concerto 'Des Canyons Aux Etoiles', inspired by a visit to American canyons, and the overwhelming effect they had on him (the same sort of ideas as the Romantic 'sublime'); also in the penultimate scene from St Francois d'Assise', when St Francis receives the stigmata. The soundworld he uses to convey these emotions is in line with a lot of twentieth-century modernism (Schoenberg and all those that followed - though not nearly as cerebral and dry as a lot of academic modern classical can be), and can cause a lot of people to switch off. As I overhead one person saying as they were leaving the concerthall, "it's too dissonant - I just can't get past that to engage with the rest of it." That was partly my experience when I first encountered Messiaen: he was, I suppose, my way into the avant-garde, having experienced pretty traditional fare before (with someone like Debussy being about as far out as I got). But once you accustom your ears to it, you realise that this is only one element of his work (and not a bad thing in itself, at all). Messiaen's music is deeply inspired by his Catholic beliefs, and he very much emphasises the transcendent, the mysterious, abstract concepts such as 'love' and 'peace' which music can capture perhaps better than any other art form (because of its inherently abstract nature). This can lead to opulent, quasi-erotic orchestral canvaseses (the Turangalila Symphony or Trois Petites Liturgies de la Presence Divine), immensely slow-moving, mournful/hopeful melodies over static chords (the 'Louange' movements from the Quattor de la Fin Du Temps, the song of the angle from St Francois), or to something perhaps unique to Vingt Regards.

This, in fact, was one aspect of the work that I hadn't really noticed before: a soothing, lullaby quality, that alternates with crashing, pounding granite blocks and virtuoso sparkle-trails. Hence the title of this post: in the (I think) 16th or 17th regard (I somewhat lost track during the performance, as MacGregor only left very brief pauses between movements), the 'theme of joy' (one of the work's leitmotifs, which appears in various guises in several of the movements, giving the whole thing an overall architecture and unity) is transformed from an exotic, slightly queasy dance into a gorgeous, hushed song. Your pulse and heartbeat drop a few notches, and the whole room seemed to have lapsed into reverie, before the fire and fury of the next movement jolted them back, and there was a collective straightening of shoulders, scratching of heads, and clearing of throats. The tender meditativeness combined perfectly with the panel on the wall above the piano, a depiction of Jesus' ascension into heaven, standing in a curious, arcane, dance-like position in the sun above his golden-haloed crowd of disciples; at once inscrutable, other, unknowable, yet also incredibly present, tangible, full of emotion. That, reduced down to its essence, is what Christ means: God and man, God and child, all-powerful ruler and helpless sacrifice. A figure of paradox, but not contradiction - a beautiful conceptual idea, whether or not you buy into Christianity. And I guess this is the achievement of the Vingt Regards, that it reveals this about its subject, in its multi-faceted gazes on him; it is what makes what seems to be a very emotional, abstract piece also a profoundly philosophical and thoughtful one.

Wednesday, 12 December 2007

Strange Sun

I've been thinking just now about something I value in a lot of art: a certain quality of dreaminess, of blurring. Something which can approach vagueness, but, in its more succesful forms, exists on the cusp of known and unknown, the ineffable and the expressable. In poetry, the region of "border language" that Jonathan Wordsworth talks about in his ancestor William's poetry; the 'visionary' elements in so many great poets - Walt Whitman's "whispers of heavenly death," William Blake's holding of infinity in the palm of his hand...In visual art, the gorgeous light-drenched paintings of Turner; his descendants, the Impressionists, of course - Monet's late work especially; and their descendants, abstract art - paintings by Arshile Gorky and early Kandinsky, before he settled for a stricter geometric, shape-based approach (resonant and beautiful thought that is). In music, the lyrical pastoral of Delius and Vaughan-Williams; the mysterious beauty of Ravel and, even more so, Debussy; the extremely subtle control over texture in the work of the great avant-garde composer Giacinto Scelsi; and, in a similar manner, the eerie and beautiful choral work by the late Karlheinz Stockhausen, 'Stimmung'. Those moments in collectively, freely improvised music when all the instruments merge together, mesh in detail and texture so that you're not quite sure who's making which sound - such moments were described by the usual pretty taciturn and down-to-earth Derek Bailey, as "magical." (AMM, any ensemble with John Butcher in it...) The general quality of a lot of Marion Brown's music: when he takes elements of the keyboard-rich sound found on early Miles Davis' fusion - all those twinkling electric piano melodies and chordal textues - to build something that's soothingly lovely, static and hovering ('Sweet Earth Flying'); or, with different instrumentation, when he conjures up the wonderful, hazy, later-summer, small-town feel of a piece like 'Karintha' from 'Geechee Reccollections'; or when he presents a challengily indeterminate avant-garde soundscape on 'Afternoon of a Georgia Faun': music which seems to be half-asleep, yet is crafted with subtly shifting, delicate improvisational care. This dreamy quality is captured very well on the recent release by indie band His Name is Alive, 'Sweet Earth Flower: A Tribute to Marion Brown', where airy drifting introductions give way to lyrical saxophone lead lines, with every note carefully placed, then sudden bursts of free-jazz guitar noise.

This impulse, call it what you will, is also what's behind, or what I hope's behind, the atmosphere, at least, of this poem: there are other elements to it, of course, which I have typed up in some detail for myself, but I won't go into them in that same level of detail here, as I don't want to prescribe any particular reading of the poem, nor do I want to make it seem better than it is! It's a sketch, little more. Very briefly, it's an attempt to convey the experience of seeing the sun come out again after a brief but heavy spring or summer shower, and the moment, or moments, when its fuzzy light (obscured by cloudy remnants of moisture/vapour in the air, glinting off the freshly-fallen raindrops) breaks down the edges of physical objects (trees, rocks, fences) into a weird, dreamy, unified whole. Look at this painting by Turner and you'll see what I mean.

Turner's legendary 'Norham Castle, Sunrise' - not, as far I know, a depiction of sun after rain, but with a similar effect.


strange sun, after rain,
poking through moisture,
glowing, muffled, dribbling over
raindrops, melting edges of the
plain, the hard-edged
clouds, dark woods covering
hills like shrouds, and
all is one again.
strange sun, has become
earth water air, all one.

Gacinto Scelsi: a biography and information about his music from Classical Net.
A couple of websites with information about Stockhausen's Stimmung.
His Name is Alive's 'Sweet Earth Flower' can be downloaded from emusic. The page also contains Thom Jurke's excellent, thorough review, originally posted on All Music Guide.
Michael Ardaiolo has written another wonderful review of the same album.
Arshile Gorky's painting The Liver is the Cock's Comb