Friday, November 07, 2014

Ten Albums That Have Influenced Me

Ten albums that have influenced me (I'm cheating a bit as some artists have more than one album listed, and in some cases their entire body of work has influenced me):

1. Wendy (née Walter) Carlos: Switched-On Bach. Either the first or second LP I ever bought. Wore out at least two copies over the years, maybe three. First, here are modern electronic instruments playing some favorite classical music, proving that it works. Second, this was my introduction to the possibilities of the Moog synth. (I own two at this point.)

2. Bill Laswell: Hear No Evil. Laswell has always done really interesting kinds of music, often ten years ahead of everyone else. HNE is a fusion of hard urban grooves with Americana, West African and Indian rhythms, and Beat sensibility. This is one of my main influences when I pay improvised rock, prog, and jazz. Laswell proved that you can put a dub bassline on almost any kind of improvised music and make it solid. There are several other Laswell albums I could have listed here, yet this is one I keep coming back to again.

3. King Crimson: Discipline. Like so many others, Tony Levin was who influenced me to play Stick. This is just a great and enduring album, light and dark by turns, proving to me that "math rock" at its best is gutsy and emotional, not just cerebral. "The Sheltering Sky" contains a flavor of emotional intensity I had only ever heard before in composers like Bartok, Ligeti, Gorecki, or Grieg.

4. Javanese Court Gamelan, Vol. II: Istana Mangkunegaran (Nonesuch Explorer Series). The whole Nonesuch Explorer Series was very influential on my life, opening the door to world music (long before worldbeat was a pop music genre), and eventually to studying ethnomusicology. This album, from the Mangkunegaran influenced me not only musically but personally: eventually I traveled to Indonesia on a Fulbright and studied gamelan at the Mangkunegaran itself, playing some of the music on this album on those same instruments. For me that was a numinous, thrilling, amazing, near-religious experience. I devoted many years of my life to playing and studying Javanese gamelan, and it affected the way I play improvised music, too.

My immersion in gamelan and world music completely changed how I think about music and music-making. Gamelan was part of my immersion in pattern music: music based on ostinatos, on repeating patterns, on additive rhythm, on gradual process. The next three albums are also part of that experimentation with that kind of music, each from a different direction: jazz, rock, classical.

5. John Klemmer: Touch. Before late high school I had had no interest in jazz, rock, pop, or anything but classical and avant-garde music. This LP got me into jazz because the music was ostinato-based themes treated as jazz heads. I still find it really appealing, as well as still being outside the jazz mainstream. From here, all of jazz opened its doors to me, although I remain most strongly drawn to the jazz avant-garde, the more "outside" music like "free jazz" or the composed complexity of Ellington. And I could also list Brubeck's "Time Out" as a key influence here, too.

6. Mike Oldfield: Tubular Bells, Hergist Ridge, and Ommadawn. I remember having an argument in the van on a free afternoon when I was studying geology in Wyoming, when a bunch of us college students were stuffed in the van listening to the Jackson radio station. "Theme from The Exorcist" came on, and everybody was into the music, but nobody but me knew it was excerpts from Tubular Bells. Oldfield built layers of melody and harmony over gradually built-up musical patterns. All three of his early album-length recordings were influential on me, but Ommadawn is in my opinion one of the greatest works of the 20th Century. People don't realize how much folk music influenced Oldfield, and as an ethnomusicologist I can hear that influence all through here.

7. Steve Reich: Drumming (DGG 3 LP set) and Music for 18 Musicians. Gradual process music, which is actually the opposite of "minimalism," a term Reich has never liked. Small repeating musical patterns change gradually, and expand and contract, creating layers of interacting sound. This music influenced me as a composer, certainly, as well as a listener. Music for 18 Musicians is one of the greatest works of classical 20th Century music; and this is proved in part because it is now being played by talented high school groups, too.

8. John Cage. I've always listened to lots of classical avant-garde music, or "experimental" music. I can't pick a particular Cage recording that was a major influence, because his entire body of work has been a major influence on me. Maybe I could single out on the LPs of the Variations. I've performed a lot of Cage over the years, as well. Probably the 2 LP set of Indeterminacy (Folkways) is what I would have to single out as an important influence, as it combined music, "noise," and words together. This led me towards text-sound poetry, which of course had a lot to do with, which is the use of the spoken word as a musical element.

9. David Munrow and The Early Music Consort of London: Music of the Middle Ages and The Six Wives of Henry the VIIIth. Munrow was one of the leading lights of the Early Music revival scene in the 1970s, which was a both scholarly and popular revival of Medieval and Renaissance music performance on original instruments, that continues to this day. Munrow's 3 LP set of Medieval music was my first introduction to the very modern-sounding music of the 13th and 14th Centuries, which still sound avant-garde. This was my first intro to Perotin, the great composer of organum. And Munrow also did the soundtrack, period music on period instruments, for the hit BBC TV series about Henry the VIIIth, which my family avidly watched together as it was first broadcast on PBS. Medieval studies has had almost as big an impact in my life as has ethnomusicology, and in similar ways. Munrow was who opened that door for me.

10. Joni Mitchell: Hejira. There have been a lot of singer-songwriters of the "folk revival" who have had a big impact on me as a songwriter, but Joni Mitchell towers over all of them. This is not only an album full of great songs, it's also musically adventurous and was ahead of its time. Mitchell took a lot of flak for always evolving her sound, rather than staying the little waif with singing autobiographical songs about love, and jazz was a huge influence on her, culminating at one point with Mingus. It's all there in Hejira, though, combined with the appeal of being a musical road trip full of vivid characters and scenes. Some of the songs on "Hejira" have not only influenced me as a songwriter, they have at times seemed to be the narrative of my own life.

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Letter to Orphée

Thinking of a lyre of wood and wire and earth,
an earth lyre, I think of an elemental music,
a music made of earth, metals and woods
and stones of earth, played by wind howling
outside the house this dim, blustery day. The clouds
last evening, and pale light this morning, look like snow coming,
not rain. Rushes of sound, wind blowing across
the housetop, reverberate down the chimney.
Orpheus picks up a strangely curved branch of fallen
wood off the forest floor, strings it with copper wires, and plays.
His lyre summons spirits of the air, voices hiding behind
wind and mist, his singing voice, his poetry, becomes the telling
of seasons, days turning the planet under stars.
An elemental voice describing a concerto of ever-changing forces
and spirals in the sky. Spiral wood beams struck by lightning
embrace a pale white stone from anywhere but here.
Perhaps an ancient sea. You cannot be unaware, Orpheus,
that time and change take us all, that these stones eroding
to dust and leaves in this interstellar wind were once
a shallow sea, or that the peak of our tallest mountain
is made of shells of sea creatures that died millions of years gone
to fall to deep ooze and be pressed into rock
by the pressures of what came after. My home
is a temple of standing stones. Red and gold sandstones
form a shelter around whose curves the wind howls. We work
these metal flakes, gold bright and soft copper green, into veins
of the lyre of Orpheus, seams in the wood, ore seams in the earth.
Its copper strings gleam with forged memory. Its curve
is a memory of birds nesting in the crook of an ancient bole,
a tree much older than any bird, once fallen forgotten
by the descendants of sparrows and robins who once it sheltered.
Birds nest in the hair, the ear, of Orpheus, and dictate their songs
to his receptive tongue, his voice which forgets nothing,
not even the oldest groan of the planet giving spontaneous birth to life.
It's tempting to believe that those who refuse to hear these spirits
singing have themselves no souls, but we must not judge, we must
leave room for revelation. Everything connects. Webs and orbs
and lyre-spiders who weave them. Atoms of everything, whirling
in apparent silence within these fossiled stones, glint and spark
in light cast by the voice of the son of dreaming. His torn limbs
cast upon waters and forest floor. Orphée retrieves his own bones
and sinew as he picks up another fallen treelimb to weave
a newer lyre. Look, will you not: gold leaves glow
in the last rays of afternoon, below this hillside meadow,
and behind that is the whirling sparkle of molecules dancing,
and behind that the velocity of a shining planet, an orb
hurling itself into silence. We are the cliffs we jump from.
Our naked flesh breaks the laketop shimmer as we fall,
we disappear forever into that water mirror, then placidity returns.
Low hum of oceans singing in the blood, wind in the copper wires
of a sacred city, a lyre strung above dark streets the moon guards.
A forest of shadows grows within oil slicks reflecting streetlights
and trash bins. But in time, deep time, this forest made of bricks
will be overeaten and digested by new forests, returned and ink-vined
along borders of papyrus leaves woven into sheets of sand
by the lyre's unending song. The lowest string on a harp
of air and ice, the lowest tone that, struck,
can shatter crystal mountains. Wind strokes
the highest strings into humming.
Orpheus takes breath, opens his mouth to sing again.
What comes forth
shapes wind-blown broken sandflakes
back into mirrors full of starlight.

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