Sunday, April 22, 2012

Musical Amphibians

I use the term amphibian here as Aldous Huxley did in a wonderful essay called "The Education Of An Amphibian". He used it to refer to a being at home in two (or in the case of humans, many) worlds. In this case, I am referring to myself and certain fellow musicians who have this habit of making music in both abstract and song forms. I will be taking the liberty of speaking for us, without having checked or cleared anything beforehand. This is something I normally would not do, and I hope I don't misrepresent anyone's views. 
We are surrounded by categories: specialization and niches and pigeonholes into which we, and our activities, are routinely expected to fit. Not doing this can be viewed as suspect or just plain weird by people unused to that level of artistic diversity. Those of us acting in this way are not doing it out of indecision. On the contrary, we have made a very definite decision that no such division is acceptable to us. We try to make good music, whatever form it takes. We like a range of forms; we produce in a range of forms. We deviate from those forms, and combine them, as we see fit, to match what we want to put across. Many musical judgments and conventions taken for granted in the world of commercial music, and in traditional musics, may not be adhered to; for the simple reason that to experiment with these boundaries may produce interesting, entertaining, and artistically satisfying results.

It is also not unusual for us to be multi-instrumentalists, poets, and visual artists/designers. We're not showoffs, we're just having fun while taking care of the necessities of making things to share with other people. Again, it's about not limiting yourself. You're not supposed to do those things yourself? Who says? Why not? What a silly restriction. Who came up with that one? 

In a previous blog entry, I made brief mention of a few of these fellows. I'd like to add a little more detail now.

Don Campau (pronounced "Comp-O") has been at this probably the longest of any of the folks I'm going to bring up here. His use of multiple forms goes back into the late '60s, early '70s, to the best of my knowledge. In many ways he epitomizes this musical polymorphousness. Experimentation with any and all possible instruments (and combination of instruments), acoustic and electric/electronic sounds, field recordings, poetry and singing, melodic songs and noise, he's basically done it all. And yet even for those of us who've been listening a while (I first heard Don back in '85), he continues to come up with surprises. Let me tell you about a few things he's put out recently that come immediately to mind. One of his recent releases, "Moldable Head" was made of record skips from classical records, along with a few very subtle bits of added instrumentation, mostly synth. This could have been a fun bit of noise only; but Don manages to make it thematically interesting, melodically involving. I thought the whole concept was refreshing, but what he managed to do with it raised it well beyond novelty to the point where I was more focused on it as good music, and that was a very pleasant surprise. Further into the abstract realm is the wonderful "Lilly Pad", which features two long tracks of atmospheric music, sculpted from diverse types of sound- all sorts of instruments conventional and unconventional, field recordings and short wave radio, and so on. This is the type of album I used to hunt for back in the old vinyl days, when I was discovering how huge the world of music could be, and a find like early Tangerine Dream or early Ralph Lundsten or Popol Vuh could change the way you heard things forever. A warning though: this is not new age lite, with breathy synths and tinkling piano. This sounds like something alive, in all its complexity. Last, I'd like to mention Don's most recent compilation, a "best of" from 2000-2009. Here you get to meet Don the song writer. He's a great lyricist, and often has a strong and sardonic sense of humor to his words. Titles such as "I Nailed Sarah Palin" and "I Wish I Was Suave Like Peter Jennings" tell a bit about that. There's a hilarious L.A. metal parody, "Stop Don't Go". And just a bunch of imaginative narratives with great music. Don's website is Those three releases I mentioned are seriously just the tip of the iceberg. If you're not already a fan, check him out please. 

Charles Rice Goff III has done plenty of solo work, and also work in various projects, such as The Magic Potty Babies and Turkey Makes Me Sleepy. He's the only one I'll be mentioning that I've actually met in person, back in 2003. He came out to visit his friend and ex-bandmate Eric Matchett, who lived within a couple miles of my old place. I was in the middle of recording so we were having trouble scheduling; but the night after I recorded "Planet Of Garbage", he and Eric and I met up, went for Thai food, and talked for hours. I had a wonderful time. Since then we have stayed in touch, and have listened to plenty of each other's work. Among CRGIII's many releases is the excellent "Songs For A Blacksmith's Apron". This is his take on country music, and it is wonderful. Does it sound like country music? No, not especially. It sounds more like country music than Loren Mazzacane Conners sounds like blues. It sounds like...well, like something only CRGIII could do. The first track is about seeing William Burrough's house and the locals being disinterested and ignorant of its history; it mentions "my friends in the good ol' avante garde!", which gives you perhaps a better idea of its country cred. He does an old traditional song about Quantrill's raiders, and explains that Quantrill was a psycopath who, with his raiders, went around during the civil war slaughtering non-combatants (men, women and children) for living in the wrong place. The song, however, was written as a celebration. It gets the treatment it deserves; very creepy.I could go on; I'll just recommend it very highly instead. For a bit of CRGIII's more abstract work, you might try some history and check out "RE:". It's a collection of early pieces that is good and solidly interesting straight through. Check it, and tons of other stuff, out on the Taped Rugs site.

The work of Bret Hart covers many different song formats, and like the rest of us I'm talking about here, the vision for the music is primary, and the consideration of "format", unless it is specifically chosen ahead of time, is something best decided afterwards if at all. You can hear a lot of different influences: country and blues and folk, screaming hard experimentalism, industrial avante garde. One of the main elements creeping in to gently tug at the direction of things is Korean music; Bret lived and taught there for years, and became familiar with the instruments and the music. He has his own highly inventive and inspired take on it, of course. And of course no combination of the above-named elements is off limits. Bret has solo releases, a whole series of excellent duets albums (I did two with him and had a blast), work with the band Hipbone, and a lot more. Like Don and CRGIII, Bret is an immediately recognizable musician. His approach is simply unique. When he sent me his tracks for our first duets CD, my first thought was, "I've never heard anything like this." Which to me is almost always a good thing, and in this case, definitely. By turns whispy and harsh, it sounded like someone scratching pictures into the air with a magic bone. What could I possibly mean by that? Listen to his stuff and find out.

Now, my apologies to all three gentlemen mentioned here; I had tried initially to do something more in depth for all three, and ended by doing progressively smaller paragraphs. I also need to do some street preachin' for my friend Eric Wallack, who is one of the most amazing musicians it's ever been my pleasure to work with. My excuse for stopping here is that after starting this entry months and months ago, I'm finally at a point where I might be able to get it finished and posted, and I want to make sure that happens. I suppose it shouldn't be difficult; but because I'm not just spouting BS and have to actually THINK about what I'm writing, and maybe even go look at CD covers and take good care with things like titles and facts, it increases the difficulty factors, under these circumstances, by about ten. Can't trust my memory, I'm getting daddynesia; then, it's so difficult to find time here these days....blahblah etc. But true. I now sleep less yet accomplish less of (potential) cultural value than I have at any time since I started trying to make art as a pre-teen. I have reason to hope this will improve as time goes on. I'm counting on it.