1888: Gabriel Fauré - “Agnus Dei”
Fauré wasn’t a composer I’d heard much about before I discovered “Agnus Dei” (lamb of God) from his Requiem. I was impressed by the stately procession of mini-movements within the piece; the unexpected transitions in mood and the way the melody twists through major and minor crescendos, making the choir of singers appear to be on a perilous journey with a major key resolution just out of reach. The more famous movements are the “In Paridisum” and “Pie Jesu,” but the “Agnus Dei” is the one that harnesses the ‘menace’ of choirs to interesting effect. In a religious setting, choirs have a reputation for conveying two things: the piousness of the blessed and the collective terror of the damned; one way or another, the choir can be an overbearing influence. Fauré left out some of the harsher elements of the requiem mass – including the “Dies Irae” (wrath of God) sequence. In fact his requiem was often said to resemble more of a ‘lullaby’ than a funeral mass. His lifelong professional relationship with the church is one of the most interesting contexts of the piece. He was an organist who played only for money and was fired for turning up to work hungover in party clothes. It seems that his faith – if he had any - was uncommitted and secular. He even dedicated a “Salve Regina” to his mistress.
The more I found out about Fauré, the more I realized what a pervasive influence he was on the last musical movements before modernism. His French songs were hits that became legends – so much so that Proust weaves a song inspired by Fauré throughout his character’s whole life.
Even when I didn’t know anything about the piece’s context, the “Agnus Dei” surprised me for being romantic church music that was actually likeable. It seemed that the power of voices was harnessed in a spirit of discovery as much as a religious narrative sense. Fauré’s admission that he wrote the traditionally serious requiem initially for ‘fun’ was considered eccentric, but it’s not so odd if we recall that he had been through this rehearsal many times at work and wanted to try a new approach. Fauré apparently found the organ tedious, and was known for his unusual approach to harmony. Listening to the Requiem is not like listening to a serious farewell; it’s more like a colorful painting of harmonic/melodic possibilities. I’m no classical music scholar, but from the first time I heard “Agnus Dei” I sensed that I was hearing something traditional in a way I’d never heard it before.
1967-1974: Steve Lacy Solo and Ensemble Works
There’s a famous adage in jazz that soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy (1934-2004) thought Thelonious Monk’s music was a “door to the other side,” which meant, for him, a transition from Dixieland into free improvisation by the mid-60s, later introducing a range of his own idiosyncratic compositional devices. In a sense, Lacy developed a sound world that his compatriots and followers have had to work through in much the same way as he did with Monk. And while Lacy was incredibly prolific during his lifetime, the last several years have uncovered a tremendous amount of previously unheard (or at least very rare) recordings. This year has already seen four important discs’ worth of Lacy’s music – in addition to the two on UK label Emanem I’ll discuss here, there’s a pair of great reissues on Portuguese imprint Clean Feed (Esthilaços, 1972) and Unseen Worlds (agitprop chanteuse Maria Monti’s Il Bestario, 1975).
Emanem started in 1972 with an LP of Lacy’s first solo concert at the Théâtre du Chene Noir in Avignon, released as Steve Lacy Solo with (in my opinion) one of the most beautiful-looking album covers in jazz. It was reissued once before as Weal and Woe with quintet material added (The Woe); the all-solo Avignon and After vol. 1 consists of selections from the Avignon concert and five tracks from a 1974 Berlin performance. Not all solo saxophone concerts capture the feel of improvising without a net in the way that these Lacy documents do, presenting the saxophonist in full chirp-and-quack mode, in a struggle to create both compelling tunes and an involving, reflective environment from sonic kernels and referential phrases. What’s immediately surprising from the first moments of “The Breath” is that, unaccompanied, Lacy’s kinetic force is just as remarkable as his tone and improvisational choices. He takes a singsong, folksy melody and tears into it with resources that alternately express the “quaintness” of the theme and go well beyond it (a la Albert Ayler). The chance piece “Stations” finds Lacy improvising along with a radio tuned to some sort of lieder; rather than background, an intense dialogic push-pull is the result. The pretty “Josephine” begins with a spare clamber, moving to almost inaudible puckering noises and then an easy swing. While less cleanly recorded than the Avignon concert, the Berlin pieces are just as rugged (if not moreso by dint of their “rawness”), including particularly choice readings of “The Owl” and “Torments.” There’s a lot of solo Lacy available, but this set is indispensable.
The Sun is a compilation based around Lacy’s anti-Vietnam War music, created with his longtime partner, Swiss-born vocalist Irene Aebi. Some of the material here was issued before – four parts of The Woe and a short set of improvisations on The Way, with electronic artist Richard Teitelbaum – though much of it is rare and archival. “Chinese Food” is the most storied of the pieces here; it was recorded in New York in 1967 and finds Aebi reading (and hurling) anti-war texts from Lao Tzu against Teitelbaum’s unhinged, patchwork live electronics and Lacy’s screams and sideways twirls. Buckminster Fuller’s texts are used as the springboard for the title piece, recorded in 1968 with Aebi, Lacy, trumpeter Enrico Rava, vibraphonist Karl Berger, drummer Aldo Romano, and bassist Kent Carter (all favored collaborators from 1965 onward). Tart horn lines move in a gooey orbit with free percussive chatter and Berger’s ringing, monolithic chords. Aebi is often described as an acquired taste – indeed, her approach to reciting/singing is a cross between lieder and a distinctly European declamation – but in the context of weighty, far-out protest music, she is a perfectly-applied element. The four parts of The Woe are a prime example of Lacy’s working group of the mid-70s with Aebi, Carter, saxophonist Steve Potts, and drummer Oliver Johnson. On “The Wage,” live cassette recordings of artillery fire are thrown into the mix as well as the ensemble’s vocal shouts, driving an already potent hardcore free-jazz unit into a timely stratosphere. While protest art can be hard to unravel from its immediate context, the state of perpetual strife we live in serves as a regular enough background to this music that its political impact isn’t lessened.
1969: Damon - “Song Of A Gypsy”
When they teamed up to record Song Of A Gypsy, Damon Del Conte and collaborator Charlie Carey were already veterans of the 1960s Los Angeles music scene. For a few years, Damon had pursued a career as a Byrds-y folk-rock singer-songwriter, releasing a few 45s as Damon Lane on his own Del Con imprint. Damon met up with Charlie and a few additional session players in 1969, and together they created one of the most legendary, collectible psych-rock LPs of all time. It was issued in a tiny private press edition of 100 copies, and these days a mint copy goes for up to $3,500 on the rare psych market. It’s not just the scarcity of the Damon album that makes it desirable; it’s a genuinely stunning artifact of the late 60s underground. Combining Carey’s deeply lysergic fuzz guitar with Damon’s acoustic strumming and delicious baritone croon, the album is marked by a near-flawless execution. Damon plays up his self-styled “gypsy” persona throughout, delivering a suite of Eastern-inflected pop songs that often evoke a melancholy doom. The album was recorded and mixed in such a pristine manner that it’s hard to believe it was a self-financed vanity project. Every song is good, but the opening title track really sets the tone, with its melodramatic, fatalistic rhymes: “Today I feel like crying/ Today I feel like dying/ Today I feel like nothing is real/ And the world can’t see I’m trying.”
The album has been reissued bootleg-style by several fly-by-night European labels over the years, and once on CD by Damon himself, who recorded a follow-up in 1998 entitled Gypsy Eyes, about which the less said the better. Damon and Charlie still team up for live performances now and then, but it’s hard to imagine them reigniting the fire of those 1969 sessions with their gorgeous jangly fuzz-bombs of dark Orientalist folk and apocalyptic heralding.
1970: Akira Miyazawa Quartet - “Asama”
In a recent Q&A on reddit, someone asked Steve Albini why he didn’t like jazz music.
“Because it sucks and I’m tired of hearing about it. Believe me I’ve tried. I just hate the parts I hate about it more than I like the little things there are to like. The batting average is just so low I can’t bear the dead time between highlights being filled with all that noodling. It’s vain music.”
Of course, I can sorta understand the impulse behind his reaction to a lot of jazz. If above all else you value compositional structure in music, so much “noodling” could be a big turnoff. Eitherway, Albini’s assessment immediately made me question what I valued most in jazz music, so I turned to some beloved tracks to help me figure it out. Going through my ‘favorites’ playlist on YouTube, I was pleasantly reminded of “Asama,” an early-70s flash of manic but syrupy free-jazz from the Akira Miyazawa Quartet.
I guess the track has a lot of “in-between noodling” — it begins with a beautiful, almost Dave Brubeck-esque theme, backed by a droning string sound, before plummeting into a more chaotic and free approach to soloing. What is there to value here? For one — as if I even have to say it — the energy! How the drums would seem batshit crazy taken alone, but in the context of the song glue everything together through intense, driving interplay. It creates a continuously evolving suspense that is never truly satisfied. But that’s the joy of it all, to me — those “in-between” moments that make you question how it’s all held together.
“Asama” doesn’t feel overtly academic or showoff-ish. It’s more about capturing lightning in a bottle, finding excitement in the ephemera of performance and interaction. You could argue the same spirit resides in most visceral, thrilling music.
1974: Charlemagne Palestine - Four Manifestations on Six Elements
For aficionados of the modern minimalist movement, a small handful of works have achieved mythic status, often warping their creators into mysterious, nearly other worldly gurus of drone. The Black Record by La Monte Young comes to mind, as does Terry Riley’s A Rainbow in Curved Air, Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, and possibly Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach. Each of these works, with the exception of La Monte Young, who is an enigma of his own, has maintained a powerful intrigue for new listeners. I think it’s because they are often juxtaposed with epic scenery or movie trailers – if you ever see a cool picture, chances are some Philip Glass song in the background could probably make it more awesome that it was before. But part of the problem that comes with having three or four titans of minimalism is that lesser known artists like Phil Niblock or Charlemagne Palestine are often removed from the conversation, if only because they aren’t as immediately accessible as some of their contemporaries.
It’s unfortunate that this is the case, because albums like Palestine’s Four Manifestations on Six Elements deserve to be both remembered and praised as incredible contributions to minimalism and experimental music. Palestine’s music is about as minimal as it gets; often employing nothing but a single piano, it somehow manages to sound full and massive through all his extended pieces. Patterns, which sometimes consist of only two or three notes, are repeatedly endlessly and slowly expanded into larger tone clusters as Palestine coaxes all manner of unusual timbres out of his instrument. Unlike Philip Glass or Steve Reich, who usually compose in relatively simple patterns but perform with large ensembles to flesh out their music, Palestine’s early work is all a one-man show which allows him an incredible amount of nuance and control. There is much beauty to be found in these simple keystrokes, something producers who just can’t resist adding an extra drum fill here or there should keep in mind more often.
1984: Silueta Pálida - Silueta Pálida 12”
In these times of globalization and blog saturation, we can hear music from all strains made all over the world and discover forgotten classic, local anthems, and records that barely got recognition past the block they were recorded on. Truly a wonderful time, but still, some patches of land have gone largely undocumented. I’m talking specifically about Mexico.
By the start of the 80s, Mexican bands either embraced the rupestre movement – folk songs about life in the city using low brow language – or went over to the electronic side. Along with Size, Syntoma, Artefacto, Casino Shangai, and Capitán Pijama, Decada 2 was one of the most prominent outfits of the era, embracing the industrial edge of international luminaries like Front 242 and Skinny Puppy. Before Decada 2, however, its leader Carlos García, along with Jaime Herranz and some friends, recorded a 12-inch EP under the name Silueta Pálida (Pale Silhouette). They described the EP as “techno pop,” though it had more to do with minimal wave artists like Linear Movement and Solid Space than anything too synth-poppy. The record was self-released on their own Discos A.E.I. and the artwork features cut out squares that turn black when you slide the record with its inner sleeve.
The music features plenty of synths, but also has a bunch of acoustic instruments like marimba, piano, guitar, and even drums played by a human, believe it or not. There’s a somber, gothic shadow over everything, but García’s lyrics are earnest, especially on the song that opens the set, “El paso del tiempo,” about returning to a simpler time in his childhood. That same song has a remix on the same side, showcasing some noise and rough editions to the instrumental take on the track. Another instrumental song, “Impensado,” is more introspective and softer and there’s percussion going on everywhere.
As surprising as it may seem, there’s still music yet to be discovered and reissued and, as this piece of vinyl proves, there’s some real gems, regardless of where they come from. And that, to me, is an exciting fact.