Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Music That Wants to Break You Down

It is summer! I have been reading a lot more than usual and writing a little more than usual, and I look forward to blogging about those things quite a bit more than usual. But weirdly, most recently, I've been finding myself listening to more music than usual--particularly older, experimental music.

The first is a piece I hunted down while writing a story about a fire, having happened to pull its concept out from the blurry memories of my high school music composition course. I remember our band director telling us (hiding his anger under a veneer of willful open-mindedness) about a composer who held a piano concert where they arrived on the stage, set fire to the piano, and left, leaving the audience to gasp, protest, and ultimately settle into their own chatter while the piano snapped its strings, collapsed on its keys, and burned to ash. The real story seems somewhat less incendiary (ha ha), as the composer, Annea Lockwood, chose an old upright piano beyond repair, and the people at the (I believe outdoor) concert probably knew that she was not a famous pianist and didn't come expecting etudes. It becomes somewhat less romantic when you realize that the real "music" of the burning piano is not intended to be the straining and crackling of the piano itself, but the conversation that surrounds it.

Here's a (heavily edited) couple of videos documenting a more recent performance:

But for my money, if you really want something that communicates the destruction and futility of art, you can hear what happens to a piano's insides by watching Yosuke Yamashita play one while it burns (he starts playing at 3:08, but the lead-up is worth it):

A few nights ago, Owen Pallett posted a link to a set he did for Domino Radio, and I was so taken by one song on the list, OOIOO's "Umo"--this wild, pounding, frantic incantation--that I decided to go find the video, which turned out to be a more engrossing experience than I anticipated:

Obviously, there's some images of destruction in here--trees being felled, the buck slipping down through the sands of the hourglass. There's tons of other symbols that I can't even begin to interpret. But the overwhelming experience of the song to me is one of desperation that ultimately achieves; the calling and crying seems to more or less conjure something at the end. Maybe even a renewal (if dancing, drumming wildlife can symbolize renewal).

It's fun to compare OOIOO's song with the piece it's covering, Roberto de Simone's 1976 "Secondo Coro Delle Lavandaie." The sort of electronic twang and fuzz is not gone, even though I'm fairly certain Roberto de Simone is not using anything electronic at all--just awesome drums. And there's a feral desperation to this one as well--both feel aboriginal in some way, ritual. Both seem to promise that, if you yell loud enough and long enough, whatever it is you have to have will come.

For my money, though--this live version is the purest, and the most worth watching:

The exhaustion that really performing a piece like this would cause is best showcased and dramatized here--you know by the end what's had to happen in the body to produce sound and rhythm of this duration and intensity. This is what happens when the body becomes a drum. This one is no incantation; it's a complaint, and so its art is made by wearing and breaking itself down--its formula, its rhythm, its instrumentation, its performer and character--until there's nothing left to go forward on. And even then, there's the sense that they could continue on, attaining nothing, making nothing, forever, like the piano with its strings and soundboard burnt away.

And I'm not sure if it's good or right to believe this way, or if it's a healthy part of me that believes it--but I think that this type of destruction is a kind of wondrous thing.

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