1979-1980: Jacqueline Humbert & David Rosenboom - Daytime Viewing
Southern California-based composer and improviser David Rosenboom is a figure for whom no real “school” is apt, and that’s what makes his work immediately accessible but primed to slip through certain cracks. Along with Donald Buchla, Rosenboom devised algorithmic methods for real-time composition (improvisation) with the synthesizer; proponents of “live electronic music,” their innovations are now a major part of the contemporary electronic music environment, including programs like SuperCollider. Rosenboom has also worked with brainwaves as a tool for improvisation and as a pianist recorded with reedman Anthony Braxton. Yet Rosenboom’s music is little heard outside of certain circles — his discography is fairly slim compared to peers like Alvin Lucier or Robert Ashley, but it is incredibly rewarding (check In the Beginning or How Much Better if Plymouth Rock had Landed on the Pilgrims, both on New World).
One of the most idiosyncratic and curious sets in Rosenboom’s discography is also one of the most obscure. Composed in 1979 and 1980, Daytime Viewing, a collaboration with vocalist Jacqueline Humbert, was released privately on cassette in 1983 and barely saw the light of day. Now it sees its first commercial issue on CD and LP via Unseen Worlds, which has built its aesthetic on minimal music, electronic composition, and populist sensibilities, combining accessible whimsy and romantic depth that brings new music to audiences weaned on indie rock.
Daytime Viewing is a song cycle consisting of six pieces; based on the absurdist theatricality of television soap operas as well as commercialism and family, Humbert’s voice and Rosenboom’s synthesizers are joined in places by the percussion of William Winant to create a landscape that is both lush and spry. Humbert’s soothingly rich, almost mechanized vocals set the stage for the record’s characters in a literal sense, earnest and necessarily removed. Rosenboom’s Buchla synthesizer is responsive and undulates with Humbert’s voice, taking flight where lyrics are absent. “Bareback” is a bizarre composition that toys with domestic foibles, Humbert’s lilting singsong matched perfectly by the circus-y billows and poots of Rosenboom’s knotty machinations. The tune’s weird coda delves into an overprotective mother’s physical relationship with her baby — a darkly effective component of Daytime Viewing’s lyric content, fleshed out further in the surreally powerful title piece juxtaposing an abusive partner with women’s fashion.
“Distant Space” heralds the second side with a poppy overture, Winant’s bongos darting amid grandiose, shimmering tone rows and Humbert’s soaring voice. An incredibly virtuosic singer, she moves through a range of inflections, from flatly electronic to nearly operatic, and her nuanced, clear Sprechstimme fits perfectly into the eliding region between organic and inorganic that Rosenboom occupies. “Talk 2” has a funky compulsion to it reminiscent of Annette Peacock and Paul Bley’s collaborations — pulsing whinnies, right-handed electric filigree, and Winant’s metallic accents create insistent accompaniment for Humbert’s round, full and reverberant phrases. It appears that by the second half of the cycle, the focus is a bit less on the specificity of Humbert’s language and more greatly on the cohesive framework of leider, folk song, jazz, and electronic pop. And however dark Daytime Viewing may get, there is a current of humor that is undeniable. It’s not that absurdity is necessary for vanguard art to be “accessible,” but the avant-garde deserves a hearty wink every now and then. While not the definitive Rosenboom album, Daytime Viewing is a fascinating set of music that deserves an earnest hearing.
1972: Cluster - “Plas”
I eat bullets for breakfast.
I take the 1 Train.
I get dropped off in the hangnail of town.
It is permanently foggy there. Not an eerie fog, though. Just one that smells like shit.
My face is permanently smiling.
I’ve got lockjaw from the barbed wire I gnawed on when I was a child.
I’ve a mug like a beaten pit bull.
I don’t smoke.
I broadcast my thoughts on three different frequencies: (1) 341.2 kHz, which can be accessed using an ordinary television antenna, a wad of dubble-bubble, and a hastily formed, phallic bunch of aluminum foil; (2) 260 Hz, or 1.6 Hz below middle C, which creates a slight dissonance; (3) — information unavailable.
In my bedroom, there is a modular synthesizer powered by the brain output of an incredibly furious mathematician whom I keep alive 22 hours out of the day via direct IV drip of vitamin C and an oxygen tank.
My goal is to find a meaningful way to play every single note in the Western 12-tone system at the same time.
1993: Jaap Blonk - Flux de Bouche
If there’s one thing that expresses why you might (could/should/will?) find Flux de Bouche exciting, it’s this: for all the awesome shit that has come into music via technological advances, your synths and your samplers and your laptops, there’s still room for the exploration of what is probably the most basic way we have of making sounds — the human voice. We still don’t know what a voice can do!
The hilarious and perfectly representative cover of the album is a sequence of photographs of Jaap Blonk’s face captured mid-flow, bizarrely contorted with the exaggerated expressiveness of silent film. Comic and a little disturbing, it’s a kind of early warning for the extremes of Blonk’s grotesque and charming vocal athleticism. But it’s also an echo of a similar series of pictures of Kurt Schwitters, whose Ursonate, which Blonk learned by heart at an early stage in his career and has performed many times, was one of the main inspirations for Blonk’s own distinctive vocalizations. Blonk’s works belong to the category, such as it is, of sound poetry, but although obviously there’s plenty of use of literary techniques in the composition, Flux de Bouche is all about the performance. And Blonk also has roots in jazz; he played saxophone up until 1995, when he decided to focus solely on his vocal work, and has collaborated with various leading lights of the free-jazz scene. The sound poetry + jazz combination (reductive though that may be) emphasizes Blonk’s feel for the spontaneity of improvisation, the subversion of convention, and all that cool stuff associated with the two styles. But most importantly, while Flux de Bouche certainly isn’t brainless, it also doesn’t take itself too seriously.
Of course, just because Flux de Bouche is a solo voice record, doesn’t mean it all sounds the same — far from it. Blonk displays a monstrous kind of virtuosity far removed from the skewed adolescent conception one sometimes still encounters (y’know, that kind of virtuosity that involves people thinking that hitting as large a range of notes as possible as quickly as possible is a worthy end in itself). Instead, there’s a frightening array of vocal textures, unusual techniques powered by a lack of inhibition or respect for what vocal cords “should” be doing. Some more striking examples include the plosive sequence on “Popocatepetl” that resembles a kind of deranged beatboxing until Blonk erupts into a kind of (planned?) coughing sound, or the linguistics-influenced phonetic exploration in “Rhotic” that can invoke only jealousy in anyone who is, like I am, a non-rhotic speaker of English. Blonk also uses a multiplicity of different languages (Dutch, German, and English among others, as well as host of garbled in-betweeners), which results in post-Babel nightmare of semi-communication and mishearing. Language and meaning are put on trial: the semantic content of the spoken word is methodically stripped down to varying kinds of animalistic proto-expression. Some of the tracks are originals by Blonk, others interpretations of works by other poets; some seem wholly improvised (“Flux de Bouche,” for example, is “a more or less random fragment of the flow of my mouth at time I cannot help uttering,” according to the liner notes), others produced according to certain methodological procedures.
By my lights, particular highlights include the two versions of “Der Minister,” which descend from an intelligible sentence (“Der Minister bedauert derartige Äusserungen”) to nonsense by the systematic removal of consonants and vowels, respectively. These two tracks are also great examples of how in Flux de Bouche the formal principles behind the compositions are always rendered almost irrelevant given the corporeal nature of the execution, aleatory happenstance, and the limits of the body’s endurance. My personal favorite, though, is the album’s closing number “(brüllt),” an interpretation of a poem of Tristan Tzara’s and — speaking from experience — the track most likely to cause an innocent bystander, chancing across the unholy act of someone enjoying it, to question the sanity of both Blonk and the enthusiastic listener. The majority of the track’s nine minutes consist of Blonk shouting one word, over and over, his voice becoming increasingly ragged, until around the seven-minute mark, it cracks — and still continues this tortured repetition, right up until the almost offhand last words of the album: “der sich immer noch sehr sympathisch findet” — who still considers himself quite likeable! Fair enough, I’d say.
If you’re the kind of person who regrets the lack of “humanity” in certain kinds of music “these days” (no comment), you might be happy to know that, as the album proclaims, “no electronics have been used on the voice sound.” But Blonk’s recent work and certain collaborations have extended into sampling and other electronics. And even more excitingly for the technologically-minded Blonk fan, there’s an iPhone app, the YappoPhone, and its slightly more limited online predecessor, the Blonk Organ, both using sounds produced by his vocal chords. Blonk may work with a particularly primitive instrument and draws heavily on tendencies of an avant-garde now almost a century old, but he has an eye to the present and to the future. And, sound poetry never having really been enough in fashion to go out of it, Blonk seems to be finding intriguing ways of ensuring he doesn’t stay stuck in the past. There’s always something to be said for taking something as everyday as the human voice and turning it to something as weird and surprising as Blonk does.
You can hear the whole thing on Ubuweb.
1962: Sylvia Plath - “Lady Lazarus”
On the surface, Random House’s Voice of the Poet series offers something that should be irresistible to any self-respecting lit geek: the opportunity to hear some of the biggest names in 20th-century poetry reading their own greatest hits. In practice, though, it was kind of a mixed bag. For every poet who struck the right notes (T.S. Eliot’s fussy, clinical diction seems oddly appropriate to the state of spiritual desiccation he chronicles in his work), there seemed to be plenty of others whose readings were tonally awkward or just plain boring as shit.
Of all the entries in the series I’ve sampled, however, Sylvia Plath’s is far and away the best. While other poets provided readings, Plath offered an actual performance. The album is made up of recordings from two separate sessions. The first, recorded in 1958, shows Plath to be an adept interpreter of her own work: her lips move like surgical implements through each complicated strain of syllables, carving out stanza after stanza in her even, sonorous voice. It’s the second session, recorded a mere four years later, though, where Plath comes fully alive as a performer (and, according to most, as a poet). Each of the eight selections from her (then still unpublished) collection Ariel is underscored by a maelstrom of suppressed emotion, and the very best among them is “Lady Lazarus.”
I’ve been out of school too long to attempt anything like a close reading of the poem, but by way of brief summary, it deals with a narrator who, wanting to die, finds herself repeatedly dragged back to the land of the living. Plath draws upon common images of rebirth — the resurrection of Lazarus from the Gospel of John, the myth of the phoenix — but recasts them as obscene parodies: a carnival sideshow, a grotesque striptease, a Nazi medical experiment. The doctors who labor to save her life and the friends and family who crowd around her bedside are seen not as caring or benevolent figures, but as diabolical nemeses and vampiric voyeurs feeding and profiting off her pain. The traditional reading of this poem places it fully in the confessional mode, as an expression of the author’s own rage and anguish. It’s a compelling interpretation, given Plath’s tendency to incorporate biographical details into her poems and, of course, in light of Plath’s own tragic death, which looms like a 500 lb gorilla over any discussion of the author’s work. Revisionist scholars, however, attempt to place more distance between Plath and her narrator.
(I would also feel remiss if I did not mention, at least in passing, that Plath’s appropriation of holocaust imagery as a metaphor for personal pain — be it her own or her fictional narrator’s — is narcissistic at best and highly offensive at worst. It’s up to the individual reader to decide whether this is something he or she can see past.)
One of the most remarkable aspects of this very remarkable poem, however, is Plath’s intense awareness of style. Literary scholar Helen Vendler notes that “almost every stanza of ‘Lady Lazarus’ picks up a new possibility” for the poet’s voice. To bring such a work to life, a reader must be able to keep up with each writhing, twisting line as it darts off into unexpected territory. Plath not only navigates the mottled stylistic patchwork of her poem, but also tames it to such a degree that her reading carries a narrative arc all its own. Plath spits out the opening stanzas like a boast, proclaiming the uniqueness of her “gift,” even as she draws comparisons between herself and some of the more horrifying relics of the Nazi death camps. Yet listen carefully around the 30-second mark, where she intones:
Can you deny
The nose, the eye pits, the full set of teeth?
The sour breath
Will vanish in a day.
You can hear the arrogance draining away, replaced with a horror so weary and abject it feels spontaneous. When she warns us that “Soon, soon the flesh/ The grave cave ate will be/ At home on me,” she sounds nearly in tears. The sense of despair is so palpable, you half expect Plath to falter and beg off, but by the time she lights on the next stanza, a hint of playful mockery has crept back into her voice. It’s as though a death shroud has been peeled back from a corpse’s face to reveal a frozen, contemptuous grin.
This tension, this back-and-forth tug between the narrator’s strength and her vulnerability, is what fuels the drama of this particular recording. It’s as though she wants to take back ownership of her life and her condition by feigning a cavalier attitude toward her awful twilight existence. She builds up walls of irony and disdain in an effort to present a powerful and terrible face towards the sadistic doctors and gawping, “peanut-crunching crowds,” but her own hurt, bitterness, and fear keep finding a way through the cracks.
The poem ends with a stern warning, not just to the doctors and the rubbernecks, but to God and the Devil themselves:
Herr God, Herr Lucifer
Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.
These stanzas are the last reversal, the final frames of every revenge fantasy in which the tormented protagonist visits terrible punishment upon those who have done her wrong. Yet there is nothing triumphant in Plath’s delivery, no force behind her blasphemous threat. There is only the infinite fatigue of one who no longer possesses the conviction to lie to herself. How strange and frightening that, in Plath’s own hands, her boldest assertion of personal power comes off sounding like a hopeless capitulation.
1998: Cap’n Jazz - Analphabetapolothology
A few years ago, my cousin complained to me. Following my advice, he had went to see Cap’n Jazz on their reunion tour and told me they were awful. According to him, they had a minimal grasp of rhythm, and their screams were out of tune. Worse of all, the audience was yelling along with them. Not singing along. Yelling.
Cap’n Jazz, fronted by brothers Tim and Mike Kinsella, played avant-garde music for the broken-hearted and the perpetually nostalgic, people who treasured Catcher in the Rye from the very first page. Yes, we all know the word “emo,” but Cap’n Jazz went beyond the screams and power chords; they made music that was as tangled and knotty as their emotions. It embodied their rage and sadness in an explosive, responsive way. To me, they were the wimpy, dorky Stooges of that generation, except they knew that was bullshit and rejected themselves as such; they knew that nobody then needed someone to tell them that it was another year with nothing to do.
Their take on emotionally-charged experimentation can be heard on “In The Clear,” a song that flows in furious passages that you can sing along to, yet the most powerful moment comes when someone screams half the alphabet and concludes it with “lost!” It’s ostentatious, funny and yet incredibly earnest.
This is what I grew up with, what I get and what gets me (or got me back then); even if I didn’t have direct contact with the actual music, I instinctively responded to it. I bet the members of the band don’t mind not being understood, but I think that’s part of their appeal. It’s all heart and neurosis.
2003: Paddy McAloon - I Trawl The Megahertz
There’s been a long history of pop musicians going off the deep end and into the realm of experimental music. While these flirtations have been common since the 1960s onward, some of the most fascinating cases happen when the transition comes seemingly out of the blue. Tim Buckley’s Lorca and Starsailor albums may in some ways be some of the earliest and most radical examples of this transformation, but there are also the classic instances of Scott Walker’s and Talk Talk’s dark later work, as well as David Sylvian’s gradual descent into free-jazz-afflicted folk and onkyo-obsessed songwriting. However, despite the seemingly disparate nature between these artists’ experimentally minded compositions and their more commercial work, there’s always been something of a common thread. Walker’s “Farmer in the City” could easily have fit on Scott 3; Buckley’s virtuosic singing seemed to be a natural fit for the Ligeti-esque textures he attempted with Lorca and Starsailor; and Sylvian had been working collaboratively with experimental musicians such as Jon Hassel and Holger Czukay since his debut solo album.
With Paddy McAloon’s I Trawl the Megahertz, the aesthetic continuity isn’t so readily apparent. McAloon is best known as the leader of the harmonically rich twee-pop band Prefab Sprout, whose pop perfectionism doesn’t quite prepare one for the surreal, dark world of McAloon’s lone solo record. Of course, despite Prefab’s sunny exterior, it was clear with extensive listening that the band’s songs often hid their sadness under the catchiest of tunes. Take their hit “The King of Rock n Roll,” for example: it’s a pretty silly song, until you realize the lyrics come from the perspective of a washed-up one-hit wonder whose goofiest work overshadows all of his attempts at real artistry. But maybe it’s for this reason that I Trawl the Megahertz feels like something of a shock: it wears all of its sorrow on its sleeve and does away with McAloon’s pop-song mastery in favor of minimalist orchestration, bizarrely bleak spoken word, and an undeniably chilly atmosphere.
I Trawl the Megahertz is by no means an abrasive or dissonant record, but it is undeniably idiosyncratic and heartbreaking. All of these things are apparent from the opening of the title track onward. The title track is nearly 22 minutes long and consists of a gorgeous repeated theme (McAloon’s harmonic sensibilities are still in play here) that sounds like it could soundtrack the saddest Disney movie never written, with its lurching strings, vaudevillian whistles, and ghostly guitar. Early in the work, a woman’s voice comes in and delivers blunt observational lines, like the unforgettable, “I said, ‘Your daddy loves you very much/ He just doesn’t want to live with us anymore.” It’s a beautifully powerful work that suggests what might happen if Robert Ashley’s later operas had used full orchestration and were crushingly sincere.
From there, the record moves into a frosty Philip Glass-like suite of instrumental pieces that eventually give way to the two other tracks with vocals, “I’m 49” and “Sleeping Rough.” “I’m 49” sounds quite similar to the territory that Oneohtrix Point Never has been mining recently with its pastiche of talk-show voices, electronics, and beautiful cascading arpeggios. “Sleeping Rough,” on the other hand, is an unbelievably devastating song featuring McAloon crooning like a slightly less depraved Scott Walker. “Sleeping Rough” is perhaps the only transparent reference to the experiences that inspired I Trawl the Megahertz’s elegiac glacial tone. “I’m lost, I’ll grow a long and silver beard,” McAloon sings. While this lyric could be read as a meta-commentary on the stylistic change of the record, it becomes heartbreaking when you realize that the singer/composer had temporarily gone blind due to illness while writing this material. However, despite the seemingly bleak-sounding nature of I Trawl the Megahertz’s various components, McAloon’s arrangements and tonalities make it clear that the singer remained hopeful and artistically forward-looking, despite the seemingly dire situation of his health.
Much of the album’s arrangements are quite reminiscent of a number of contemporary experimental musicians who have recently made forays into more texturally rich material. Sean McCann’s Music for Private Ensemble comes to mind when listening to the mixture of MIDI, live orchestration, and natural sounds on the album’s instrumental tracks, and the record’s title track would not feel too out of place on a Julia Holter record. McAloon may never work with this particular set of tools again, but it’s clear that he has many like-minded contemporaries employing similar resources in their own work nowadays. I Trawl the Megahertz may be an anomaly in McAloon’s discography, but it’s an anomaly that sounds more beautiful and relevant than ever.