Birdies

from Friday, April8th of the year2011.

I am flying home right now from Kennesaw, GA, where I had a new piece played by the combined forces of the women’s choir at KSU and eighth blackbird. Funbags! Obviously, I’d known of/about them for years and years — I reminsced onstage that the first time I saw them was in a sprawling piece of Paul Moravec at the MET museum in what must have been 2004 — but we’d never worked together. 8bb (I can’t bring myself to write out their name at a beginning of a sentence as apparently one is contractually obliged not to capitalize) are outrageously virtuosic, for starters, but are also people who care deeply about programming new music. It’s one of those amazing organizations that, weirdly, seems like it shouldn’t work but somehow totally works; getting six people to agree on anything is insane, viz. bands.

One of the first things I thought about when writing them a piece was this balance between virtuosity and what I would call Slower Thinking. I realized that I didn’t have a virtuosic piece in me for them, and that I needed to do was find a text that required slow, thoughtful gestures with a focus on intent & affect. The trick was also to combine them with a choir; in this case, the sopranos and altos of Kennesaw State University, who did such an amazing job learning the odd music I wrote for them. I am always deeply moved when people learn something I’ve written in a sort of memorized or almost-memorized way (that’s, surely, the difference between playing and learning?).

The 8bb kids are the most best at After the Concert. Isn’t group dining the worst thing in the universe? I have blogged about this before, but nothing fills me with more terror than the strange pageant of dietary problems, parsimoniousness, and that eternal thing where the waitress is there shouting “who ordered the tacos” nearly burning her hand on the plate and isn’t it always the same hoes who ordered the tacos who are yammering on in their conversation without fessing up to having ordered those tacos!? But! 8bb are the most fun. We devoured all the nachos and wings in the world:

An aside: everybody read this thing a few weeks ago at the Awl? (on the Awl? in the Awl?) entitled How Gays Split a Check in a Restaurant? The money quote:

Gay: “Give me that check, it is my turn!”

Other Gay: “That is crazy talk, you paid three weeks ago at [name of other equally wonderful spot]! Please, please let me!”

Third Gay: “Oh, you guys, that means it’s my turn, give it here!”

Fourth Gay: [Secretly has already handed plum-colored American Express card to server ten minutes ago, and now all the gays realized that the check that has just been delivered is merely waiting for a signature, not a card.]

All Gays: “You guys!”

The end. Exeunt gays. Everyone hugs repeatedly!

I have found this to be basically true, at least in my own experience. One of my greatest pleasures in making any money is thinking about the meals that everybody I know can participate in; when I was a student, the only ways I experienced the insane joys of places like Café Luxembourg or Balthazar or whatever was through the generosity of others; now, my usual M.O. is when people are in town from elsewhere, to subsidize adventures at Blue Ribbon or similar places that they don’t have in London/York/Kent.

I had the weird experience with 8bb of knowing their work much better than I knew them, but also, knowing their kind of online presence (complete with, it should be said, a minor scandal) without knowing them. Like all ensembles, it’s really a sum of its parts, and they are, I was so happy to learn, individually good in their own ways. And only one vegetarian who is, in fact, rather good at incorporating into a crowd of carnivores and not in the least bit parsimonious at the end of the night.

Can we talk about something here, because we’re family? Anybody who reads this space knows that I am fully on team Steve Reich. He is one of the first living composers whose music I really “loved” in the sense of a full-body abandon. I used to have a walkman with one cassette on it, which was the Reich Sextet on side A and as much of Adams’s Harmonium as I could fit on the second side. (Question: does one italicize Sextet? It’s a description rather than a title?) Anyway, I love Steve Reich the hardest. And his new piece! Double Sextet, which won the Pulitzer Prize right after my most b-loved David Lang’s Li’l Match Gurl Pash, is a gorgeous, great thing. And he also wrote, as some might know, this thing 2×5 for the Bang on a Can All-Stars, with the noticeable addition of Bryce Dessner. It’s like, piano, bass, 2 guitars, drums, all doubled by a pre-recorded version of their own selves. It’s a good piece! It’s Reich doing good Reich stuff. I have a weird worry about it, though. Actually two. Double Sextet and 2×5 were released together. The first worry is, Double Sextet won the Pulitzer prize and we had to wait, like 18 months to hear the fucker unless we had the good fortune to be in town when it was happening. So that’s problematic. But the pairing is acoustically problematic, too. Listen to the end of Double Sextet and then the beginning of 2×5.

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The problem here is that 2×5 is a balls-out amplified-instruments piece and somehow it sounds quieter than the acoustic piece! Most of Reich’s work is for amplified acoustic instruments, but surely going into the world of guitars, bass, drumset, etc., warrants the speakers to be blown out with an insistent, primal drive? I thought at first it was my recording, but I bought a hard-copy and played it in every possible venue: a car, my house, my momma house, my friend’s house, her momma house…it still sounds like weird Nintendo sounds. Has anybody else ever felt a divorce between the quality of music and the sound quality of the recording? The performance sounds quite nuanced and precise, but either the production or the mastering is…awkward here? Everybody buy it. It’s good. And then let’s all think about it.

What’s funny about this whole thing is that I normally would never listen to an album in sequence; maybe on the first time out, but I’m a very picky listener and usually listen to something in a completely weird colimaçon based on my own caprices and anxieties. With Reich, though, I am so addicted to the rush I got when I first listened to Different Trains and Electric Counterpoint in order that I make it almost a tradition to experience his music in album-sequence.

Moral of story: <3 Reich. <3 8bb. <3 Bang on a Can All-Stars. Am curious what people think about this pairing and about the transition from instruments not-plugged-in to instruments-plugged-in when experienced in sequence. One final little plug. I worked on an album for this boy Puzzle Muteson, whom I randomly discovered on MySpace a zillion years ago, for Bedroom Community. It is, outrageously, being given away for free here, and everybody should get involved. It’s a gorgeous album; Valgeir produced it and it sounds great.

9 Comments

  • Your Grandfather
    April 8th, 2011 at 10:43 am

    Thank you for sending me searching for colimaçon. I need to hear it in more contexts, though. Is it idiomatic?

  • “Has anybody else ever felt a divorce between the quality of music and the sound quality of the recording? The performance sounds quite nuanced and precise, but either the production or the mastering is…awkward here? Everybody buy it. It’s good. And then let’s all think about it.”

    As someone who listened to pop and rock OR WHAT EVER music all his life and only within the past few years started caring about jazz and classical and new music or WHAT EVER, this is still pretty much the infuriating thing: that sense that what you’re hearing is a bastardization of what you would have heard if you’d been in the room. There are so many recordings of so many great pieces and unless you’re Nico Muhly or Alex Ross or somebody you don’t want every single recording of whatever piece. You want the best-sounding version. I remember you (Nico) wrote something about how in pop, the producer is like the composer, or something to that effect, and I remember feeling that summed it up for me.

    Also, it’s weird that my computer (or your website?) thinks Muhly is a typo. Just sayin’.

  • Then again: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fapq0H–lME

    Maybe Reich just liked that Nintendo sound (or never imagined it otherwise).

  • My favorite part of your blog has been the music clips….then I bought an iPad.

  • “With Reich, though, I am so addicted to the rush I got when I first listened to Different Trains and Electric Counterpoint in order that I make it almost a tradition to experience his music in album-sequence.”

    I completely agree with you. I have this issue with Music for Eighteen Musicians… It was the first Reich piece I listened to and now every time I press play on my ipod I’m in it for the long haul. My is it worth it though…

  • I had a master-class recently with Irish composer David Fennessy (currently teaching at the Royal Scottish). He spoke briefly about this issue by suggesting what is in my opinion quite an obvious but nonetheless sometimes overlooked perspective: much new music (in the concert situation) is working best in a particular space, it is written for live absorption and the recording is retrospective, a memoir of the performance (which differs to the band’s artistry coming through most strong in the studio and the performance being in some ways retrospective of the studio work). He was saying that when he came to terms with this, not only was his listening approach altered but also how he approached writing (as he like many others including myself comes from the ‘originally in a band before discovering new music and trying to recreate that aesthetic in the concert hall’ approach). Perhaps this simple eventuality can be exemplified by 2 x 5…

  • According to the style guide I use (vaguely Chicago), Sextet shouldn’t be capitalized. But then how to different between the Reich Sextet, the piece, and a putative Reich Sextet, the eponymous ensemble?

  • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OvN9YwiveXc

    thought I’d expand on the topics above

  • I recall the 8bb “minor scandal” did provoke this amusing response:
    http://maltedmedia.com/people/bathory/competition2010.html