Archive for the ‘ambient’ Category

Album Mini-review: Moby — Hotel:Ambient

Monday, August 17th, 2015


File next to: Brian Eno, The Orb

Brian Eno once described ambient music as the aural equivalent of wallpaper; it’s designed to be experienced passively rather than attentively. It does what it does, and you do what you do. The most effective (or characteristic) ambient music, then, floats by unobtrusively. That’s not at all what Moby’s fourteen instrumental tracks do here. The beats are alluring, and draw the listener into Moby’s sonic washes of sound. But while it doesn’t fit the classical definition of ambient music, this reissue of his 2005 album is nonetheless enjoyable. The music doesn’t actually go anyplace; that would be completely anathema to the genre. But somewhat perversely, it’s too, well, interesting to serve as truly ambient music. “Real” instruments such as piano coexist nicely alongside washes of synthesizer pads and what (in places) sound like actual drums. Too engaging to qualify as ambient, it’s nonetheless a fulfilling way to spend an hour-plus.

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Album Mini-Review: Todd Rundgren/Emil Nikolaisen/Hans-Peter Lindstrøm – Runddans

Friday, August 14th, 2015


File next to: Todd Rundgren’s Utopia, Tangerine Dream

This would be noteworthy if only for the fact that Todd Rundgren rarely collaborates with other artists (Utopia, Ringo’s All-Starrs and that one Residents album excepted). And Rundgren rarely visits musical territory he’s explored previously. But on Runddans, he does both. Those who prefer his pop-centric side (Something/Anything being the exemplar) might find Runddans a bit meandering. But listeners who enjoyed Initiation, Healing, and/or the quirky A Cappella will simply delight in this. Runddans is mostly instrumental, but when Rundgren does sing – wordless vocalizing on “Solus” and proper singing on the “Put Your Arms Around Me” suite – it’s deeply soulful and redolent of 1975′s “Born to Synthesize.” One can draw a straight line from A Wizard/A True Star to the delightful yet dizzying cut-and-paste psychedelic arrangements found here. And Todd’s guitar work on this lush, warm disc will conjure memories of pyramid-themed stagecraft and ankh-shaped instruments. A triumph.

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David Torn: The Audience is Here (Part 2)

Tuesday, June 2nd, 2015

Continued from Part One

“So,” continues guitarist-composer David Torn, “I don’t intend to recreate any of the pieces on only sky in live performance. However, I can accurately recreate the process. Because,” he laughs, “I’m really good at over-intellectualizing anything I do, after the fact. But inside the fact, all I’m really doing…is playing.”

“When I talk, sometimes people expect that they’re going to get this huge intellectual stew out of me,” he says. “But it’s not [the case]. This is what I say, and that is what I play. And they’re very different things. For me it’s all about finding the feeling that needs to be expressed, and following the fairly curvy lines to get there.”

Torn’s method of creating only sky was somewhat unconventional. “It was made in a 1500-seat theatre,” he says. “It was done that way on purpose. I was trying to expand the idea of playing like I play at home. But I love the sound of a big room, so we went to the most incredible theatre that I know of [the EMPA Concert Hall in Troy, NY], turned the lights down, set up all my stuff, and just recorded for two and a half to three days. No studio, no multitracking. None of the professionalism that goes along with being locked in a small room with headphones on. I had no headphones on for this.”

David Torn’s upcoming “house concert” at Streamside provides an interactive experience that differs from the one audiences would find in a traditional concert hall. “On this tour,” he says, “because I haven’t toured in so long, I wanted that. I probably should have looked for even more house concerts. If there are sixty to a hundred people in a room, it’s a much easier way for me to feel what they feel, for them to feel what I feel. And there’s something really appealing about knowing that people are there to engage. It doesn’t feel so much like a show.” Though he’s a fan of the house concert format, his enthusiasm has its limits. “I did one in my own house several years ago,” he laughs. “I’ll never do that again. But I love the idea.”

The guitarist/composer allows that trying to recreate that ambience in a house concert setting is “strange, but it actually fits together. What I was trying to get out of the space of the big room was a space in which I felt free to move around musically. Because that is precisely what I feel when I’m in my little studio at home. I wanted the sound to be able to accommodate that.”

Thinking beyond his solo work, is there anyone new with whom Torn would really like to collaborate? “There are a few, yeah,” he says. “There are a few regrets. I had an opportunity to work with Joni Mitchell in the late 80s or early 90s. But it was impossible to work out schedules. The same thing happened to me with Sting in the early-to-middle 2000s. And,” he grimaces, “I missed working with Ani Difranco because I was an idiot.”

“In terms of the future,” Torn says, “there are a few people that I would certainly like to work with. And they’re not people whom everybody would expect me to say. And…I don’t know if I should even say it, but I’d love to do something – even if it were live – with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. I also have an idea for a duet project with–” he pauses,  “somebody whom I’m not going to mention.”

But for now, Torn’s immediate focus is on the tour nominally in support of only sky. His website lists early June dates in Washington DC, Baltimore, Carrboro NC, Asheville (June 6) and Atlanta, with others – says the site – “TBA.” Musing on the difference between American and European audiences, Torn sums it up in one word: familiarity. “The audience has always been here in America,” he says. “The problems in the past were amplified by the nature of the business and the size of the country. In one way, it’s easier to advertise in America to everyone. In another way, if you want to experience real live music, it has been very difficult if not impossible for, say, jazz musicians to make a living, not work a day job, and go out and tour the United States. I can easily put a little thing together around my hometown, but these are compounding problems: if I can’t spend a lot of money on recording and distribution and packaging – the look of the thing – then I’m not going to be able to necessarily steadily build a career.

“On top of which, yes, it’s true that we have very little funding for the arts in the United States. Very, very, very little funding. Whereas in European countries – and in South America now – there is governmental assistance and patronage to the arts via people’s taxes. And it’s not – as many Americans seem to believe – useless drivel. It’s something that feeds culture and civilization. And [without that] America suffers in a grand way.”

“However,” Torn adds, striking an optimistic tone, “that doesn’t mean the audience isn’t here. I believe the audience is here. My own tour of the last three weeks show me that my audience is here. There are other things I could do: I could put together a group and play Lars and the Real Girl; that wasn’t just in the film; it was played at the Olympics. I could play Madonna songs. There are lots of thing that I could do that are more commercially attractive – and easier – than what I’m doing now. And yet, people are here. These are some of the best audiences I’ve ever experienced in America. They’re sitting. They’re listening. André [Cholmondeley, tour manager] said to me, “No one’s on their cell phone. There’s no texting going on. No one’s leaving!’ I’m not avant-garde – never have been, never will be – but this isn’t pop music. It isn’t Taylor Swift.” and his working friends – artists like Torn’s best friend Tim Byrne – report similar experiences. “Tim told me, ‘I can’t believe it. The audiences are there!’ People want to hear music that isn’t simply meant only to be sold. I feel very encouraged. It gives me the freedom to explore more; I am going to continue reaching for something to express. And we can all benefit by that.”

David Torn will appear in a solo performance at Streamside Concerts on Saturday, June 6 near Asheville NC. Tickets for the intimate event (a strongly suggested $25 donation) are available here until they run out; at press time, nearly all spaces were filled, so hurry. The event includes a communal covered dish meal (BYOB and a dish to share) before the performance.

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David Torn: The Audience is Here (Part 1)

Monday, June 1st, 2015

As I would discover within the first moments of our conversation, it’s inaccurate to describe the music made by David Torn as “avant garde.” Which is fine, really, because as the ever-quotable John Lennon once said, “’Avant garde’ is French for ‘bullshit.’” And he would know.

That does leave the challenge of describing Torn’s music, for the benefit of those who haven’t heard it. The thing is, in all likelihood they indeed have heard it. His work for film and television is extensive: beginning in the 1990s, Torn has provided music for major Hollywood films including Lars and the Real Girl, Friday Night Lights, Drumline: A New Beat, and That Awkward Moment. And he’s played on soundtrack sessions for The Big Lebowski, Velvet Goldmine, A Knight’s Tale, The Departed, No Country for Old Men, and many, many others.

David Torn will appear in a solo performance at Streamside Concerts on Saturday, June 6 near Asheville NC. Tickets for the intimate event (a strongly suggested $25 donation) are available here until they run out; at press time, nearly all spaces were filled, so hurry. The event includes a communal covered dish meal (BYOB and a dish to share) before the performance.

Torn’s music often veers toward what one might term ambient, but his compositions bear a quality not often found within that music-as-wallpaper genre: melody. His early influences were rooted in the popular and classical music traditions. “I grew up in a house with a mom who wrote off-Broadway (and was trying to write Broadway) plays. I was surrounded by theater people. I went to classes with Leonard Bernstein,” he recalls. “Who is more melodic than him? And what was more melodic than the Motown that my mom listened to for years?”

“Maybe,” he suggests, “I could isolate this down to a single thing: I don’t consider myself [ambient]. I certainly don’t consider myself an experimenter. Some of my music has very strong, very slow textural and atmospheric things that could be considered ambient, but in the end, I’m just a musician and a composer. And I do what I think needs to be done.” He chuckles, adding, “I prefer not to have to label it for more than the few minutes we’re having a discussion about it.”

In addition to his work for visual media (the aforementioned film and television projects) and for and with other artists (a partial list: David Bowie, Jeff Beck, Tori Amos, Laurie Anderson, Madonna, Jan Garbarek), Torn has recorded and released more than fifteen solo albums under his own name or his sometime nom de musique, splattercell. His latest, only sky (ECM, 2015) continues his blend of textural sounds wedded to a strong sense of melody. Working only with electric guitar, electric oud and an assortment of effects, Torn’s only sky showcases a wide array of sounds that evoke as wide an assortment of listeners’ thoughts and emotions.

Torn concedes that he brings a different mindset to his solo albums than to soundtrack work. Allowing that making music for the movie business is “a service industry,” he says that while “many things are different, it’s the same me. So [while on a film project] you are working to serve someone else’s purposes, in the end you’re often left free to come up with something that they like. In many cases – though not the cases I enjoy – somebody wants something very specific. And I won’t do it if I don’t think I can achieve it. I won’t take the job.”

He expands on the subject. “The logistics and timeframe are completely different. But because it is a service industry, there’s something beautiful about having music serve, for example, a story line. I hate to sound uncommercial,” he laughs. “I’m not a scientist, right? I’m a musician. If you like a story line as a human being, and you see ways in which you can make elements of that story line — character, character development, atmosphere, general meaning of the story – come forward, then that’s exciting. And then I’m me. Thomas Newman once said to me – I’m paraphrasing – that anytime you’re having problems on a film score, find the one thing you love about the film. And then keep your intention attached to that at all times during writing.”

When I spoke with The Flaming Lips‘ composer Steven Drozd in 2006, he acknowledged that manipulation of listeners’ emotions was a goal of his songwriting. Because of the evocative qualities inherent in Torn’s instrumental works, I wonder if he aims for a specific emotional response when composing a piece. “No,” he says. “In the performance aspect of composing a piece of music, I’m simply starting something, and then just following the music. If it’s a direction that I desire to shape, then I’ll direct it again. I feel very specific things when I play; that’s for sure.”

Another signature of Torn’s music is the incorporation of “found sounds” – creative use of things like 60 cycle hum and crackling instrument cables – that lend a degree of spontaneity to his music, especially in live performance. As such, his compositions are less fixed works than platforms upon which he can take listeners on sonic journeys. “If you asked me to play any of the main themes from the films I’ve done, I would play them,” he says. “I would probably interpret them, because that’s what I do, but I would still play the theme.”

His approach to creating and recording the exploratory pieces on only sky is different. “I would have a few moments of silence before I played each piece, some time to feel some kind of intention. Any intention. I would do that for three to five minutes, and then maybe play one phrase on the guitar. One chord, two chords. Then I’d stop, take another few moments of breath, and then just…start.”

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Festival Review: Big Ears Festival 2015, Part 2

Tuesday, April 7th, 2015

Continued from Part One

Next, it was drone time. The minimalist work of the duo A Winged Victory for the Sullen (joined by three additional musicians) was delivered in the bright, daylit room at the Knoxville Museum of Art. The hypnotic vibe of the group’s work lent itself to simply sitting back and closing one’s eyes. But AWVFTS was having none of that: mid-set, they stopped (“Usually, we never stop playing during a set,” they told us) and asked everyone to stand up instead. Fair enough, but I for one found it more enjoyable when relaxing.

Apparently the Kronos Quartet (described elsewhere as “the hardest working act” at the festival, and rightly so) didn’t have the opportunity to rehearse much with avant garde legend Laurie Anderson before their set. You wouldn’t have known it, though. A near-capacity Tennessee Theatre audience witnessed the somber “Landfall,” a work by Anderson that recounted her personal experiences with Hurricane Katrina. There’s always a winking, slyly humorous undercurrent to Anderson’s work that belies her reputation as an avant garde performer, and the Quartet conveyed a similarly informal approach, even while following a written score.

Max Richter is a modern classical composer, and his “The Blue Notebooks” is a piece performed on piano with string accompaniment, and a seated woman in formal evening dress reading brief written passages in lovely “RP” English. Modern classical has an undeserved reputation for being solely atonal, angular and jarring; Richter’s work is nothing of the kind: it’s elegiac, stately, beautiful and evocative. “Infra” did not feature the spoken-word component but was equally enjoyable. The intimate setting of The Bijou (an old theatre that has been home to many great performances I’ve enjoyed in the past) was the perfect setting for Richter’s work.

Unfortunately, by this point in the weekend, the cold that I had been denying was starting to overwhelm me. I stuck around long enough to take in part of tUnE-yArDs‘ set, and I am sure that had I been able to stay for all of it, I would have enjoyed it thoroughly. Brightly-colored costumes and a stage setup that put percussion out front (literally) were the hallmarks of their lively, uptempo set. They reminded me of a less-mannered Talking Heads with far more appealing vocalists, and their playful manner seemed focused squarely on having a good time and sharing that with the gathered audience.

By the time Sunday rolled around, it was all I could do to stay vertical, the head cold having overtaken me completely. I ventured down by the railroad tracks to the funky Standard for a performance (“installation” might be a more apt term) by Tyondai Braxton, presenting a work he calls “HIVE.” Braxton’s avant garde bona fides are without question: his father is jazz multi-instrumentalist Anthony Braxton. The younger Braxton’s work is based equally on percussion and modern technology. “HIVE” was originally commissioned by the Guggenheim Museum, but its arty beginnings belie its modern, techno-leaning qualities. Five musicians, each seated atop a table-sort-of-thing, are armed with all manner of sound-producing devices. Lights and fog are part of the scene, too, placing “HIVE” somewhere between highbrow art installation and all-night rave soundtrack. And it was very loud.

Unfortunately, after that, it was home and bed for me. As a result, I missed sets by Bill Frisell and others, but my overall impression of Big Ears Festival 2015 was one of awe. Big Ears is easily the best-run major music festival in the region. Bringing together the best characteristics of a festival (wide variety of artists in a compact area and timeframe) while minimizing or even eliminating its less-appealing aspects (crushing crowds, intimidating security, AC Entertainment and everyone else involved with Big Ears continues to do an amazing job, and in doing so they attract not only discerning music fans, but top-notch talent the likes of which are rarely seen nor heard in such a setting.

Bringing together this caliber and variety of notable and groundbreaking musical artists is in and of itself a staggering feat. Doing so outside, say, New York or San Francisco is even more impressive. Taking the expertise gained from successful staging of massive festivals (Bonnaroo, for example, takes in more than 80,000 concertgoers) and applying those skills to a relatively small-scale, city-based festival, AC Entertainment has created and sustained one of the most remarkable festivals ever in Big Ears. For anyone interested in where “serious” music is headed in the 21st century, a springtime trip to Knoxville Tennessee can provide some clear direction. I hope I attend again in 2016.

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Festival Review: Big Ears Festival 2015, Part 1

Monday, April 6th, 2015

Typically, I don’t make a point of attending “kickoff events” at the start of music festivals. My thinking is that they’re generally an opportunity to spotlight the event sponsors and so forth. That’s all well and good, but it’s not, strictly speaking, entertainment. But since I had gone to Moogfest 2014‘s opening event and enjoyed it, I figured, why not do the same in Knoxville. Plus, I was there, and no other music events were scheduled until later.

Lucky me. True, the event did include some speeches, but even those were worthwhile. Festival organizer Ashley Capps (he of AC Entertainment, the outfit behind Bonnaroo and many other high-profile festivals) gave a heartfelt speech that helped attendees understand the answers to two reasonable questions: Why Big Ears? And why Knoxville?

But the real highlights of the opening event were four musical performances. First off, Kronos Quartet and pipa virtuoso Wu Man staged a “popup concert.” Rather than make use of the stage, they set up their stools and music stands on the floor in front of it – all of six feet from where I had situated myself – and played a brief, unamplified set. It was sublime, and held the audience (a near-packed room at the Knoxville Museum of Art’s Ann and Steve Bailey Hall) spellbound.

After that, we were treated to onstage performances from Hildur Guðnadóttir (futuristic-looking cello and vocals treated by sonic effects and looping), a sight-impaired teenage pianist Tate Garcia (an exceedingly clever mashup of his own arrangement of works by Scott Joplin, George Harrison and Chopin), and finally vocalist Breyon Ewing. In less than an hour’s time, the gathered audience had the essence of Big Ears Festival laid out in front of them. Things were off to a superb start.

Igor Stravinsky‘s “The Rite of Spring” is one of those classical pieces that you know, even if you don’t know you know it. A reading of the work formed the centerpiece of the 1940 Walt Disney film Fantasia, and the onscreen visuals that accompanied it (dinosaurs, not Mickey Mouse) seared it into the memory of those who witnessed it. The work remains popular, and received perhaps its most innovative and outré reading by The Bad Plus on their 2014 album The Rite of Spring. The group (pianist Ethan Iverson, upright bassist Reid Anderson, and drummer Dave King) is nominally a jazz trio. But they’re jazz musicians playing classical music, and playing it with a rock (or progressive rock) level of power.

Whole sections of the Bad Plus’ take on Stravinsky’s work might be unrecognizable to those familiar with the original work, but the trio’s reinvention of the piece was thrilling; one couldn’t turn away. The interplay between the three was remarkable; even though they were working from sheet music (as did nearly every Big Ears performer I saw, yet another thing that makes this festival unlike any other I’ve witnessed), there was a jazz musician’s mentality of unspoken communication at work.

The trio followed up Stravinsky’s work with a set of their own original material; avant garde rarely gets as accessible as The Bad Plus.

Later on Big Ears’ first night, I caught a set at The Square room featuring guitarist Steve Gunn and his band. Musically conventional – at least compared to most of the other acts on the bill – Gunn and band showcased the guitarist’s impressive fretwork. Gunn’s not a flashy guitarist, not at all. But his powerful music was the closest thing to rock music on the entire three-day schedule. It was also plenty loud, not that that’s a band thing. (No doubt Swans were much louder, but having witnessed part of their punishing set at 2013′s Bonnaroo Festival, I made the decision to avoid a repeat.)

After a visit to a local used record store (something I try to do in every city I visit, because every town has its own used-record character), my Saturday list of performances began with Kronos Quartet onstage at the massive and beautiful Tennessee Theatre. Joined by Americana artist Sam Amidon on vocals and banjo, the Quartet applied their multigenre-spanning expertise to folk songs. At this point I thought to myself, “I don’t think I’ve ever taken in so much live classical instrumentation at one time before.” But it was lovely, and I even sat still for music that included banjo (one of my least-favorite instruments).

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Hundred-word Reviews: January 2015, Part 2

Tuesday, January 27th, 2015

There’s a never-ending stream of new music, so it’s time once again for some hundred-worders to work off some of my backlog. As always, these all deserve full reviews, but with limited time and resources, 100 words will have to do. I’ll cut to the chase. Today it’s a wide assortment of music, from rock to jazz to Americana.

Keith Emerson & Greg Lake – Live From Manticore Hall
It would seem that the days of Emerson, Lake and Palmer are gone forever; other than their one-off reunion several years ago, they’ve all moved on to other things. That said, one of those other things was a 2010 concert series featuring the keyboardist and the guitarist/vocalist. This CD documents that dinner-theatre styled tour; there’s no Manticore Hall; this show was recorded in Connecticut. Toned-down readings – with less synthesizer than you’d expect – of the many classics from the ELP catalog are showcased here, and a lovely version of “I Talk to the Wind” recalls Lake’s King Crimson days.

The Satisfactors – The Satisfactors
This quartet plays rock’n'roll of the old-fashioned variety: power chords, shouted and swaggering vocals, songs about women, and so forth. Fans of stripped-down yet clever songwriting – think of The Romantics, Smithereens and the like – will appreciate the back-to-basics approach of The Satisfactors. An arena-rock feel is applied to songs that recall 70s punk, New York variety. Rolling Stones and Mott the Hoople sensibility shines through on tunes like the self-explanatory “I Love Girls.” Something about these guys reminds me of Donnie Iris (“Ah! Leah!”) but I can’t quite put my finger on it. Either way, it’s fun stuff.

Dylan Howe – Subterranean: New Designs on Bowie’s Berlin
Using music from one of David Bowie‘s most fascinating periods – his Berlin years which borne “Heroes,” Low and Lodger – seems like an intriguing approach for a new album. But presenting those songs – most of which are quite static and impressionistic, owing to Brian Eno‘s involvement – in a jazz idiom is downright odd. But that’s the idiosyncratic concept at work on this album from drummer Dylan Howe. The drummer’s dad (a certain Steve Howe) guests on one track, but not on guitar. My advice is to ignore the Bowie connection and instead enjoy the arrangements for what they are.

The Psycho Sisters – Up On the Chair, Beatrice
Near-lifelong friends Susan Cowsill (The Cowsills, Continental Drifters) and Vicki Peterson (Bangles, Continental Drifters) have worked together extensively, but Up On the Chair, Beatrice is the first collaborative album from the duo. Not rock a la Bangles (save for “Numb”), and not especially Americana-leaning as were Continental Drifters, the music here resembles a baroque, pop-centric rethink of The Roches. Quite varied in texture, the album is full of delights. “Never Never Boys” is reminiscent of the criminally-overlooked Cowsills album, Global, though it has a more countrified feel. Think of The Psycho Sisters as a sort of distaff Holsapple and Stamey.

The Apache Relay – The Apache Relay
The sweeping, majestic strings that open “Katie Queen of Tennessee” will pull you in, right from the get-go; there’s a depth of emotionality that’s conveyed by the string arrangement, a sort of modern Phil Spector wall of sound that adds dimension to the otherwise Americana styling of this Nashville band. If they never did anything beyond that opening track, they’d be noteworthy. But their self-titled debut is filled with goodies that combine the modern folkie-ness of Fleet Foxes with the studio-as-instrument aesthetic of SMiLE-era Brian Wilson. They’ll play Asheville February 28; look for more about them closer to that date.

More capsule reviews to come.

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Album Review: Leon Alvarado – Music From an Expanded Universe

Tuesday, December 16th, 2014

The album cover art is an unashamed homage to H.R. Giger, so you might expect something foreboding, or at least challenging. The five-track album (one of which is a “bonus track”) is surprisingly understated, even with such able guests as Trey Gunn (King Crimson), and Jerry Marotta (David Bowie and many others). It’s a gauzy, nearly ambient recording that manages to convey a spectrum of emotions wordlessly. In places the album feels like Jean Luc Ponty‘s late 70s work (sans violin). On “Cinemania ‘Alive’” the energy level increases briefly. Think ambient instrumental progressive rock meets chillwave a la Zero 7.

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Festival Review: Big Ears 2014, Day 2 (Part 1)

Tuesday, April 1st, 2014

Marc Ribot (Again)
The second day of Big Ears 2014 kicked off with a most unusual event: Marc Ribot seated in total darkness, armed with only a classical acoustic guitar. Above him on the Bijou stage was a projection screen, upon which was shown Charlie Chaplin‘s 1921 silent film, The Kid. Ribot’s charge was to create a real-time audio accompaniment for the film. This he did with amazing skill.

In fact, while this was ostensibly a Ribot solo gig, in fact the guitarist’s presence meshed so seamlessly with the film that it seemed almost not to exist on its own. His highly expressive guitar lines fit so perfectly with the onscreen images – alternately conveying, joy, menace, whimsy, pathos and the other sensations that encompass the human experience – that one could easily forget about them and simply enjoy the movie.

Which is exactly what the packed house did. Fro the entire film’s run time (approximately an hour), the audience, laughed, gasped and otherwise sat enthralled with the antics portrayed by Chaplin and his seven-year old sidekick Jackie Coogan (known best to my generation as The Addams Family‘s Uncle Fester). Ribot’s real-time score was so perfectly integrated that one could have been forgiven for thinking it has been pre-recorded. As it was, the solo performance was a tour de force, one not likely to be bettered.

David Greenberger
Greenberger and I have been Facebook friends for years, but as a byproduct of his status postings there, I know of him primarily as a writer and visual artist. So when I learned that he’d be doing a sort of spoken-word piece at Big Ears, I knew I’d have to catch the performance.

It was a thrill. In the intimate setting of the Square Room, Greenberger took the stage accompanied by a lively and expressive upright bassist (Evan Lipson), nimble and nuanced drummer/percussionist Bob Stagner, and Amanda Rose Cagle, a multi- instrumentalist who played piano, melodica, accordion, electric guitar, percussion and Theremin (and that’s only a partial list).

The premise was rather straightforward, on paper at least: Greenberger read a number of shortish pieces (“a dozen and a half or so,” he told us), all monologues by characters based on conversations he’s had with residents of nursing homes. These raged from barely-lucid ramblings to bitter tirades to bizarre, Dada-ish rants that made little or no sense in any context. And they were unfailingly entertaining.

The musical backing was as varied as Cagle’s instrumental arsenal. Always well-suited for the monologue at hand, the trio provided deep tone color backdrops to Greenberger’s monologues. Initially I thought the trio was improvising; it quickly became apparent that they were instead working from a highly structured – although often seemingly abstract – plan. The only pop-culture equivalent I can think of to describe Greenberger’s performance (with the trio dubbed And Prime Lens — an anagram of their mutual friend, collaborator and guiding light, the recently-deceased Dennis Palmer) is the word-jazz work of Ken Nordine. While Greenberger’s delivery is less stylized than Nordine’s, it’s every bit as enthralling.

Dawn of MIDI
The festival guide’s preview of this trio painted an intriguing picture: a lineup that essentially follows the classic jazz trio format (piano, bass, drums) plays a highly repetitive, minimalistic totally acoustic kind of music that evokes the sound and feel of early synthesizer music ad/or motorik. The truth was, I suppose, quite close to that description, but my reaction to it was unexpected.

As my sweetheart and I arrived at the darkened confines of the Bijou, we could barely see our hands in front of our faces as we crawled around looking for seats. Once we found those seats, we sat down and I snapped a few photos. The next thing I recall took place approximately thirty minutes later, when I was awoken by my sweetie’s whispered words: “I have two words for you: water torture.” While the insistently repetitive music had almost immediately lulled me to slumber, it had given my partner a headache. Looking around into the darkness, I saw that several nearby fellow concertgoers were also splayed out in their seats, fast asleep. One guy, however, was physically gyrating his torso and head in (attempted) time with the music. Go figure.

My coverage of the second day of Big Ears 2014 will continue.

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Mountain Oasis Electronic Summit: Recap Part 3

Thursday, November 7th, 2013

The third and final night of the Mountain Oasis Electronic Music Summit featured a host of names with which I was largely unfamiliar. So I took the opportunity to pop into several shows in hopes of finding something that struck my fancy. I was intermittently successful.

Darkside
Seemingly having ingested a steady diet of Wish You Were Here-era Pink Floyd – specifically, “Shine On you Crazy Diamond” Parts 1 and 2, the aptly-named Darkside created a vibe more than they did actually play songs. True both men operated instruments: the Guy on The Right staffed some analog synthesizers and a bank of effects and sequencers, while the Guy on The Left actually played some very subtle (in terms of its volume) electric guitar. Washes of sound with – as the set progressed – more and more bass bombs, Darkside’s set got a more enthusiastic response form the Sunday night crowd than might have been expected.

Alan Howarth
Howarth would be the big Mountain Oasis surprise for me. A composer who does most of his work at home and/or in studios, Howarth is responsible for the evocative, scene-setting music used in a long list of John Carpenter films (among others). It’s his work you hear when you watch Friday the 13th, Halloween, They Live, Big Trouble in Little China and a host of others. Howarth spent most of his set at a keyboard, laying down spooky, fully-formed arrangements of songs that are hooky in their own way. Other than a quick occasional right-hand wave to acknowledge the rapturous applause he earned, Howarth did take time at the beginning and end of his set to speak to the audience. The visuals were some custom-edited, stuttery captures from the films he’s scored; they were fascinating and repetitive and actually complimented his music, which is the opposite way that things usually work for Howarth’s compositions. Howarth did leave the keyboard once or twice to play some electric guitar (while the keys laid out a sequence or three). Fascinating stuff that might lead attendees back to some overlooked soundtracks.

The Orb
In the world of techno/ambient/rave/whatever, there is an outfit called The Orb, and another called Orbital. In the past, when I even thought about them, I often confused the two. No more: because now I know that Orbital is easily the more interesting of the two. How do I know this? Because I saw and heard The Orb. A total snoozefest, The Orb is two middle aged English blokes standing at a table in near total darkness. One of then has headphones around his neck and a file folder packed with CDs; he takes one of discs these out every few seconds and pops another into a machine. The other bloke did something that was even less worthy of visual attention. And the formless sounds they created (well, did they create or merely present them? You decide.) left nary an impression on my mind as I exited The Orange Peel.

Summary
As the supposed successor to Moogfest (which, as reported previously, will continue in 2014) Mountain Oasis pretty much got it right. A well-run festival with a wide variety of acts, it succeeded at what it set out to achieve. Attendance seemed healthy, yet not jam-packed; of course that’s good for the individual concertgoer, but less so for the organizers. Although few of the acts fall into my must-see category, on the whole it was easily worth the time and expense, and I hope to attend again in 2014.