Notes for "Orff Mix"

[Update: "Tom Moody - poMo Classical & Jazz Fission" aka "The Orff Mix" streams Thurs, Aug 19, at 9 pm Eastern on ffog's Myocyte show on tilderadio and anonradio.]

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I am working on a mix for (open source) internet radio streaming. Below are notes explaining my choices. The mix is tentatively scheduled for this Thursday. I'll post again when know more. My thinking here is closely tied in with music I am making in the studio at the moment.

This mix explores the power of the simple, primitive, incantatory riff in postmodern classical and "jazz fission" music (Kodwo Eshun's term for the brief period of poMo experimentation in the late '60s/early '70s, which eventually jelled into more codified -- and bankable -- "fusion" jazz). My touchstone composers here are Carl Orff and Eric Satie, and their music is interwoven in the mix with experimenters on the "rock" side (John Cale, Frank Zappa, Penguin Cafe Orchestra) and the "jazz" side (John McLaughlin, Ralph Towner, Eberhard Weber). My aim is a musical conversation where common themes, differences and "sidebars" are all considered.

The mix begins and ends with a version of "Something Spiritual," a piece attributed to Dave Herman, who may or may not have played with Glenn Miller (Discogs sometimes mixes up artists with similar names) and appears to have written only this one tune. It's a bifurcated composition, with a wistful, soulful beginning that breaks into a repeated 7 note riff (da da, da da, da da, da) that is very "rock and roll." The piece keeps switching back and forth between the soulful part and The Riff, trying to make up its mind. At the beginning of the mix, John McLaughlin plays it on acoustic guitar(s), showing off his speed and technical skill. At the end of the mix it's played by The Tony Williams Lifetime, a towering group of the fission era, with McLaughlin on electric guitar, Larry Young on Hammond organ, and Williams intricately flailing away on drums. Here The Riff takes over the song, and is played by McLaughlin and Young ad infinitum, with subtle variations in timbre and syncopation, allowing Williams to go off into outer space with metric variations and polyrhythms on a standard drum kit. The loud guitar and pulsating organ are rock, not jazz -- were it not for the drums, this could be Steppenwolf.

Going back to the beginning of the mix: McLaughlin's acoustic version is followed by Penguin Cafe Orchestra's "In the Back of a Taxi," which has a upbeat folk-like Riff played on bass, piano, and ukulele that you could listen to all day. But then a zany quasi-mariachi band comes in with trumpets and breaks the hypnotic groove. This happens twice in the song but the Riff remains constant throughout.

Next comes the first of several pieces by Carl Orff and Gunild Keetman from their "Schulwerk" series, a decades-long compilation of pedagogical music for children (or students of all ages). In "Diminution Schrei," an infectious stew of bubbling xylophone and wood block percussion suddenly erupts into shouts and Native American "hey-ya"s -- from a German boys choir, no less. It's fun and pretty wack. This short piece takes us to Eric Satie's score for Rene Clair's film Entr'acte, which ran during the intermission of the ballet Relâche in 1924. This is my favorite Satie piece, an example of his modular "furniture music" -- a concatenation of simple Riffs ranging from circus music to melancholy strings -- which could be repeated or shortened as needed, to keep the score in sync with the film cuts. This was way ahead of its time.

Next up is Moondog's wistful piano tune "Sea Horse," which could be a continuation of the Entr'acte score, followed by Ralph Towner's solo guitar piece "3x12 (2)." Towner riffs, too but his mind is so musically inventive the motifs never settle into grooves but, instead, serve as links in chains of free association. Then it's back to Moondog, with his most famous work, "Bird's Lament," for reed instruments, including a honking baritone to die for. For this mix I used a version without percussion, from The German Years 77-99, sped up to the same tempo as the better-known version from Moondog (1969) on Columbia. This seques pretty nicely to Carl Orff's "Dance (arr. Wilfried Hiller) for Violin and Cello" from the Schulwerk series, with short sections that could be a sequence of stately folk dances.

This is followed by a threesome of piano works from my blog playlist hatin' on Haigh -- -- which presumed to find some better examples of solo piano (more fun, more tuneful, more diverse, more emotional) than those offered by Simon Reynolds favorite Robert Haigh in The Wire a few years ago. Ravel's "Le Tombeau de Couperin (I. Prelude)" receives a lightning fast treatment from David Korevaar. I owned the orchestral version of this for years and only on hearing the piano version realized what Ravel is doing with a Baroque composition by Francis Couperin -- unstiffening it and making it more romantic, more obviously French. You can still hear the Baroque trills and mathematics but with syncopating pauses and lush sweeps of cabaret expressiveness: a truly amazing reinvention. Then Gertrude Orff's haunting kids' music piece "Kleiner Klavierstücke, Heft I, No. 2," suggesting another quiet court dance. Then Philip Glass' Spanish-flavored "Modern Love Waltz" (performed by Amy Briggs), a machine-like arpeggio workout. You can almost see punched rectangles on a player piano going by, even though it has a human player.

Back to Orff: "Tun Ma Gehn, Rösserl Bschlagn," a children's piece featuring claps and a spirited mezzosoprano voice, precedes Sandy Bull's version of Carmina Burana -- played on a banjo! I owned this years ago, on a vinyl compilation of Bull's music, and can't imagine why I forgot this was on there -- it's completely memorable. Carmina is so familiar from horror movie scores it almost sounds like hackwork today. The banjo strumming puts us back in touch with its roots in the Jungian meme pool that Orff was tapping into: elemental strummed notes that are part folk, part medieval, part "world," touching something deep and primordial. This is followed by another Orff-penned children's piece, "Dance 1 (Piano Exercise, No. 29) for Violin and Cello" (1933), which seduces with its counterpoint between bowed and plucked strings.

Another short, frenetic Ralph Towner solo, "3x12 (3)," leads into John Cale's "Days of Steam," from his mostly classical third LP, The Academy in Peril (1972). This rhythmic piece for piano, viola, and tambourine (with trumpet scales and recorder at the end) presciently resembles Simon Jeffes and his Penguin Cafe Orchestra, which appeared a few years later. It's followed in the mix by Penguin Cafe Orchestra's "Yodel 1" (1981), a strummed acoustic guitar riff with piano and bongo accents. The simplicity and transparency of the instrumentation puts it very much in the Orff "Musik Für Kinder" ballpark, even though it's a 4 minute jam rather than a short structured chamber work.

Next is "Aybe Sea," one of the Mothers of Invention's prettiest pieces, from the Burnt Weeny Sandwich LP. A trio for piano, harpsichord, and Zappa's pedal-inflected guitar, the piece conjures a kind of deranged Renaissance dance number, before settling into a long piano coda. Eberhard Weber's "Silent Feet" is notable for Rainer Brüninghaus' liquid, exploratory piano intro, reminiscent of Ralph Towner's music in its improvisational complexity, rippling through a series of twists, turns, and key changes in a completely Western tonal framework (there are a couple of flubbed notes about 2/3 of the way through, which he recovers from brilliantly). This type of playing would resurface as the Windham Hill "new age" sound a few years later, without Brüninghaus' edgy melodic poetry.

The Ralph Towner acoustic guitar solo that opens Weather Report's "The Moors" is the stuff of legend, another freewheeling journey that resembles pure thought, turned into sprays of 12-string notes. The story goes that Joe Zawinul gave guest-instrumentalist Towner a chair to sit on in the recording studio and let Towner warm up before playing with the band. Unbeknownst to Towner, Zawinul had the tape recorder running and the warm-up session became the finished intro. "The Moors" then continues in Weather Report's early controlled free jazz style (coming off their years with Miles Davis) which had largely disappeared after their next LP, Sweetnighter. The mix then ends with the Tony Williams Lifetime version of "Something Spiritual," discussed above.

Tracy Harris at Graham Gallery, Houston, TX (unpublished 1991 review)

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Tracy Harris, Funnel Made of Wind or Water (detail), oil, wax, graphite on wood, 80 x 108 inches
link to artist's website

At the time I wrote the review below I was covering Texas for Artforum. I had every intention of submitting it to the magazine but didn't. Looking back the writing seems fine so I don't know what I was thinking. I remember an acquaintance (or perhaps another review) saying the work had a "da Vinci's notebooks" vibe and it sort of does but I saw the ideas as more contemporary. The images here come from Harris' website -- they are closest to what I remember of her work in the show.

Tracy Harris
Graham Gallery, Houston, TX
June 8 - July 9, 1991

Abstract painting lends itself to the exploration of ideas suggested by contemporary physics: the interrelatedness of things, the unraveling of cause and effect, the impact of the observer on the observed. Tracy Harris fuses concepts of 20th Century art and science in a quite literal way, by incorporating scientific imagery into the chaotic vocabulary of Abstract Expressionism. On wooden panels, heavily-textured fields of blue-green and beige serve as backgrounds for line drawings suggesting the cryptic notations of engineers, physicists, and industrial designers. Although the schematics hint at specific activities -- plotting black hole coordinates, designing a better teacup -- they seem just as concerned with the roles of choice and chance in the creation of works of art.

Harris pays equal attention to the rendering of figures (predominantly cones, spirals, funnels, and cylinders, varying in size and depth) and the negative spaces surrounding them -- voids of muted color that alternately swirl with gestural life or lapse into states of graceful decay. She restlessly draws, erases, and redraws the figures, leaving ghostly traces as if on palimpsests, and scrapes and scumbles the backgrounds until they attain a comparable degree of surface complexity. Occasionally figures and grounds unite synergistically, as in one untitled panel suggesting a series of mechanical arms spiraling down a cosmic drain, and another in which bowl-shapes progress through stages of Cubistic dismemberment.

It would be tempting to discuss Harris' work purely in formal terms; obviously line quality, balance, and texture are important to the artist, and the images record her struggles to bring these elements to a state of eccentric perfection. Some viewers may see the schematic drawings as abstract motifs or design elements and leave it at that. One writer has called them "iconic," disregarding the patterns of uncertainty and choice implied by the webs of half-erased lines surrounding or connecting objects. It would certainly be farfetched to interpret the panels as Dadaist jeremiads on the mechanization of sex or the dehumanizing effects of technology.

If the diagrammatic shapes were just motifs or static icons, the paintings wouldn't be as compelling as they are. Part of their fascination lies in the success of the artist's research -- her knack for finding utilitarian images that work well as components in imaginative hybrids. In this sense, the shapes become metaphors for the process of invention. Paradoxically, in the course of the artist's self-imposed struggles with the formal aspects of the work, something very unscientific occurs: she invests the shapes with emotional life, making it possible to see them as characters in peculiar contemporary dramas. Chaos theory and the riddles of quantum mechanics obviously figure in these productions; the extent to which they act as plot or scenery is a question bearing further study.

 

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Tracy Harris, Warp and Weft, oil and wax on wood, 34 x 56 inches
link to artist's website

[italicized introduction edited after posting]