Archive for the ‘music’ Category



I first met Ethan & Caleb at the show pictured above, playing songs from their debut album Turquoise, released 2007. I was surprised and impressed hearing them for the first time, the way you can be, unexpectedly, when paying heed to opening bands. I was cautiously hopefully before I ever heard them play a note when I saw them rolling in the Hammond, checking the harmonica, and asking the sound man for as much reverb on the guitar as possible.

I am a sucker for music evocative of the emptier patches of the American southwest (Calexico, Friends of Dean Martinez, Valley of the Giants, etc). With a name like Headdress and an album decorated with feathers, tipis, and hand-stitching, they make no secret of their aim to follow the same trail with their pueblocore sound. Unlike the previously mentioned bands though, the music of Headdress feels slower, thinner, and more expansive, with the small sound of their two-piece band echoing to fill the shape of much larger space, suggesting all the stereotypical imagery of vast canyons and open plains.

The song they performed that night, ‘Sky Mountain Rising,’ was recorded live at The Mohawk, and is yet to be released, but still my favorite:

They spin themselves into a shamanistic, purifying drone, with chanting and rattles and bone-shaking low end. Truly great stuff. Ride the snake, boys.

Headdress are playing tomorrow at Webster Hall, New York City, 1-28-2009.


Music with Roots in the Aether: Pauline Oliveros

Music with Roots in the Aether: Pauline Oliveros
at MoMA 11-27-2008

Music with Roots in the Aether, Part 6: Pauline Oliveros (1975) was presented as part of the Looking At Music film series currently at the Museum of Modern Art.

This film was a triple threat with an interesting interview of influential composer Pauline Oliveros, a surreal setting that included costumed actors engaged in absurd performance in the background, and a final half hour full of pulsing drone as Oliveros gave an intimate concert.

Like most of the composers interviewed for this series, Oliveros first learned the language of traditional composition through her studies, and only earned her notoriety after developing her own voice. She described how her rebirth began with deep listening—a microphone in the windowsill inspired a promise to herself to always be aware of the sound environment around her.

I identified with her complaints of performance anxiety. Her attempts to free herself from that led to her current compositional process, which is an extreme form of detachment that she describes as “deformation.” It’s a state of improvised performance that she tries to reach by ignoring her own impulses, which she calls “intentions.” If she feels a conscious urge to create a sound, she ignores it, and instead waits for a hand of creation that seems to come not of her own will.

Also identified with her intensely introspective thinking. In her own words, she spends a great deal of time analyzing her own creative process with a scientific rigor, including the emotional setup and extraneous influences of setting and circumstance that combine to direct the result. She is her own analyst and observer and she reports on her thoughts and motivations with an insight and clarity that is telling of a very intelligent lady.

She also frees herself from painful scrutiny by drawing in “materials other than sound” into the “performance event” in order to disorient the audience by upsetting their expectations. I can see how that would create a situation where the audience is forced to respond to the piece on its own grounds, severed from any conventional wisdom about what makes music good or bad. Expectation taints perception. It is a prejudice that undermines the honesty of experience.

The back and forth between the interviewer, Robert Ashley, himself a noteworthy figure in highly academic contemporary music, was that of and informal chat among peers. I really enjoyed their sincere appreciation of each others work and comments on such, and the insider perspective enriching the whole discussion.

Anyone who enjoys thinking about what music is, how music is made, and how it can be performed would enjoy this documentary series. Also, this one in particular would be a mondo headfuck while on mushrooms.

Ambient manifesto

I spent last weekend in Boston for the Kranky Records showcase at Brainwaves Fest 2008. Kranky is my favorite label, because they put out long, slow, intensely boring music. Ambient music traces the shape of my heart, filling it with abstraction more potent than words.

Kranky is home to Stars of the Lid, a band I saw twice that weekend—once at the moody Le Poisson Rouge theater in Manhattan, and again at Brainwaves day 3. Stars of the Lid are a rotating string quartet anchored by the creative vision and electric guitar of Brian McBride. They are a perfect realization of concept in sound, with each of their expansive instrumental albums evoking star-streaked galaxies gliding through space.

For their LPR show, SotL played to a seated audience on a pitch black stage with only the tiny blue stand lights to illuminate the score. Behind them, projections of diffuse color in the purple-pink hues of nebulas and dust were cast across the length of the stage, flickering and dimming as the music swelled and burst.

I often wonder how anyone not accustomed to the style of SotL would react to a show. It is not demanding music, though it does require patience. It is not challenging nor discordant, though it is as loud as rock. Anyone could agree that it is exceedingly listenable; but would they catch even a glimpse of the sublime I would feel?

The kind of ambient rock played by SotL is sentimental, dramatic and intense; but so am I, so it suits me well. SotL and other favorites of mine work in long form with less structure and more gradual evolution. They sacrifice melody and lyrics for textures and tones. Ambient is also a fragmented form. This music relies less on bucketing its sounds into verse-chorus-verse, and instead gives us a series of impressions, abstract and indistinct, freed from the rules of song. Each musical fragment defines its own edges and bleeds into the next; sound vignettes smeared across time.

Instrumental music like this does not attract listeners easily. I’ve learned that people often connect with the message in the words from their favorite songs. But for me, lyrics are a distraction that demand their own memories and associations, separate from the music below it. Likewise, highly structured music is its own symbolic language, that tells its story by referencing the song form itself. Both of those things activate my thoughts and interrupt my experience of raw emotion. Words are once removed from feeling, and wordless music bypasses thought and connects directly to sense. It is music that allows you to reach a height of bliss that burns away the chatter, and makes your mind quiet by pouring your heart full.

Stars of the Lid

Stars of the Lid @ Brainwaves Festival 2008 ( from nariposa on Vimeo.