SA9: The Monophony issue
Play one note.
Play another note.
Play another note.
This is an exercise I did for years, building melodies one note at a time with or without regard to harmony or rhythm; letting the shape and flow of the melody define itself based only on the consideration of this question: "Does it work?"
It's an exercise that still causes a certain amount of existential angst. "Does it work?" turns into "what does work mean to me?" turns into "how do our definitions of success compare and contrast?" Each new question becomes the analog to a note in the exercise. I follow the spiral until I find myself curled up in front of the television in need of a nap.
Play a note.
I've found myself using monophonic work as a possible entry level into studying new composers. The desire to tackle the one-note-then-another paradigm has become an automatic point of interest for me as I peruse the record store/library/internet aisles. It has become my roast chicken, well-tied bow tie, or perfectly located fastball. It is my musical equivalent of watching a great artist do something simple in a transcendent way.
So, when I decided it was time to do a Sound American issue that would feature a number of writers, beside myself, talking about the music they know and love in terms wholly their own, I naturally gravitated toward what I thought was a musical staple capable of great elegance: monophony. This issue started that simply; what monophonic pieces encapsulate an artist's aesthetic and skill. And, who can speak most eloquently about them?
What lies within is an attempt to answer that question with features by great musicians and writers about great composers and performers: Mark Menzies on Gérard Grisey, Mary Jane Leach on Julius Eastman, Josh Sinton on Steve Lacy, Richard Pinnell on Antoine Beuger, and an interview between Carol Robinson and Tom Johnson.
Play another note.
Regardless of the skill and insight these writers brought to their subject matter, these essays felt like the beginning for this issue of Sound American. There is a specific kind of joy that comes from discovering music. It's a quality that I've tried to portray in every issue of Sound American in one way or another. In these pages, it had been replaced by the joy of understanding music; something that's deep and meaningful in its own right, but needs that spark of spontaneity and unknowing to set it in relief and make it that much stronger. To that end, each essay is paired with the thoughts of a separate musician or artist on hearing the monophonic piece for the first time. It became an interesting exercise to read the interview after the essay; parsing out what is important to different ears and what qualities come to the fore immediately or need immersion to become evident.
And, this line of thought opens up other, broader, ideas about what we need or what we think we need in music. Is harmony necessary? What creates motion to our ears? Do we need motion? Is a single voice more powerful than a choir? Obviously, this line of questioning becomes subjective at best, but as I followed one thread after another, one question kept coming back to me: "How do we use limitation?"
Ultimately, the exercise of one-note-then-another is meant to be about limiting yourself to a rational succession of pitches. The endgame of the exercise is a sense of control when given the freedom to do what you want while improvising. But, doesn't the freedom we're striving for in performance have a need for some sort of limitation to ground or define it? As I listened to the pieces for this issue, I found that sense of limitation or ground in different places: obviously in Tom Johnson's Rational Melodies, but also in the cellular structure of Grisey's Prologue and the maniacal sound shaping of Steve Lacy's New Duck. It reminded me of a passage in a Slavoj Žižek essay on F.W.J. Schelling's work on the beginning of temporal thinking;
...our intellectual creativity can be 'set free' only within the confines of some imposed notional framework in which, precisely, we are able to 'move freely' - the lack of this imposed framework is necessarily experienced as an unbearable burden, since it compels us to focus constantly on how to respond to every particular empirical situation in which we find ourselves.1
Play another note.
So, what does that mean for the monophonic composer? Does the lack of harmonic framework present the possibility of moving "freely" for the composer or does it created an "unbearable burden" to be overcome. If the latter, how does the composer climb that particular mountain successfully?
And so, to address that question, Sound American includes an exercise in limitation; in this case, historical context. Issue 9 features four great tenor players of the moment working through the harmonic, rhythmic and historic limitations of Body and Soul, a song heavily defined by Coleman Hawkins's seminal 1939 recording. These saxophonists each dealt with the limitations of a very well known harmony and melody, as well as Hawkins's towering presence in very different and, ultimately, very musically satisfying ways.
So, in the end (and after including our return of 5 Questions, this time with Kurt Gottschalk), the issue came about like the one note exercise. It started with monophony, which opened the mind to certain composers and their monophonic works, which further opened into the broader ideas of experience and limitation.
And, this leaves us here. Perhaps in an existential crisis. The narrative string of one note after another has been convoluted by choice as you click from page to page. The availability of information can be paralyzing, ending with you in front of the TV, but I admonish you to stay strong! Start where you want, think of that as your first note, then follow it to what makes sense next, even if it's not on this site, then wait, then move, then wait. When you're done, come back and pick another note.
 Žižek, Slavoj. The Indivisible Remainder: On Schelling and Related Matters. London: Verso, 1996
four takes on body and soul
In 1948, Coleman Hawkins recorded Picasso, one of, if not the, earliest examples of unaccompanied saxophone solos in jazz. Over 65 years later, the solo saxophone recording has become, if not quite ubiquitous, much less of a novelty than it was in the mid-twentieth century when jazz horn players were just breaking free of their roles as members of big bands where their improvisatory talents were limited by the needs of the arranger.
Hawkins, through this seminal recording, opened up a path of inspiration for saxophonists like Sonny Rollins, who idolized Hawkins and found new avenues of expression in the solo monophonic saxophone milieu.
As the solo saxophone progressed into the 1960s to the present day, its language expanded. It moved away from the obvious melodic invention and reinvention of Hawkins and Rollins to encompass rigorous conceptual composition (as in the works of Anthony Braxton and Roscoe Mitchell in the US) and tabula rasa improvisation that expanded the raw emotive capabilities of the instrument (as in the work of Peter Brotzmann and Evan Parker in Europe).
The influence of Hawkins's Picasso has gone beyond what he could have ever imagined. The list of influential recordings of solo saxophone is long. Not mentioned here are the solo works of John Zorn, Steve Lacy, Kaoru Abe, and John Butcher; and these are the obvious references. It is a world of frightening possibilities for the modern saxophonist; a world that has a tradition to embrace, but a tradition young enough to mold and forge a wholly new language within.
For this, the monophonic issue of Sound American, I thought it would be interested to explore the idea of the solo saxophone; it's tradition and relative freedom. The approach was akin to Lars von Trier's The Five Obstructions, although admittedly a kinder and gentler version. I approached a group of saxophonists with the notion of paying some sort of homage to the idea of Coleman Hawkins and his seminal solo saxophone recording. Instead of trying to recreate something as essentially abstract as Picasso, I suggested they all take on a solo version of another seminal Hawkins recording, Body and Soul. They were also told that they couldn't utilize multiphonics or other techniques that would lead them away from a monophonic texture. Outside of these parameters, they were given as little guidance as I could get away with. Above you will find four individuals looking for, finding, and showcasing years of searching for an individual voice. The results show a care and respect for a great saxophonist by continuing his tradition of radical individualism.
5 questions with kurt gottschalk
Five Questions with... is a feature of Sound American where I bother a very busy person until they answer a handful of queries around the issue's topic, and this has been a long time coming! Finally, the Kurt Gottschalk Five Questions. Kurt is a fixture in writing and radio circles in New York and increasingly around the world. He is one of those faces, the presence of which at your show bestows a certain seal of approval. This interview actually happened for Issue 4 of Sound American and, like a handful of others, had to be tabled in lieu of some other ideas. It's been in the back of my mind with each issue, how and where it would sit best, and somehow, the almost comedic terseness of Kurt's answer to Question 2 connected with this issue's theme of monophonic music....monosyllabic interviews? Sometimes the best things are those that are unadorned.
1. What was the experience got you hooked on music?
My mother blamed going to an auto race when she was pregnant with me for my avid punk listening in high school, and I suppose she would probably know. I remember being in a restaurant when I was very young and my father letting me play the juke box (he had to pick me up so I could reach the buttons) and I was excited that the whole room had to listen to the song I picked – even if I didn’t know that you could select which record you wanted to hear rather than hitting the buttons arbitrarily. So I guess it was always with me. I was buying records before I knew any musicians, selecting them by title or cover. But the point of no return came in 4th grade, when a classmate (who would prove to be a lifelong friend) invited me over to listen to KISS records. While I was already a music fan, this was the first time I experienced music with the power of personality and packaging. Character and charisma continue to be big – although not necessary – factors that draw me into music, cf. Partliament-Funkadelic, the Residents, the Art Ensemble of Chicago,
2. Can you explain how you found yourself in the position you're in now to promote underheard music?
3. Was there ever a social aspect in being interested in music for you? i.e. playing records for friends, hanging at record shops or shows?
Always. From the guys at the record store in Springfield, IL, that shaped my middle school and high school listening to playing music with friends to swapping cassettes to going to shows, absolutely. Maybe that’s the answer to #2. Growing up in the Midwest pre-Internet, the avenues for learning about music were a few magazines and, primarily, friends and acquaintances. I suppose that inclination led me to start writing about music (I started doing a weekly review column for a weekly newspaper when I was about 14) and to start doing radio when I was in college. I found myself in the position I’m in now to promote underheard music by wanting to promote underheard music.
4. Do you consider what you do a business, a passion, or a moral imperative?
Now that’s a good question. Business? Barely. Moral imperative? That seems a bit strong. So I guess that leaves passion, but business would be nice.
5. Do you have a ritual around listening to a recording?
I used to have many, the whole procedure of knowing a release date in advance, buying a record the day it came out (buying XTC’s Mummer and REM’s Murmur on the same day: the receipt listing them both was taped to my record trunk for years), going straight home and listening to the whole thing immediately while examining the cover, lyric sheet, liner notes. Today’s influx of webstreams appeals too much to my fickle nature and often eclipses methodical listening. It’s often only once I leave home donning headphones (or when I have a deadline looming) that I listen to a record beginning to end. I love that nations and generations of music are all at my fingertips, but it is true we place greater value on what we have to work harder to get. Isn’t it?