Monday, July 27, 2015

Jerry Garcia + symphony orchestra

I'm not talking about that Warren Haynes + symphony tribute thing, and I'm not talking about the Dead Symphony #6 from a few years back.  It seems that Garcia himself was planning on performing orchestral pieces?  That was news to me when I stumbled upon this.  On 9/17/93 Garcia and David Grisman did an interview for NPR in New York to promote their new Not For Kids Only album -- the Dead were in the middle of their fall '93 Madison Square Garden run, and Garcia & Grisman had been on Letterman two nights before.  During the long interview, an orchestral project that was apparently in the works comes up twice in passing.  The recording circulates (here's the info file), although it's a pre-FM recording of their studio feed and not of the remote interviewer, so all you hear are their answers, not the questions. 

First, in response to a question about their arrangement of "Shenandoah" (track 8 @6:58):
Grisman: Jerry's commissioned me to write a guitar concerto for him, or some such orchestral piece of music.  I sort of thought that "Shenandoah" would sound good with a string section, so I thought I'd try and write a chart for it.

And again, in response to a question about the various styles that they play (track 12 @6:24):

Grisman: Well, we haven't played with orchestra -- I mean Jerry's about to do that --
Garcia: Yeah I'm about to break into that world… I'm doing this thing with a local symphony orchestra… I'm getting some things written, David's writing one of them, six or seven or eight pieces that are short pieces for me and a symphony orchestra.  They'll all be different, stylistically I mean, and I'm not sure what they're gonna be like, but that's the format, and the idea is just that I want to be able to play with a symphony orchestra.  Actually, the conductor of this symphony, the Redwood Symphony down the peninsula in San Francisco, asked me if I'd be interested in doing some collaboration of some kind.  I got thinking about it for a while and thought this'd be an interesting to do, so it's gained momentum and it's now the stage of the various composers who are involved are starting working on pieces.  They'd be short pieces like 5 to 7-8 minutes long, something along those lines.  But I'd like to be able to build up a repertoire of these things so I could do them with orchestras anywhere in the world… Well I don't know whether I'm gonna have white tie and tails or not.  I suppose if I really had to.
Grisman:  No, actually everyone in the orchestra is going to be given black t-shirts and sweat pants.

Whaaat?  Both of them had deadpan responses to spare that morning, but this doesn't sound like he's being sarcastic.  I don't remember seeing any mention of this anywhere before.  I wonder if any actual music was ever written and, if so, what happened to it.  Anyone?

This article on the Redwood Symphony from Sept 1995 mentions, "There had also been plans for a joint concert with the Grateful Dead until the death of Jerry Garcia.  Garcia's [first] daughter, Heather, is one of the symphony's violinists."  Fascinating. 

For now, though, this is what we've got.  If you haven't heard it in a while, it's a real beauty:

Thursday, July 23, 2015

"finally, white people can play!"

I stumbled back upon lightintoashes' excellent Latvala tribute page and noticed an excerpt from this interview about his own musical beginnings as a fan.  Here's the full quote about how he started off listening to R&B and gospel:

I started going to gospel concerts at Oakland Auditorium, which became Henry J. Kaiser.  Every year, they would have all the best gospel groups in the country: the Mighty Clouds of Joy, the Swan Silvertones, the Soul Stirrers, the James Cleveland Choir.

You'd go into the auditorium, and there would be all black people in their Sunday finest, bright colors, and hundreds of ushers in white gloves.  You'd wonder what that was about - and then you'd see people get the spirit, and go into epileptic seizures.  These ushers would pick them up, carry them out into the hall, fan them, and carry them back in, when they came back to their bodies.  I saw this one guy run from the back of the auditorium straight down the center aisle, and dive headfirst into the stage.  I said, "That's what music is supposed to do - move you."  Gospel music did it.

Music became my life.  Then when I was in my fifth year of college, about to graduate, wondering what I was doing, I went to my first Dead show, the Trips Festival in January of '66, and I knew that that's where I was supposed to be.  Thereafter, more music started happening, and I thought, "Finally, white people can play!"

Not sure where I want to go with that just yet -- lots to think about regarding race, performance, response to music as an experience, and more.  For all I know, some Dead scholar may have plowed this field already, and I haven't bothered to look yet -- but I'm always interested at thinking about the Dead as an "American phenomenon" specifically in terms of race, and I might as well use this blog as a journal of my thinking about this.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

like jazz, but boring (Slate on the Dead)

I have a few friends obsessed with Slate magazine's Culture Gabfest podcast, which I've enjoyed on occasion in the past.  One directed me to the latest, which covers the Grateful Dead in one segment.  I'm not much of a podcast guy in general, but I figured it was worth tuning in to see what the educated post-hipster literati had to say about the Dead's legacy and farewell shows.  The GD segment starts @16 minutes in:

Turns out, they've got almost nothing.  Ostensibly the topic is the Dead as a "tribal" music (ie, you're in the tribe or not in the tribe, with no one on the fence) and what about the music makes it so appealing/important for the tribe members.  Not a bad premise, I guess (though not one that I fully agree with), but they quickly slide into a very well-plowed rut of Dead criticism: every song is endlessly long, their albums are all worthless, they were well past their prime in the 80's, they were occasionally great and usually bad, their cult of fans were either fratboys or hopeless 60's burnouts.  Slate's in-house Deadhead is brought out to speak on the Dead's behalf and eagerly talks about tapestries of sound, dreamscapes, and psychedelic wallpaper, is apologetic for the bands' faults (my god, he even cracks the joke about what deadheads say when they run out of pot), and continuously refers to their music as noodling.  The hosts talk about shibboleths and rib on the in-house Deadhead for creating a three hour playlist of Dead jams for them to suffer through.  You can imagine the rest.

I'm always intrigued about the responses to the band in 21st century forums of popular culture where the band and/or its following have relatively little (or none) of a foothold.  20-30 years ago, you knew exactly what the response was going to be.  My own unresearched impression is that in the past decade, the contemporary music press has at least come around to the idea that there was a lot more to the Dead than what met the eye in the 80's-90's.  I'm talking about contemporary publications like The Wire, Pitchfork, that kind of thing, not older ones like Rolling Stone or even the New York Times.  I don't want to wander too far into vague generalities about how the Dead are viewed/received by critics of pop culture today, but I was disappointed and honestly a little surprised that a publication like Slate would be so lazily stuck in the past with their treatment of a band that, in Slate's own words, is a great American institution.

I'm going to listen to 7/18/72 right now to get the fuzz out of my ears.  Endless tapestries of sound!

Thursday, July 2, 2015

debutante blues

I can't think of a better thing to come along right on time for this weekend's 50th anniversary bananapalooza:

Hey now!  I mean, really:
working undercover with a boar hog's eye?
I'm going to go ahead and presume that the punch went undosed that night.

a little bit more on Stockhausen

When I said "Stockhausen was a big influence on pretty much everybody," I was really thinking about the Beatles, and Light Into Ashes reminded me about Miles Davis as well.  Paul McCartney was one of Stockhausen's more famous fans, and his influence on the Beatles (starting with "Tomorrow Never Knows") was even acknowledged on the cover of Sgt. Pepper.  This fine piece by Alex Ross does a nice succinct job of mapping the influence more specifically.

I dug out the two books that I'd seen connecting the Dead with Stockhausen: Alex Ross' excellent The Rest is Noise and Mark Pendergast's The Ambient Century both make passing mention of Stockhausen's lectures at UCLA in 1966-67 that were attended by "members of" the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane (Ross 474, Pendergast 54).  While I'd bet that Phil Lesh was the Dead's chief representative (he had already been studying this stuff prior to joining the Dead anyway), that still seems like a thread worthy of investigation.  Stockhausen himself also apparently took in some concerts at the Fillmore.

LIA also pointed out that Garcia himself shows no sign of having listened to anything like this, whereas Lesh and Weir have mentioned classical influences in interviews.  At the risk of sounding like even more of a dilettante, I'll suggest that music like Stockhausen's Kontakte may not need a lot of repeat listenings to completely re-wire one's sensibilities, particularly if one is possibly under the influence of a psychotropic substance like LSD.  Unlike, say, John Coltrane, who's impact in live performance was certainly just as visceral and potentially life-changing (cf David Crosby's great story), figuring out exactly what his band was doing probably required you to sit down and listen repeatedly to the record -- which is apparently what various members of the Dead did, Garcia included.  Certainly there is far more to music like Stockhausen's than one will ever appreciate at first listen (not that I know what it is yet), but I don't know that much of the internal workings of something like Kontakte would have really impacted the Dead.  My guess is that, outside of Phil Lesh (who, again, was already well-studied in this kind of music), no one was sitting down with the scores for this stuff and incorporating those techniques into the Dead's own musical approach.  Outside of Anthem of the Sun and Aoxomoxoa, there really wasn't much experimentation with tape loops and electronics, was there?  And by 1968, that influence was probably more directly traceable to the Beatles than to Stockhausen himself.  I'm also putting aside Seastones and Phil & Ned for now; clearly Ned Lagin owed a great deal to Stockhausen.

I would think -- and I'm just guessing here -- that someone like Garcia could have spent a couple of evenings bugging out over a record like Kontakte and then never intentionally listened to it again.  But that could have been enough: it still could have had a profound impact on his still relatively fresh and still-expanding conception of music.  I can see how just a couple of listens could prompt the kind of thinking that led to the Feedback meltdowns of the 60's, the sparse interior jams in the 1969-1970 era Dark Stars, that sort of thing.

edit: I went back through David Malvinni's The Grateful Dead and the Art of Rock Improvisation (2013), and he touches on Stockhausen a bit in one of his chapters on Dark Star, although not really in a way that answers any of my questions.  In short: 
  • Tom Constanten actually studied with Stockhausen in 1967, prior to joining the Dead.  That experience rubbed off directly on Anthem of the Sun [although maybe more in theory than in practice; I always had the sense the Anthem sessions were pretty chaotic].
  • Lesh was a devout admirer of Stockhausen, modeling his own early (pre-Dead) orchestral writing on Stockhausen's work.  Lesh also "ran the controls" for performances of Stockhausen's tape compositions.
  • "'Kontakte' is spatial music with swirling electronic effects, based serially on the placement of speakers in a room for its full effect; it clearly is the sonic godfather of the Dead's concept of 'Space,' a rhymthically free region relying on electronic effects both within sections of pieces like 'Dark Star' and as the middle point of the second set after Drums." (Malvinni 107)
  • There's another mention of members of the Dead attending Stockhausen's 1966-67 lectures (at UC Davis, according to this source, not UCLA), but no further details.
  • Stockhausen redefined his music as "intuitive" and "beyond improvisation," embracing the belief that humans were on an evolutionary cusp of experiencing universal consciousness, telepathy, etc.  The Dead (and Lesh in particular) embraced similar ideas of group-consciousness (both with each other and with the audience), though that seems more like a parallel aesthetic and less like an influence.
  • Stockhausen and his students may have attended the 4/24/72 Dusseldorf show… that's according to Rock Scully's book, though, so a grain of salt for that one.
So still not much in the way of specifics, beyond Kontakte begetting all the weird stuff in Dark Star, Space, etc.  I wonder if there are transcriptions or notes of Stockhausen's lectures?

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

a little light listening: Stockhausen, Herbie Hancock

A friend came by last night for a little listening session with a handful of German electronic records, including Stockhausen's seminal work Kontakte (the 1968 Candide lp, if it makes a difference).  I think I'd heard it before, probably in a cursory "isn't that interesting" way during some college music survey class, but oh man, my mind was good and thoroughly blown by it last night.  One of my summer projects is to read and listen up on Stockhausen.  I know he's a big deal, but my firsthand exposure to why he's a big deal is pretty scant.  Time to do some homework! 

I also then remembered that Phil Lesh recommended Kontakte, in the same breath as Ives' 4th Symphony and Coltrane's Africa/Brass, when asked for some pieces of music that deadheads should be checking out.  Stockhausen was a big influence on Lesh and the Dead, but just saying that is kind of a truism: Stockhausen was a big influence on pretty much everybody.  The Stockhausen/Dead connection is worth some deeper excavating, but I'm not going down that rabbit hole right now.  Later, maybe.

After my friend left, I was in a electronic state of mind, so I had a nightcap with the atmospherically weird and wonderful "Water Torture" from Herbie Hancock's Crossings, the second album by his groundbreaking band Mwandishi.  Then I also remembered another off-hand link between the Dead and Stockhausen, via Hancock himself.  A few months ago I'd read his new-ish autobiography, Possibilities, and there's this bit when he's talking about the first time he heard Stockhausen:
"When I first heard those sounds [Stockhausen's earlier piece Geseng der Junglinge], I felt drawn to them, though I didn't really investigate how he'd created them, since I wasn't interested in making electronic music myself.  Stockhausen's work was often categorized as classical, but it fell on a continuum of avant-garde music that intrigued me, a continuum that stretched from Stravinsky and Bartok all the way to Jerry Garcia." (Hancock, 104-105)
OK then!  It's not often you see ol' Jer casually mentioned in the same company as Stockhausen, Stravinksy, and Bartok.  It's even more surprising because Hancock mentions throughout his book that he very rarely kept up with what was happening in rock & roll at all (although nowadays he's no stranger to crossover collaborations with all kinds of rock/pop stars).  The connections between Hancock and the Dead are actually pretty thin: I'm sure some of the band were aware of Hancock's music, and the Garcia/Saunders band shared a bill with Hancock at least once, but I think that's about it in terms of actual links.  A couple of other amusing things jumped out at me while reading Hancock's book, though:
  • Besides being a serious gadget-head, Hancock was also a taper: he taped a lot of Miles Davis Quintet gigs on his own (and tells a funny story about how Miles would scowl at him as he crawled under the piano to set up his mics as the gig was starting).  Hancock says that his soundman recorded most performances by the astounding Mwandishi band (circa 1970) and that the band would relisten to them obsessively, but all those tapes were stolen out of their van one night in NYC.  I guess that explains why all of the circulating recordings of the group are from 1971 and later. 
  • The Mwandishi group lugged around a $10,000 state-of-the-art portable quadrophonic sound system (circa 1971) so as to not be stuck with whatever old PA the club happened to have.  I don't know for sure, but I'm guessing this was still relatively rare for most touring musicians and unheard of for a jazz group in 1971.  Another book on Hancock's Mwandishi period (Bob Gluck's You'll Know When You Get There) also talks about the extremely high quality of Hancock's PA system.  Sound familiar, anyone?
  • Carlos Santana was invited to play on the Crossings album, but he couldn't hang with the music.
Stockhausen, the Grateful Dead, Herbie Hancock.  Where was I going with this?  Great minds think alike, I guess.