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.


  1. Thanks for posting this. So much to unwind, but let me start with Hancock.

    Corry: "Gaylord Birch (drums) was well-known on the Oakland funk scene, but better known professionally as a drummer for The Pointer Sisters, Herbie Hancock, Cold Blood and others (including Santana, briefly)."

    So there's a 1 degree of playing separation between Garcia and Hancock via Gaylord Birch. That shared billing in Marin June 2, 1973 remains mysterious for what should have been a big gig, relatively speaking. I wonder if it even happened?

    His quote placing Garcia in that company is pretty amazing. If I were someone who, let's say, knew nothing about Stravinsky or Bartok or Stockhausen - hypothetically, of course. What would such a person read to get a good, possibly Garcia-relevant angle on them? I guess what I really need to do is learn something about the avant garde, more broadly. Or something.

  2. The Dead's relationship to modern-classical and electronic music remains distinctly understudied, at least in published works. I've written the most thorough study of what they got from Charles Ives (and Coltrane, for that matter) - but as for Stravinsky or Bartok or Stockhausen, there doesn't seem to be much to go on for now except some comments from Lesh & Weir on their influence. (And not a word from Garcia, I believe - he was much less into those genres.)

    By the way, Miles Davis was listening to Stockhausen obsessively circa 1972, which particularly influenced his On the Corner album. No particular Dead relevance there, though...I don't think that period of Miles had any discernible influence on them?

  3. @JGMF - right, I forgot about Gaylord Birch! I don't know that Birch did much playing with Hancock outside of the two Pointer Sisters album that he appeared on. Hancock talks in his book about the experience of sharing a bill with the Pointer Sisters (and Birch) serving as the direct inspiration for him to shift to a funkier, less avant-garde style of music (ie, Head Hunters). Hancock and the Pointers also shared the same manager, David Rubinson, who Garcia must have known through the San Francisco studio scene, since Rubinson was a big producer. For what it's worth, I would also think that Hancock was a sufficient enough presence (in terms of talent, exposure, and his interest in cutting edge equipment) to be well known to most serious improvising musicians around San Francisco.

    I can't provide much direction on 20th century classical music from the perspective of the Garciacentric listener, either. I'm still quite the layman in that realm myself. I can recommend Alex Ross' wonderful book The Rest Is Noise as an excellent historical overview of the various strands of 20th century (well, post-Romantic) "classical" music. That seems to be as good a place as any to start getting a sense of it.

    @LIA, re: Miles -- I have a hunch that Bitches Brew era Miles resonated far more with the Dead's own musical sensibilities than the Stockhausen-influenced era of On the Corner and beyond; it just seems too rhythmic and un-melodic for the Dead, and "abstract" in a way that they seemed to have little interest in, but that's just a guess. Miles made the rounds during the Fillmore era, but not much after the Fillmore West closed: he played once at the Frost in Oct 1972, and then for a week at the Keystone Korner in April 1974. I've always hoped that Phil or Jerry were at any of those performances, and that the more "out" improvisations from fall 72 or spring 74 were partially inspired by Miles' influence, but that's just very wishful thinking.

  4. You mentioned that you listened to "the 1968 Candide lp, if it makes a difference."
    Actually, it does. There are a couple different versions of Kontakte - the original, rather minimalist and purely electronic: (original)

    And an alternate version (also composed by Stockhausen in 1959, and using the same base electronic tape) with added piano & percussion, which sounds significantly different and is much more Dead-like: (piano)

    I recommend sampling both, to hear the transition from pure electronica to a soundscape similar to a Dead space.

    1. That's good to know! Thanks for the pointer.

  5. Garcia was asked by Joseph Territo in the August '82 Relix magazine interview, "On your first solo album, you included some electronic music. Now many people are doing it, but you seem not to have pursued it."
    Garcia: "It isn't something that I took up, really. With that record, I had a certain approach in mind, especially for the side that has stuff you could describe as electronic. You could describe it more accurately as audio collage. I don't see electronic pieces as songs. I wouldn't feel comfortable about having an electronic tune in and amongst more conventional music because it's not really a format that I'm comfortable with."