I guess I’m a few months late to the best-of-the-decade superlative party, but fuck it. In the aughts hip-hop got soggy as shit – the music hit the mainstream like never before, and it definitely suffered because of it. However that’s not to say there wasn’t a lot of great output in the last decade, and we saw great albums from the likes of Binary Star, Ghostface, Mr. Lif, and particularly groups outta California like Blackalicious, Jurassic 5, People Under the Stairs, and the whole Stones Throw stable of artists. But then we also saw the rise of Edan, a triple-threat MC/DJ/producer from Boston. I don’t know if his second album Beauty and the Beat is the “best” album from the last ten years, but I certainly think it’s the “coolest.” Edan is a very good MC, and he scratches well too, but the production on this album is just insane. Boiled down to a few words, this is “psychedelic hip-hop,” which I of course mean in the best way possible. This is innovative stuff: he successfully meshes hip-hop with something reminiscent of a Krautrock sound and maybe like early Funkadelic’s trippy rock. Running only 34 minutes, it flows together beautifully. If there’s any justice, this’ll go down as a classic.
Tonight marked the close of the Urban Alchemy concert series at the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts in conjuction with the exhibition of collected works of Gordon Matta-Clark. The program featured Karlheinz Stockhausen’s 1970 work Mantra, written for two pianos, electronics, and sparse percussion. The crux of the work is perhaps what ties it most closely to the exhibition in the surrounding space. As Matta-Clark re-envisioned spaces and interior-exterior relationships, Stockhausen here reformulates the two-piano classical form by addition of a novel element: the ring-modulator circuit.
It was popular in the 19th century, before recorded media, to reduce orchestral works to two-piano versions that could be played in your luxe foyer at the mercy of your caprice, bypassing the need to round up your cadre of orchestra-types (heavy drinkers they are). Here Stockhausen not only reworks an established form, but in my opinion he makes a parodic jab at the idea of ‘reducing’ musical works. Near the close of the lengthy Mantra, Stockhausen notates a lightspeed summary of everything that occurred in the piece up to that point.
But back to the new element: the ring-modulator. Though the ‘ring’ in the name is often erroneously traced to the bell-like tones that the circuit is able to produce, it derives from the typical structure of the analog circuit: a ring of diodes. (Pull out your Schaum’s physics outline) SLSO Music Director David Robertson started to explain the operation of the device in the pre-concert lecture and a way that was totally understandable and almost fun, which I will try to replicate. The ring-modulator multiplies the input signal (piano) by a ‘carrier’ signal [that’s convolution in the frequency domain] so that the resulting output contains tones at the sum and the difference of the input and carrier frequencies. For you acoustics buffs that means that the ratios between these new processed signals can be very un-harmonic. This is the means by which many ring-modulator outputs sound like bells (metallic overtones are often not harmonic). See also: Arvo Part’s ‘tintinnabular’ period of composition, where he explicitly notates such overtones played on other instruments to create this rare quality.
The result is a vast continuum of timbre from the very limited starting material of two pianos and a circuit. For example, there is one segment of the piece where piano chords seem to waver in an out of audibility, like a tremolo effect on a surf guitar (awful analogy). I am fairly sure this is acheived if the carrier frequency is set very low, so that sum and difference tones generated are relatively close, creating the pulsating ‘beat’ heard here. When high-register tones are played with this carrier frequency, the beat is so fast that it generates its own buzzing ‘undertone’.
Why doesn’t every Steinway come with a little ring modulator and internal speaker? Listen to about 20 of the 70-ish minutes of Mantra and you’ll understand how this component fell out of present-day favor from its heyday in electronic/computer music composition of the 60s-70s. The ring-modulator is now that guitar effect you never use, or more scathingly, it is a textbook space-age noise used for creating specific imagery. During one segment of the piece where a single chord is sustained while the ring-modulator’s carrier freq. knob is turned up and back down again, I had to cover my mouth to keep from shouting “BLAST OFF!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
Such is the fate of a “new” sound — in an effort to subvert the expectations associated with ‘traditional’ music eventually it, too, lends itself to imitation and overuse.
If you are unfamiliar with the music of Stockhausen, Mantra is an excellent place to begin, since new listeners might find his prior chance-inspired works aimless or boring, and his early serialist pieces overcomplicated.
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In my opinion, this is the best hip-hop producer to emerge in the last couple of years. (I say that in terms of straight-up hip-hop beats, as opposed to more hybridized hip-hop forms, like you see in guys like Flying Lotus.) This man continues the finest traditions of crate digging, layering dope soul/funk/jazz samples with all the technical skill of Pete Rock or Premier. His beats are absolutely good enough to be listened to as instrumentals, the sign of any truly dope producer, and are intricate enough to keep you listening and not come off as repetitive. In addition to all the really dusty samples, he has the unique talent of taking recognizable samples used by his 90s predecessors and flipping them in totally new ways. So you get that “oh shit, I know that!” factor but it’s still very fresh at the same time. For some reason, Damu hasn’t absolutely exploded in the underground. (I asked Sadat X if he knew this guy, and we was like “Damon Fudge-who?” and I was like that’s really depressing.) Changing his lame-ass name would certainly be a good start towards fame.
Late last week I spied a lone gem glistening in the rough of my inbox–an invitation to blog about the Saint Louis Symphony’s April 10 program in exchange for a pair of tickets. Though I consider myself a fairly regular SLSO attendee, capitalizing on their community initiatives (See Student Tickets and Fifty Free), I waffled on attending Saturday’s concert prior to the blog bribe. I had already seen the premiere of John Adams’s Doctor Atomic Symphony, and I tend to dismiss Sibelius as occupying a space in 20th Century music analogous to that which Kenny G occupies in jazz.
I resolved that evening to release my simplistic grasp on the music of Sibelius and Prokofiev, and, meeting indeterminate success, I was surely aided by the incisive pre-concert lecture by David Roberston. Without exception I enjoy hearing Roberston speak. His lectures are a dense mesh of academic tangents, which is both praise for his scholarship and the reason I wouldn’t engage him in conversation when I’m late for a bus. He gets credit for making the sole remotely on-color reference to Nabokov’s Lolita I have ever heard. But what I really took away from the talk was a new way to frame the music of 20th century composers, like Sibelius, who clung to the pillars of tonality while the Second Viennese Samsons felled them.
The continuum from consonance to dissonance in composition does not linearly correlate with the timeline of the past century. More modern does not mean more dissonant. The push to inject music with a newly-envisioned take on tonality was greatly regionally-dependent in its inception. I don’t intend to say that Järvenpää, the birthplace of Johann Sibelius, was a quaint backwoods villa, but it probably wasn’t the epicenter of ideas that would upend the arts. Sibelius’s symphonies generate “newness” through a nuanced mastery of the form rather than overhauling the unities of style that predominated the 19th century. Bearing this in mind, I found my way to GC G41. It was just inside the door near the water fountain whose faux-alabaster glory makes me feel like I am fulfilling Ponce de Leon’s quest with every well-pressurized sip.
The evening began on a light note with a performance by a line of area schoolchildren involved in one of the many educational programs offered by the SLSO. Put bluntly, I found the performance far inferior to the New York Philharmonic’s rendition of “Pepperoni Twinkle Star”, but I suppose you have to start somewhere. The first scheduled work on the program was Rapture by Christopher Rouse, an appropriate jumping-off point since Rouse, and this work in particular, still engenders tonality in a modern context. The opening of the piece is a primal lilt between two whole tones in the low end, while winds arc above. This figure seemed to me uniquely American, almost hymnal, abetting the spiritual connotation of the title. A trumpet then leads a march through a cycle of diatonic chords that flirts with unorthodoxy but leads the ear seamlessly from one to the next. Then, the entrance of harp and chimes speaks to Rouse’s command of the sonic breadth of the orchestra. This sentiment is compounded at the finale when cascading horn lines spiral over gong blasts that swell and dampen quickly. It reminded me of the unnatural dynamics of hearing a tape reversed. This led me to ponder the hypothesis that present-day symphonic composers infuse their writing for traditional instrumentation with sound qualities drawn from the modern worlds of musique concrete, Moog synths, and Pro Tools. I also wonder if there had been any dialogue between Rouse and ideas in bebop and post-bop jazz. One part of the piece featured a clarinet soaring above the orchestra in pentatonic lines in a related but not equivalent key, and I could have sworn I saw the visage of Coltrane winking above the stage. On the whole, the piece was commendably entrancing.
To put in a few words about the Prokofiev, I was taken in by the physicality of violinist Gil Shaham. In the opening of the first movement, the lilting call and response of the minor theme breaks as the violin doubles its pace, bolstered by percussive bass. I recall Shaham stalking around in an almost predatory crouch as if to pounce on the accelerating passage. The second movement of the work seemed so spare and harmonically conservative that it, possibly intentionally, made the quick odd-meter dance rhythms of the third all the more engaging.
I really was disappointed by my mental conduct during the Sibelius. With firm intent, I tried to enjoy his Symphony No. 7 in C Major. I invoked Schoenberg, “There is still plenty of music to be written in C major.” But I wasn’t able to access it in the way I had hoped. I couldn’t help but think that during a time when much of the art sought to “epater la bourgeoisie”, Sibelius was writing “music to purchase capital and trade commodities to”. I now recognize that Sibelius will take repeated exposure and informed reading to appreciate. Or I could just attribute my lack of focus to pangs of regret over leaving the maraschino cherry in my Manhattan unconsumed during intermission.
The figurehead of the program, the Doctor Atomic Symphony, had a more dramatic impact on me this time around. It compiles much of what attracts me to John Adams’s music: rhythmically complex instrumental lines that interweave with one another to yield a fabric that is at once chaotic and entirely listenable. In line with my current reading, I draw a parallel between his music and the aesthetic of the nouveau roman of Robbe-Grillet. Here the reader/listener is bombarded with such a quantity of detail and narrative entanglement that he or she is forced to pick and choose among the vast array to construct his or her own subjective account of the novel/symphony.
I find it particularly appropriate that Adams of all composers takes as subject the construction of the atomic bomb. The way in which the fragmented musical lines collide and spiral off one another is not entirely unlike the straying of neutrons in a nuclear chain reaction. This metaphor could be extended, with reservations, to the swath of repercussions nuclear proliferation would have on the political framework of the latter half of the 20th century. An interesting feature in this work that I had not heard before in Adams was bowed cymbals, which produce an eerie humming. This sound comes less from the touch of a musician and more from the resonant material properties of the metal itself. It suggested to me the equally eerie connection to waning humanity and compassion as the bomb is constructed in the machine-driven technological age. The finale of Doctor Atomic is perhaps the most unnerving part of its historical reflection. A driving percussive string figure marks the approach of zero hour. Then a softer, contemplative segment follows as if it were music heard from afar, watching the detonation from the white sands around the Trinity site. Then the jarring percussive figure returns, like a resignation. There is no turning back; man has been made destroyer of worlds.
Is this work is an important piece of the collective memory of the gravity of this event? Or is it part of a process to cope with a dark moment in American history? When history is transmuted into art, I feel it cannot help but absorb some of the fictive quality of the art. An emotional context forms that would never have sprung from the primary sources. It is obviously important to disentangle the expression by Adams from the factual events. Could you attempt to tell the story of Hiroshima strictly with Penderecki’s Threnody? It is a chance to remind ourselves that, along with artistic artifact, we must remember in ways more real and whole.
Many thanks to Eddie Silva with SLSO publications for facilitating this event.
Thomas is a DJ on KWUR 90.3-FM. Hear more bombast Monday evenings from 10pm-12am on “The Copium”, a program of 20th Century music.