Tanya Tagaq: Animism (pt. 1)

tagaq

Dear Matt:

This week, you’re getting an album that I have absolutely no idea how you will respond to. Seriously, this could go to either extreme. Because Tanya Tagaq is not an artist who inspires bland indifference. Your assignment is Animism, Tagaq’s much remarked-upon third album. You know this album by reputation from its historic Polaris Prize win, where it beat two of Canada’s most significant musical exports: Drake and Arcade Fire. Rightly so.

What you’ll be hearing is, in my view, one of the most remarkable musical fusions in recent years. What I hear on Animism is a blend of industrial electronica and noise art, with a generous dash of free jazz and — most crucially — a variant of Inuit throat singing that only one person in the world can do.

As you’ll know if you’ve read anything in the Canadian music press in the last two years, Tagaq is an Inuk icon. Her vocal technique is derived from a traditional style of throat singing where two women face each other and sing together. Tagaq’s innovation was finding a way to produce those sounds on her own. And, you know, incorporating them into industrial music.

Tagaq is an intensely political artist and an eloquent commentator on aboriginal issues. (The tweets she sent out after the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation commission came out are an education in themselves.) As such, most of what’s been written about her music has focussed on the political elements of her art. That’s a valid and important approach to take — far be it from me to sideline that aspect of what Tagaq does.

But the side effect of that approach is that Tagaq sometimes doesn’t get the credit she deserves as a musician and an aesthete. The fact that Tagaq’s music relates deeply to her heritage and the current political struggles facing aboriginal peoples in Canada is a significant part of why she and Animism are great. But it’s also just massively good music, when you’re in the right headspace for it. It’s got drama and tension and changes mood on a dime. It’s brilliantly paced, with slow burns and payoffs strategically distributed throughout. And it has that timbral variety I was talking about last week.

So: a bit on what you can expect to hear.

Animism is anchored around a central trio of musicians: Tagaq, violinist/producer Jesse Zubot, and drum virtuoso Jean Martin. There’s all sorts of stuff piled on top of them on most tracks: industrial-sounding synths on ‘Uja,’ operatic vocals by Anna Pardo Canedo on ‘Flight,’ horns and strings on the Pixies cover that the album starts with for some reason. (It really is a fantastic cover, though. One of those ones that nearly makes the original obsolete.)

But for me, the most satisfying moments on the album are on tracks like ‘Tulugak’ and ‘Damp Animal Spirits,’ where you get to hear the central trio performing basically unadorned improvisations. Tagaq is always in the lead, but the other two are always doing something interesting, too. Martin in particular gives one of the most entrancing drum performances I’ve heard in awhile.

Animism is not an album that goes out of its way to be likeable, much to its credit. Nonetheless, I’ve found myself loving it all the same. I think you will too, at least in parts. But I could be wrong. This is way the hell out there. Channel the part of yourself that thinks that ‘Night Swim’ is good music and you should be fine.

— Matthew

The Chemical Brothers: Further (pt. 2)

liftingmehigher

Dear Matt:

Alright. It’s past midnight on a Saturday; I slept in this morning; I’ve been idly passing the time all day. Basically, feeling great. Time to pour myself a wee dram of the Glenmorangie and check out these Science Siblings you keep going on about. Okay. (Ah, that’s nice scotch.) Going to start this right now.

***

Holy crap.

Well, I’m staggered. That had everything. Seriously, what doesn’t this album have? I’m glad you had me watch the video, because it only added to the sensory overload. There’s a famous editorial cartoon about Mahler (my favourite composer, you’ll recall) that I suspect is relevant here:

mahler-cartoon-1907

(The caption reads, approximately: ‘My god! I forgot to include the kitchen sink! I’d better write another symphony.’)

There is nothing I appreciate more than complete sensory overload. That is a characteristic that’s common across my whole taste profile, from music to movies to radio programs. To demonstrate how deep it goes, and by extension how well Further worked on me, I need to engage in a little musical autobiography. Bear with me.

The first music that I remember liking, way back when I was too young to make musical choices for myself and I just heard whatever my parents had on, was always either dominated by orchestras or synthesizers. It was slim pickings for orchestral music: usually either Andrew Lloyd Webber soundtracks or Yanni Live at the Acropolis — music that I categorically rejected as soon as I discovered Mussorgsky and Shostakovich. (I remain ashamed enough of these early taste indiscretions that I can’t even bear to link to Lloyd Webber or Yanni. This speaks more negatively about me than about either of them, I suspect.)

But the synthesizer selections were immediately more promising: I remember an immediate affinity for Vangelis — particularly his collaborations with Jon Anderson — and for Rick Wakeman. This led swiftly to an obsession with Yes, and subsequently to my entire adolescent identity.

But the thing that those early fascinations pointed towards — even the inauspicious pop orchestral stuff — was an obsession with what I’ll call timbral variety. The orchestral music had scores of different instruments with their own unique sounds working in tandem. The synthesizer music seemed to work towards the same goal with different tools. There was a ‘muchness’ to it, even when it was subtle and quiet.

And most of the music that I’ve intuitively loved over the years shares that same muchness. Prog was always partially defined by its expansion of the typical rock ensemble to include racks of keyboards, wind sections, auxiliary percussion and tape. Psychedelia is almost wholly defined by its sonic variety. The jazz I like tends not to be quartets and quintets, but rather stuff like Mingus, or electric Miles. And my preference in classical music has always been for huge orchestras used judiciously in the vein of Mahler, or indeed John Luther Adams.

Radiohead. Amon Tobin. Kanye. CHVRCHES.

It’s only comparatively recently that I’ve begun to appreciate music that operates with a smaller sonic palate: old-school rock, string quartets, combo jazz. And yes, punk.

I hadn’t heard the Chemical Brothers before, and I’m not at all well-versed in techno. All the same, listening to Further really felt like home. I may not have a tumultuous summer of 2010 to look back on, but I do have an entire life story scored by sonically massive, grandiose music like this. It felt like a walk through all of the elements I have ever appreciated in music in the past. I’m reminded of my brief dalliance with Tangerine Dream, much to my friends’ confusion. I’m reminded of the period when old Yes records were the centre of my universe. I’m reminded of the hours spent listening to Vangelis as a child and thinking ‘how does one guy make all those sounds?’

And the trip down memory lane culminates in an insight — a minor one, but an insight nonetheless: music has been the central throughline of my life because of its capacity to overwhelm.

The Chemical Brothers overwhelmed me. Basically, feeling great.

— Matthew

The Chemical Brothers: Further (pt. 1)

liftingmehigher

Dear Matthew:

It’s time for some more bleeps and bloops.

Earlier this summer, one of my favourite bands, the Chemical Brothers, put out a new record. It’s OK, I guess. It’s not bad. It’s got some great moments. But it didn’t floor me like the last time they put out a new album. That album came out in 2010, and it was called Further.

The Manchurian duo of Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons first turned heads in the early 90s as the Dust Brothers. But, since there was already an American production duo called the Dust Brothers, they swapped the Dust for Chemicals, and went on to basically invent a style of electronic music production that dominated the genre for the rest of the decade. They combined the more acidic, psychedelic aspects of electronic music with the sampling aesthetic of hip hop — hypnotic, spacey synths married with soul and funk samples and big, bombastic drums in a way that really hadn’t been done before. The style came to be called ‘big beat’, and it was everywhere. Think Fatboy Slim, think the Prodigy… basically, think the soundtrack to every video game and sci-fi movie from your childhood. You have the Chemical Brothers to thank (blame?).

They were also at the fore of the trend of electronic groups working with big-name guest vocalists from often completely disparate genres — perhaps most notably on the 1996 single that put them on the map, the absolutely bonkers ‘Setting Sun‘, which featured Noel Gallagher of Oasis fame*. This, combined with their genre-bending and often quite heavy sound, gave them (and others like them) a crossover appeal that electronic music didn’t really have before — it was now ‘OK’ for rock fans to listen to techno. (Or at least, techno that sounded like ‘Setting Sun’. Oof. That song still kicks my ass.) It also gave them a huge sonic palette to work with — they could be raw and abrasive, they could be lush and euphoric, and they could be anything in between.

All of these things combine to make their sophomore album, 1997’s Dig Your Own Hole, their ‘classic’ album, and indeed a landmark album of the genre and even the decade. But you’re not listening to to that album, or the one after that, or even the one after that. No, the album you’re listening to, Further, is their seventh studio LP.

Why? Because while Dig Your Own Hole is interesting because of what it meant for the genre as a whole, Further is interesting because of what it meant for the band. See, after the success of Dig Your Own Hole, the Brothers went on to make — and I say this as an absolutely massive fan of the band — four more albums cut from pretty much the same cloth. Big hooky first track. Guest vocals from someone famous. Brief return to breakbeat roots. Ravey dancefloor tune. Guest vocals from someone not famous at all. Psychedelicdrawn-out album closer (usually). Again, I love them, but I’ll be the first to admit that they were getting predictable. (Mostly.)

Right away, it’s clear that Further is a conscious effort to break away from the formula. Unlike literally every other Chem Bros album, it features no guest vocals at all (barring a few scattered lines from Massive Attack’s Stephanie Dosen). It’s only got eight tracks; none of them clock less than five mintues, and one of them (the second one, even!) is a whopping twelve. This is decidedly not an album of radio pop hits.

But what’s really cool about this album? The CD version comes with a DVD that features visuals for each song, created by Flatnose George, the production duo of Adam Smith and Marcus Lyall who have been doing the Brothers’ live visuals since the very beginning. They’re not music videos in the conventional sense; they’re abstract, experimental video art, forming a very loose visual narrative to accompany the album. Make no mistake, they are definitely intended to be displayed on twenty-foot-high screens at music festivals where everyone is on psychoactive drugs — but it turns out that Smith and Lyall’s style works when you scale it down to the album level, too. Part of this is that their style is so different from what you usually associate with techno music visuals — it’s not computer-generated fractals and laser beams, it’s mostly footage of real-world objects (including people) lit, shot and edited in extremely interesting and creative ways.**

TL;DR: as with ISAM Live, you won’t be listening to this album so much as watching it.

Until this album, the Brothers were kind of like a techno Quentin Tarantino. Their early work was revolutionary, and you still looked forward to their new releases, because you knew they would be good. But at the same time, you know it’s never going to blow anyone out of the water the way the older stuff did at the time — by its very nature, that kind of lightning can really only strike once. I don’t know that Tarantino has necessarily had a Further, but the Chemical Brothers have, and I love it. Five years later, it might still be my favourite album of theirs. How often do you get to say that about a band’s seventh album?

I don’t know. Maybe this album won’t floor you quite the way it floored me at the time. It’s certainly not embedded in your psyche as the soundtrack of your tumultuous summer of 2010. But it’s still a great record, and with your roots in old-school British psychedelia, I don’t think the Brothers will have to work too hard to win you over. So, pour a glass of your favourite beverage, dim the lights — or, if it’s daytime, rebuild your closet music cave — and get ready for a pretty wild ride.

— Matt

* You’re a Beatles fan. Does ‘Setting Sun‘ remind you of anything in particular? How about ‘I’ll See You There‘ (apologies for the stream quality), a song they released almost 20 years later? Don’t worry, these guys have some pretty deep roots in old-school British psychedelia, too.

** The Brothers have always had an interesting visual component to their work. The rise of big beat in the 90s also lead to the rise of abstract, high-production-value music videos for techno music, often by ‘auter’ directors like Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry. In 2011, they scored the fantastic spy-thriller-meets-coming-of-age film, Hanna. And, of course, those Further-style visuals have been part of their live show since the start. (Adam Smith directed a fantastic concert film, Don’t Think, documenting their show at Fuji Rock Fest in 2012.)

John Luther Adams: Become Ocean (pt. 2)

Become Ocean

Dear Matthew:

I don’t think you’re going to like this post.

Become Ocean is fine. It’s pretty. It’s interesting enough to listen to it ebb and flow, to build from silence to full blast and back again. But in the end, I have the same reaction to this piece that I did with the only other classic drone record I’ve listened to — Sleep’s Dopesmoker* — and it’s a question we’ve both posed on this blog before: What is this music for?

One thing this blog has caused me to examine about myself is the ways I like to experience music — and how that might affect my tastes more broadly, in a way I hadn’t really considered before. I think there might be a medium-is-the-message sort of component here, and if you’ll indulge me, I’d like to try to unpack it.

Generally, I listen to new music in only a few specific settings: while commuting and/or exercising (these have been one and the same for a while now, since I bike to work and almost everywhere else); while doing primarily rote and/or visual tasks, like cleaning or organizing or photo editing; or while playing the popular computer game StarCraft II. I also like to listen to music while I drive, cook, and do certain computer-based tasks, but I don’t like these situations for brand new music because I can’t devote enough attention to it and/or there’s too much background sound.

What I like about commuting/exercising, sorting/editing and StarCraft is that they don’t take a lot of processing power, or at least not all at once. (Not at my StarCraft skill level, anyway.) I find I can almost never listen to music while I ‘work’, because my work generally either involves writing and thus consumes essentially all of my available brainpower, or involves working with audio and thus precludes music listening altogether. I usually don’t even listen to music when I’m just surfing the internet, because I either won’t absorb what I’m reading or I won’t absorb the music, so I’ve realized at this point in my life that it’s a lost cause to try and do both. And even StarCraft isn’t perfect; if a skirmish gets particularly heated, I’ll completely lose the thread of whatever I’m listening to for a few minutes.

Now, what these situations all have in common is this: while listening to the brand new music, there is something else that is actively demanding at least partial attention from me. With the rote/visual tasks or the real-time strategy, I’m diverting at least some attention away from the music, and sometimes all of it for brief periods. Commuting/exercising is probably closer to ideal, particularly when public transit is involved, but while this avoids the problem of concentration lapses, you’re also competing with other sounds. Cars, people, wind noise if you’re on a bike — all of it makes it harder to pick up on details in the music.

The more I think about this, the less of a coincidence I think it is that my favourite music tends to be energetic, driving, loud, bizarre, cerebral, and other similar adjectives — my favourite music tends to be stuff that really commands attention. I think this may be due at least in part to the types of situations in which I generally consume music, combined with my obsessive personality. (I’m one of those people who keeps entire albums despite only really liking one song, and I almost always prefer to listen to entire albums versus songs on shuffle or in a playlist or whatever.) In other words, I think my taste is at least somewhat affected by the use I see the music as having for me. Simply put, I seem to generally want music I can bob my head to while doing other things.

So, with that in mind, let’s consider my original question about Become Ocean a bit differently: What can I use this music for? It’s not rhythmic enough for bike riding. It doesn’t work for StarCraft at all. It’s far too droney and atmospheric for the bus. What I ended up doing was listening to it at work where, as you know, I’m currently doing some glorified data entry, so it worked well enough for that. But really, I find that music like this is of only limited utility to me. There’s only so much data I have to enter, only so many photos to edit. And besides, rote tasks like that are great opportunities for music that is too cerebral — some lyrically dense rap, say — for more attention-demanding situations. For me, this music falls into the same category as bands like Mogwai or múm: bands I really like, but whose music I really only ever listen to in specific situations, like at three in the morning on a deadline and I need something besides the silence to keep me clinging to consciousness.

I don’t know, maybe it’s my fault. Maybe I’m not approaching the music on its own terms. I mean, this piece clearly isn’t meant to be a workout mix, or a video game soundtrack. I’m sure it’s spectacular live. And I realize that it’s incredibly selective and hypocritical of me, given that one of my favourite musicians recently released an EP of moody space music, and I love it. But even though it’s selfish, the reality is that this kind of music is of limited use to me just because of how, why, and where I tend to listen to music, and I think that might be why I find it hard to get especially excited about.

All of this is to say: it’s fine music. But I think I understand your response to the Micronauts a lot better now.

But hey, speaking of workout mixes and long compositions, I think you’ll really like your next assignment.

— Matt

*OK, I guess it’s kind of obvious what a record called Dopesmoker is for.

John Luther Adams: Become Ocean (pt. 1)

Become Ocean

Dear Matt,

I’m still reeling from my unexpected reaction to the Offspring. I’m assigning you orchestral music to rebuild my sense of self.

In your response to my Brooklyn Rider assignment, you thanked me for starting you out with a quartet, since it lacks the flash of a soloist or the bombast of an orchestra. And, while I may chafe at those characterizations of venerable art music genres, you’re clearly right on both counts. I mean, the first ensembles that we could recognize as orchestras developed in the only place where they feasibly could have gathered the forces: 17th-century Central European royal courts. It doesn’t get more bombastic than that.

But at the same time, thank god that art is like that sometimes. Occasionally, when you put a creative genius at the helm of truly massive forces, great things happen. I don’t want to live in a world without Ben-Hur, or My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, or BioShock Infinite or any of the other great decadent works that obviously had huge amounts of money poured into them. I think that the symphony orchestra is one of the best things that humans have ever invented. And, the fact that the logistics and finances of it dwarf those of a chamber group is part of the appeal.

To wit, here is the greatest contemporary argument for why orchestras are still a good idea: John Luther Adams’ Become Ocean.

Adams has been the composer of the moment since he won the Pulitzer for Become Ocean last year. He’s lived in interior Alaska since 1978, and all of his music is written as a response to that landscape. This is a guy who used real-time data taken from the position of the sun in the sky, the fullness of the moon, the presence of minor seismic events, and the strength of the Aurora Borealis to produce a computer-driven audio installation at the University of Alaska.

But, as conceptual as Adams’ music can get, it never veers into territory that makes it unappealing to listen to. It’s powerful, cerebral stuff — but never obscurantist. Adams cites some frightening figures as influences: the player piano innovator Conlon Nancarrow, stochastic musician Iannis Xenakis, and that arch-avantgardist John Cage.

But possibly his most important influence was Morton Feldman, who practiced a sort of alternative minimalism that focusses on creating spare, spacious music rather than the driving rhythms of Steve Reich and Terry Riley. For my money, his Rothko Chapel is one of the most gorgeous pieces of the 20th century. And Adams’ music sounds a lot more like Rothko Chapel than anything by Cage or Xenakis.

(Around this point, it’s traditional to explain that there are two well-known American post-minimalist composers named John Adams. John Luther Adams is not the guy who wrote the hit opera Nixon in China. That’s John Coolidge Adams. He got famous first, so he doesn’t need to use his middle name in his credits.)

Become Ocean is Adams’ reflection on the rising sea levels caused by climate change. As Adams put it himself, in one of the more succinct program notes you’re ever likely to read: ‘Life on this earth first emerged from the sea. As the polar ice melts and sea level rises, we humans find ourselves facing the prospect that once again we may quite literally become ocean.’

Clearly, instrumental music is a strange medium by which to approach such specific themes. But, Adams isn’t being didactic in this piece. He’s doing what modern composers do best: expressing vague notions, sensations and anxieties by way of sound.

The work is a single, 42-minute composition (I know, I know, I know) for large orchestra. It is purely textural music — I believe that when I first discussed this album with you, I described it as ‘drone music for full orchestra.’ I basically stand by that. But as with the inventor of drone music, Richard Wagner (not trolling, listen to this), Adams employs a wealth of textural effects that intermingle to bring the music to crashing peaks and tense troughs — brought to life beautifully in this premiere recording by the Seattle Symphony and their brilliant musical director Ludovic Morlot.

Certainly, Adams would never deign to incorporate anything so vulgar as a melody. But I think that the side of your taste persona that’s into droney electronic music (a taste attribute that we share) will also appreciate this different sort of droney music — a drone made more vibrant for being played on acoustic instruments and orchestrated by a master. Feel free to zone out during this music. It’s approachable on a number of different levels of attention.

One of these days, I’ll assign you some proper core orchestra rep. But as much as I love Beethoven, Mozart, Tchaikovsky and Brahms, they’re not coextensive with what is erroneously called ‘classical music.’ John Luther Adams is, to me, just as central to that tradition. I hope you enjoy this.

— Matthew

P.S. This New Yorker profile of Adams by Alex Ross is one of my favourite pieces of music journalism. Just, as an aside.

Bryce Dessner & Sō Percussion: Music for Wood and Strings (pt. 2)

Dessner

Dear Matthew:

You’re right — this is pretty good.

I have to admit, though, that it wasn’t quite what I expected from a group that describes themselves as a percussion ensemble. I mean, I get that a dulcimer or dulcimer-like instrument is technically percussion in that you play it by hitting it, but there aren’t really any drums to speak of on this record. Which was a bit disappointing, because I love me some drums.

I don’t really know or care that much about the National. I think I listened to their album Boxer in undergrad once when it was the hot new thing that all of my indie rock friends were into, but I don’t remember it doing much for me. So, I can’t really say if this is ‘in keeping’ with Dessner’s earlier work or anything. But what makes good indie rock and good minimalist percussion ensemble music seem to be pretty different worlds. I guess I could give the National another go? I mean, a lot of people like them, so they have to have some redeeming qualities, presumably.

I do definitely see the minimalism you’re talking about. This isn’t a concerto or a suite or anything — this is definitely one 35-minute-long song. It’s always fun to hear a leitmotif come around again, to hear a familiar sound being recontextualized again and again. (In fact, a lot of the reasons I enjoyed this pieces are reasons why I like Bleep to Bleep so much. I’m not sure how you’ll feel about me saying that.) And whatever mode the piece uses (you’ll have to tell me this part, it’s been literally more than a decade since I did any music theory) is very dynamic and epic-sounding.

Aurally, this piece reminds me a lot of an Icelandic band called múm, if you’re familiar with them at all. I can’t really say why, because now that I listen to them side by side they’re actually quite different. But they have similar characters, if that makes sense? I don’t know. They’re both the kind of music I like putting on at three in morning when I’m up late working on something in my dimly lit room and the rest of the world is asleep.

The main other type of music I go for in that situation? Post-rock. Are you into post-rock at all? Mogwai, Explosions in the Sky, that sort of thing? In fact, I put it to you that Music for Wood and Strings is, itself, a post-rock song. I put it to you that this is the kind of music Mogwai would make if you gave them Dessner’s chord sticks. I think I know what your next assignment is.

Well, your next next assignment. Confession: while I do definitely love M.I.A. and did want to assign her, Kala also doubles as a setup for your next assignment. I hope you’re ready for some soothing island rhythms…

— Matt

Bryce Dessner & Sō Percussion: Music for Wood and Strings (pt. 1)

Dessner

Dear Matt,

Let’s have a change of pace. This week, you’ll be listening to something brand new.

Bryce Dessner is the guitarist from The National (the band, not the newscast), a group that I think you and I have about equal experience with — that is, not much. However, Dessner has been on my radar for a while in his other capacity as a composer. He’s written music for the Kronos Quartet, Bang on a Can, and even the LA Phil. Nothing I’d heard of his really hit home — until this past May.

Music for Wood and Strings is a 35-minute composition for the New York percussion quartet Sō Percussion. Sō is a group with a similar spirit to our old friends Brooklyn Rider. They fall broadly under that nebulous umbrella of ‘art music’ — they’re a bunch of Yale grads — but they’ve got a sense of adventure and a penchant for working with composers on developing new repertoire. (I’m especially fond of their recording with Canadian composer Nicole Lizée.)

This collaboration with Dessner has the added dimension of being written for entirely new instruments. Dessner and the instrument maker Aaron Sanchez (from the DIY pop duo Buke and Gase) designed a contraption that they’ve creatively named the ‘chord stick.’ It’s kind of like an amplified hammered dulcimer that you’re meant to approach much more as a percussionist would than a guitarist. Sō strikes their four chord sticks with everything from drum brushes to the pink erasers at the ends of lead pencils.

I’m not going to say a whole lot more, because I’m still processing this music myself. I have to say, though: a few listens in, I’m totally sold. This is the best new music I’ve heard all year. You’ll recognize a distinct influence from minimalism, but composers of Dessner’s relatively recent vintage tend to use the innovations of people like Steve Reich and Michael Nyman as one ingredient in a more complex stew.

I think you’re going to like this. I’ve already recommended it to a few people, and I’ve only had positive responses. I wonder how your first impression will compare to mine?

— Matthew