Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Pen Friend

... a cheap modern cartridge pen by Parker or Sheaffer will last you for years, and write unhesitatingly with a consistent line every time you pick it up.

Ciaran Carson, The Pen Friend

Ciaran Carson's The Pen Friend is an epistolary novel whose narrator, Gabriel, is a collector of vintage fountain pens. Each letter contains a discussion of the pen or pens he uses to write the letter, and the book gradually becomes a celebration of fine writing—meaning fine handwriting, and the tools used to produce it. So it was with great pleasure that I read Gabriel's admission, late in the book, that the beautiful pens he loves so are actually not very good tools for writing. In fact, he admits, cheap modern pens are much better tools than his collection of older, more elegant pens. The modern ones may be boring, but they write better.

Fortunately, Carson's reflective novel is anything but boring. As with his Fishing for Amber, the novel becomes a reflective essay on all kinds of subjects, while also spinning out variations on his wonderful verse novel For All We Know: Gabriel and his correspondent Nina are the two characters from that book—or at least versions of them. Each of Gabriel's letters is a response to a cryptic postcard from his former lover Nina, and the pictures on the postcards introduce new chapters, as do pictures of the pens Gabriel uses to write each letter. My favorite picture is the Vermeer:

Friday, June 17, 2011

Bright Eyes in Zurich, Bloomsday 2011

At one point in the Bright Eyes show at Kaufleuten in Zurich last night, Conor Oberst asked the audience if it was Thursday. I shouted several times that it was Bloomsday, but all he heard was Tuesday. Perhaps he doesn't know his James Joyce and was thus not aware of the significance of playing the city where Joyce died on the day that Ulysses takes place.

But that's almost the only negative thing I have to say about the show. The band opened with my two favorite Bright Eyes songs, but if I was briefly worried that things would go downhill from there, they proved me wrong. The arrangements were full of dynamic range, from quiet folk-picking passages to explosions of aggressive guitar and punk drumming, and Oberst's singing is just as good live as it is on record: sweet and childlike at times, then veering quickly into a kind of in-tune shouting that is quite hard to pull off.

I said "almost" the only negative thing above, because I do have one negative comment to add, even though it is one that has to do with my expectations about live music rather than the band's performance: they stick quite close to the album arrangements of the songs throughout, giving themselves little room to take the songs to other places. I found this especially ironic in "Beginner's Mind," which Oberst introduced as being about "keeping an open mind when everything is telling you not to," which made the tightly controlled arrangement seem to contradict the song's intent. Only in the three songs of the encore did the band begin to muck about with the studio arrangements to any significant degree—and to great effect, especially in an overwhelming version of "Road to Joy."

But that's me; clearly, Oberst and his cohort are aiming at playing tight arrangements well, and not at exploring more open arrangements. And they do play their arrangements superbly, so it's really only a minor quibble. (And I just happened to look up one of the songs to make sure I was remembering it correctly, and the arrangement on a live YouTube video from 2007 is radically different.)


At the Bottom of Everything
Four Winds
Haile Selassie
Take It Easy (Love Nothing)
Jejune Stars
Shell Games
Approximate Sunlight
Arc of Time (Time Code)
Cartoon Blues
Poison Oak
Old Soul Song (For the New World Order)
Hot Knives
Bowl of Oranges
Lover I Don't Have To Love
Beginner's Mind
The Calendar Hung Itself
The Ladder Song

Land Locked Blues
Road to Joy
One for You, One for Me

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Mystery Dance

On the cover of his first album, My Aim Is True, Elvis Costello strikes a Buddy Holly pose, but the album's music has less Buddy Holly in it—except for "Mystery Dance." Its stops and starts and driving shuffle rhythm recall "Not Fade Away," but Costell0's lyrics provide a completely different perspective on eternal love, the main subject of so many of Holly's songs. "Mystery Dance" shows how early rock-and-roll's euphemistic presentation of sexual desire in terms of dancing and romantic love leaves its listeners unable to just "do it."

The "mystery dance" of sex is what the singer wants to learn, but in the second verse, when an opportunity to try it out comes up, he and his potential partner are at a loss:

Well, I remember when the lights went out.
I was trying to make it look like it was never in doubt.
She thought that I knew, and I thought that she knew.
So both of us were willing but we didn't know how to do it.

The music offers Buddy Holly as a possible place to learn about such things, while the first verse turns to another possible source of information about love for teenagers:

Romeo was restless; he was ready to kill.
He jumped out the window 'cause he couldn't sit still.
Juliet was waiting with a safety net.
He said, "Don't bury me 'cause I'm not dead yet."

Romeo and Juliet are exemplary figures of teenagers in love who are misunderstood by the world around them: the outside world does not want them to "know how to do it." But even they do not actually show or tell their audience what to do when the moment of truth comes.

If classic literature and pop music fail, maybe pornography will help:

Well, I was down under the covers in the middle of the night,
Trying to discover my left foot from my right.
You can see those pictures in any magazine,
But what's the use of looking if you don't know what they mean.

In fact, it's not just pornographic pictures that don't help (in this case, not with sex, but with masturbation), but those "in any magazine": sexy advertisements don't do the job either.

Perhaps the singer ought to ask someone for help, which is what he does in the chorus:

Why don't you tell me 'bout the mystery dance?
I wanna know about the mystery dance.
Why don't you show me 'cause I've tried and I've tried but I'm still mystified.
I can't do it any more and I'm not satisfied.

In a sense, though, he does not ask for help: though he wants to know how to do "the mystery dance," he actually asks why nobody will tell him or show what to do. In a way, he's wondering why nobody has given him a sex-ed class!

The demo version of "Mystery Dance" contains one last verse that turns to one other possible source of information, beyond literature, music, and magazines:

I'm gonna walk right up to heaven dodging lightning and rods.
I'm gonna have this very personal conversation with god.
I said, "You've got the information; why don't you say so?"
He said, "Well, I've been around, and I still don't know."

Religion doesn't help either, and the singer is left with nothing to do but repeat his frustration while the song fades out: "I can't do it anymore and I'm not satisfied."

The singer's lack of satisfaction echoes another bit of earlier rock-and-roll, of course: "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction." Even Mick Jagger, though, does not offer any help to a frustrated young man: he talks about how unsatisfied he is because of how the radio and the television present images to him that do not satisfy him. Only in the song's final verse does he address sex specifically—but only to refer to a girl who turned him down! We all know that "Satisfaction" is about "the mystery dance," but it's no help for that song's frustrated singer either!


The Buddy Holly feel of "Mystery Dance" is already gone by the time the Attractions start playing it:

And these days, the song can sound quite different:

When Bob Dylan does that to his songs, people hate it!

Friday, June 10, 2011

Interview with Larry Grenadier

On Friday, May 6, the Overtone Quartet played at the Jazz Festival Basel, but with a different line-up than usual: instead of Dave Holland (whose name was on the tickets and the posters), Larry Grenadier was on bass, with Chris Potter on saxophones, Jason Moran on piano and keyboards, and Eric Harland on drums. After the fabulous concert, I had a chance to talk to Larry for a few minutes, and he agreed to do an e-mail interview with me about the show and his time in the Overtone Quartet.

AS: You replaced Dave Holland in his own band for the Overtone Quartet's recent European tour. How did this unusual situation come to pass?

LG: Dave has had some family matters to deal with lately that have kept him from going on the road. At the beginning of January, I subbed for him with the Overtone band in NYC at Birdland for a week. So this tour in Europe was the second time playing this music. It is an unfortunate circumstance but a great opportunity to play with this band.

AS: How much time did you have to rehearse the material? Was Dave involved in the rehearsals? If so, how did that work?

LG: We rehearsed for a few hours before the first NY gigs, just the four of us. The way the band works is that they play everyone's compositions. So we ended up playing songs by Chris, Jason, Eric and Dave as well as a song of mine. Like most bands I play in, rehearsal time is fairly minimal. After the particulars of the songs are worked out, like form, most of the development occurs on the bandstand. This is the way I like it.

AS: Did you play Dave's own parts in his compositions? Did his style influence how you played the improvised parts? (And by the way, was he one of your influences when you were younger?)

LG: Dave Holland was absolutely a major influence on me. He was and remains for me a great example of a modern bass player with all the attributes of the tradition. In the songs we played by Dave, there weren't specific bass parts. The parts I came up with were a reaction to what I felt the music needed with this particular group of musicians. This is my MO for all I do. I am using the bass to make the music sound the best I can. It all depends on the context.

AS: Had you played with Jason Moran, Eric Harland, and Chris Potter, the other members of the Overtone Quartet, before? If so, what was different, if anything, about playing with them in this context?

LG: I have played with all of them in a variety of situations. Chris I met soon after moving to NY in the early 90's. We played a lot together in the bands of Renee Rosnes, Al Foster and others, as well as playing on some of his early records. I have played with Jason and Eric with Charles Lloyd and some other contexts as well. They are some of my favorite musicians around, and in this group, the Overtone Quartet, it felt very natural to slip into the vibe. They are all completely open musicians, willing to let the music flow as it will.

AS: Do you think that "being Dave Holland" in his band will have any influence on your playing in the future?

LG: Every musical situation leaves some residue. This one being a completely positive one has left me more than a fair share of inspiration. Because this group is truly a collective, I never really felt like I was replacing Dave. I just took it as a gig with Chris, Jason and Eric. All I can hope for in the future is that I can play more with these great musicians and wish Dave and his family all my best.


AS (follow-up to the second question): How does this "development ... on the bandstand" work in practice? Was there a particularly memorable or striking example of such development in this particular gig with the Overtone Quartet that you could use to describe the process?

LG: What is happening on the bandstand with this group, but can also be said for all the bands I play in, is that a high degree of focus and perceptive listening enables almost telepathic exchanges to occur constantly. All music has this, but in my opinion, jazz music has it on the highest level. We are constantly feeding off each other. Musical decisions that worked last night might not be applicable the next night. Anything preplanned often leads to disaster. As William Burroughs said, "Nothing is true, everything is permitted." For example, on Dave's tune "Four Winds," after the melody is played, anything can happen. The solos, the feel, the length are going to be different each performance. I'm not sure if audiences always understand this. Sometimes a listener's expectations get in the way just as they can for the performer. A certain amount of openness is essential to stepping out of the way and letting the music be what it wants to be that night. If someone wants to hear the same thing played the same way each night or just like the record, there are plenty of better ways to experience that then to go to an Overtone Quartet concert.


My thanks to Larry for his comments—and to him, Chris Potter, Jason Moran, and Eric Harland for a fantastic concert. I hope to see them all again live soon!

And I hope that Dave Holland will be able to tour again this fall, as he is scheduled to appear in Basel in November with Pepe Habichuela.

Here's the Overtone Quartet in Wolfsburg a few days before the Basel concert:

Nonrepresentational dolls

The girl plays with nonrepresentational dolls. Her games are devoid of any narrative content, amusements that depend upon their own intrinsic form. If you make her a present of a toy, she will discard it and play with the box. And yet she will only play with a box that once contained a toy. Her favorite toy was a notion about color. She lost it in the snow. (Ben Lerner, "Angle of Yaw")

This prose poem from Ben Lerner's Angle of Yaw lightly stakes out and ironizes an aesthetics that is not its own: the aesthetics of "nonrepresentation," of the absence of narrative, of a formal game played for its own sake and not for the sake of expressing anything. This is the kind of art that leads to discussions that begin with the phrase "it's about ..." and then can apparently go anywhere they like without reference to the dolls, toys, or snow that make up the work. All that's left are the containers the work is or was in, and "a notion about color" that has in fact been lost.

A reading of this poem along these lines could begin with "it's about ..." and then talk about the aesthetics it describes. But the poem itself is representational, and it does have narrative content. So if it is "about" its aesthetics, it is not about the aesthetics that it describes—or at least it is about the limits of such an aesthetics. The poem celebrates the girl's play and thus apparently privileges an emphasis on form over content, but in its own shape, it is about both the box and the toy: its shape and form are fun to play with, but what really makes them fun to play with is their content, and the wonderful "representational" image of the creative girl.

As such, the poem "is about" the necessity of content, or perhaps the necessity of a relationship to content even in its absence: the nonrepresentational, the lack of narrative, the empty box, the notion of color lost in the snow—all these "forms" depend on their absent content. And what they once contained is also important: they have to have contained something worth playing with; otherwise, they themselves aren't worth playing with either.