David Bowie: Blackstar

David Bowie is dead, but his shadow is a birthmark on the skin of music history that no amount of lasing can eradicate. On Blackstar, his influence has spawned a parody of itself in the final hour, each a mirror held to the other so that only infinity is left regarding itself in an echo chamber of autobiographical impulses. The latter are keys to understanding—or, to be more accurate, misunderstanding—the album’s 41-minute rupture, throughout which listeners are soberly reminded of an obvious fact: we are not David Bowie.

Indeed, what at first seems an antidisestablishmentarian blowing out of the popular candle becomes, via paroxysms of repetition, the opposite—which is to say, a full-body dip of self-awareness into the ocean of cultural artifacts to which he owed his success. As one whose career fed on a staple diet of reinvention, Bowie was by no stretch of canvas an artist who required imminent termination to paint a portrait of his origins. But while his fandom was obsessing itself over the comportments of his physical transformations, beneath his hood an engine of unprecedented horse power was mounting itself in preparation for Blackstar.

Like the album artwork, each song is the first of many interpretive layers. The star fragments along the cover’s bottom edge, for example, spell out B O W I E, but constitute more than a novel orthography. They are the measurement of a snake preparing to bite its own tail.

Blackstar

The title track suggests as much by its elliptical nature—rushing with urgency through its birth pangs, luxuriating in a primal midlife, and returning to form slowed by age and deterioration, all the while sharpening a legacy across grindstones of memory. As throughout the album, the lyrics in this massive incantation are only sustainable when we leave their details alone for what they are: architectural materials whose totality dominates their specificity. Take the opening lines:

In the villa of Ormen, in the villa of Ormen
Stands a solitary candle, ah-ah, ah-ah
In the center of it all, in the center of it all
Your eyes

Regardless of how one chooses to suss the significance of Ormen or to whom those eyes might belong, what matters is the doubled “In the center of it all,” which as far as I’m concerned is a tactile hinge to the sentences that precede and follow it. Does the candle or do the eyes occupy the center? In asking as much, we bind Bowie’s structure with the glue of curiosity. Instead of adding significant meaning, any further attempts to unmask such words—so far, at least—smack of self-congratulation. In any case, you, dear listener, are the only one whose interpretations matter.

The modality of “Blackstar” visualizes a cross that has been plucked from the center of the Earth and branded by a militant sun. A saxophone solo becomes its incarnate flail, a technology of such masochistic veracity that every note sliding off its tongue must be penned in curses. Or so they will seem to outsiders whose vocabularies have been veiledly tainted by promises of light in a global blackout. Bowie’s throat extends over a banister from a semi-divine outcropping, looking down on mortal creations—music not least among them—and spitting out the occasional leaf in need of binding. All of these come together in the charred book of such central interest in the attendant music video.

Rising strings embody nothing more than a comfort of having been heard, which on this day of reckoning might just as well be any death other than his own. In the eclipse, he crafts simulacra of judgment out of flesh and cultish ink, pulling vocal folds into noodles to be slurped up by the golden dawn. Thus he refracts the song’s title until it tastes like copper.

An intake of breath and expulsion of drums spins the bullet chamber to rest on “’Tis a Pity She Was a Whore,” a song of violence and smeared make-up. The lyrics, though more straightforward than their ancestors, nevertheless use rejection as a womb from which one tensile body emerges, wielding a caduceus of reeds. The nameless whore, whose quicksilver dexterity wrings Bowie’s falsetto dry, takes possession of his sex as if it were collateral damage in the ensuing flight of desperation, souvenir of a restless night. As the rasp of its conquest turns into failure, it bleeds a mixture of cigarette ash and whisky.

When in “Lazarus” Bowie sings “Look up here, I’m in heaven,” he may very well be rehearsing the end of an era, but to my ears the line is more admonition than invitation, a razor blade pulled across the wrist of his fame. The larger point is that no matter what shape his illness might take, there are things of which he can never be deprived. He has transported these things to a place where he can dance as he does in the song’s visual theater. The guitar grunts and crawls its way through the screen with all the portent of an all-seeing eye, while native instruments undermine resolutions of the flesh by their very need for the same.

In light of these parabolic denouements, the noir-ish “Sue (Or In a Season of Crime)” crashes into the foreground with the urgency of a car chase. It is a singular track not only for being the album’s numerical center, but also a collaborative effort with jazz composer Maria Schneider, whose sense of grandeur, realized in an earlier version with her eponymous big band, nevertheless remains active in this concentrated redux. A shuffling snare thrums a tightrope strung between vertical and horizontal guitar signatures, while an astonishing narrative cuts the sutures of a domestic caesura. The result is a family photograph dipped methodically in acid until only sky is left, hanging above the house where ego has been left to flay itself in defiance of the burn.

The seeming histrionics of “Girl Loves Me” are mostly composed of the Polari slang spoken in 1970s London gay clubs. This rambling yet strangely coherent litany of drunken escapades reaches far into the algae of youth with a self-deprecating squeeze. A play on words with words on play, it treats the stage of recollection as an edible substance. Little flips at the ends of verses—witness the refrain, “Where the f*ck did Monday go?”—are crescendo analyses in miniature, calculating missing time as if it were a source of income. More than ever, these are lyrics I would much rather swallow whole than parse for want of arbitrary mysteries.

If anything is this album’s leitmotif, it is the feel and texture of paper. And in the ambient introduction of “Dollar Days,” one almost hears it blush at the friction of contact. More than any other song of the set, this one drips with utter finality. As an attempt to forget all that Bowie cannot, it is, like our desire to claim every last unanswerable detail, a failure. But as a sketch of terminal cancer, it discloses more than any X-ray ever could.

The nostalgic synth arrangement of “I Can’t Give Everything Away” adds a layer of tissue in the interest of finishing this thing. It presents itself to us as a freshly paved road ready to be driven upon, even as it weeps at the thought of wearing down. Of course he can’t give everything away. Nor should he. For what else would grant us the pleasure of wading through his realism were it dressed in the ideology of perfection?

Here is an album not to be deciphered, for we may never crack its codes with any more assurance than their creator’s in pushing them from his mental cervix. Rather than unpack their secrets, we’d do better to let Bowie unpack ours. I can think of no more appropriate tribute to sprinkle over the ruins of his absence.

DB
(1947-2016)

Book Review: How To Write About Music

How To Write About Music

How to Write About Music isn’t a manual. It’s a crystal ball worthy of any aspiring music writer’s gaze. It doesn’t hold your hand from concept to copy, but arranges tools you’ll need to get there on your terms.

The essays are excerpted from magazines, books, blogs, and the prestigious 33 1/3 series, of which this volume is a part. Lack of familiarity with the series is all the more reason anyone who gives a wit about the craft should have it in hand. The table of contents reads like a musical composition in its own right. Each themed chapter reflects a rhythmic structure of essays preceded by an introduction and advice from industry leaders and followed by writing prompts to get your utensils moving. In addition to these are interludes, dubbed “The Go-Betweens,” offering advice on salient issues such as networking, information sources, and critical essentials. Within the latter I note a common theme of empathy, which might well be the most important quality to cultivate as a writer of any persuasion. Witness my own review of a Jordi Savall concert I attended in 2015, for which I balanced aversion to the performed with empathy for the performer.

To the list of writerly necessaries, I add my own: be fearless. There have been instances, especially when writing about a live concert, during which I felt conflicted about my reactions. Unlike an album, one doesn’t have the luxury of playing such an event over and over, digesting it for however long feels necessary before textually fixing its place in time. But as music writer Paul Griffiths once told me, “Sometimes your job is to confirm what the audience already knows.” It has indeed been my experience, assuming I’ve been open to what was happening on stage, that my readers—at least those who come forward—have tended to share my assessments. Have confidence in that. Your readers are likely to feel just as uncomfortable with a gushing review of a patently horrible concert than a haterly review of a stellar one.

Effective music criticism is not merely that which tries to convince you to experience the art in question but that which allows you understand why anyone else would. In this regard, Lou Reed’s piece on Kanye West’s Yeezus is emblematic. It may not turn you into a follower, and it may not even strengthen an existing fan’s respect, but it may just convince you to throw caution to the Westerly wind and take it for what it is. Reed does, of course, treat Yeezus as a musical object, but does so by situating it culturally and socially. A superb piece by Alex Ross on Radiohead in the “Artist Profile” chapter displays likeminded attention to detail in providing context for the band, as well as context for the context. It helps, too, that the anecdotal bits Ross includes are vivid, often humorous, and always relevant. Descriptive turns of phrase, used well, can provide the same function. A case in point is John Jeremiah Sullivan, who in his protracted musings on Axl Rose says so much about the Guns N’ Roses frontman with so little: “With the wasp-man sunglasses and the braids and the goatee, he reminds one of the monster in Predator, or of that monster’s wife on its home planet.” Another favorite in this vein is the article by Lindsay Zoladz on feminist punk outfit Pussy Riot’s visit to the Brooklyn Museum, of which the last line is classic characterization: “By the end of the week, I can’t decide if I’ve been in the presence of a group of real-life superheroes, or just getting to know a couple of down-to-earth Clark Kents.” Only a fan could have written this.

Everyone who ingests this volume will, I think, absorb more of one particular piece over the rest. For me, “Metal Machine Music: Composing With Machines” is the finest morsel. With his starkly metaphorical yet simpatico language, Brian Morton describes an internal landscape of technology and plugs the reader into it like a thirsty chip. Other notables abound throughout How to Write About Music. Highlights in the “Track-By-Track” section include a free dive into the antics of Taylor Swift by the prodigious Tavi Gevinson (only 17 when she wrote it) and Mary Gaitskill’s endearing love letter to B-Movie’s “Nowhere Girl.” A standout in the personal essay section is James Wood’s piece on Keith Moon. Even my label of expertise, ECM Records, gets due props in Rick Moody’s “On Celestial Music,” in which he cites Arvo Pärt’s Tabula rasa as a turning point in his engagement with so-called “serious” music. So-called alternative forms of expression are also given space to roam, and of them a snippet of the graphic novel on Black Flag by Marty Davis is fabulous.

Refreshing about this book is the variety of contradictory perspectives. Notice, for example, in the “Artist Interview” section that some advocate learning as little as possible about the artist in question while others encourage knowing everything inside and out (then forgetting it). This allows one to be adaptable to conversational turns. In the same section, Paul Morley notes that to write about music is to make myth, saying, “the best music writing generates great, billowing lies, elaborates the effective fantasy of great music, rather than confirming facts and meekly agreeing with dates, descriptions and existing classification.” On point, to be sure. Music writing is not a seeking of truth but a confirmation of its malleability. The axiom bears out repeatedly in the art of the interview, of which the book has more fine examples. Thomas Sayers Ellis’s conversation with Bootsy Collins is instructive. Before reading it, one need only look at the structure. Ellis’s short, occasionally single-word, sentences in bold, and long, rambling paragraphs from Collins reveal an interviewer who listens, sympathizes, and provokes. He merely shoots the cue ball and provides the carom for every pocketed ball thereafter.

Nearest to my practitioner’s heart is the section on blogs, the chosen authors of which confirm the combined importance of the internet and social media as bastions of where music criticism is headed. As an avid blogger with nearly a million words to his credit, I can only say: Don’t treat the blog as an erasable format. Though I will occasionally go back to old blog posts to fix grammatical or factual errors, I never radically alter content. A blog is a record of your evolution as a thinker. But because opinions can and do change, whenever my relationship to an album has dramatically deviated from first impressions, I do a “second look” review rather than rewriting the original.

If anything unifies this book, it is passion. The key is that its writers (and editors!) are passionate about what they love and about what they don’t. Charles Aaron’s essay on a failed performance by Hole, for example, describes the alluring car crash that is the widowed Courtney Love in such graphic detail that one yearns to have been there. That’s the power of great writing. Yet nowhere is passion so frontloaded as in the “Cultural Criticism” chapter, where one encounters a chunk of the 33 1/3 bestseller Let’s Talk About Love. Carl Wilson’s paean to Céline Dion is essential reading for anyone wanting to get into the business. To that end, the editors have kindly included a proposal section for those wanting to pitch book ideas during the publisher’s much-anticipated open calls.

In the end, one must remember that this book is geared toward writers of rock music. That said, its lessons will be enlightening for a classical and jazz critic such as myself. Whereas albums in those genres are somehow more immediate, popular albums require a longer period of gestation than I am used to. When I wrote, for example, about Katy Perry’s Prism, so far the only album of its kind that I’ve reviewed on this site, I had to sit with it for a full week of exclusive intake and research before I felt prepared to opine with confidence about an artist I’d never paid close attention to before. How to Write About Music, for its part, contains a technical analysis by Owen Pallett of Perry’s “Teenage Dream,” an insightful disclosure of technique as politic that revels in thick description. Such are the kinds of inner workings that only intimate knowledge can elucidate.

Hence a final point of continuity these writers touch upon but don’t feel the need to explicitly state: integrity applies not only to those who write music, but also to those who write about it. The eureka factor comes in being honest about one’s feels. For example, in his scrumptious piece on J Dilla’s Donuts, excerpted from the 33 1/3 volume of the same name, Jordan Ferguson describes the album as “really weird.” It’s not a phrase that would hold up in any academic court of law, but which nevertheless pulses with life. It is an unfiltered reaction, a bottle of good old tap water in a world of purified substitutes. Sometimes, one needs to drink directly from the faucet.

ECM @ Winter Jazzfest

For those of you in or near the New York City area, don’t miss an unprecedented two nights of American ECM artists at the New School’s Tishman Auditorium (63 5th Avenue, between 14th and 13th Streets) this Friday and Saturday, January 15 and 16. I’ll be there to review the entire event for All About Jazz. Below is the full schedule, along with a video statement from Manfred Eicher about ECM’s historical connections to the American milieu.

Friday January 15:
  6:00 – David Torn (solo)
  7:00 – Mark Turner Quartet (w/Avishai Cohen, Joe Martin & Marcus Gilmore)
  8:00 – Craig Taborn (solo)
  9:00 – Avishai Cohen Quartet (w/Jason Lindner, Tal Mashiach & Nasheet Waits)
  10:00 – Ches Smith / Craig Taborn / Mat Maneri
  11:20 – Vijay Iyer Trio (w/Stephan Crump & Marcus Gilmore)
  12:40 – David Virelles’ Mbókò (w/Román Díaz, Eric McPherson & Matt Brewer)

 Saturday January 16:
  6:00 – Michael Formanek’s Ensemble Kolossus
  7:20 – Theo Bleckmann’s Elegy (w/Shai Maestro, Ben Monder, Chris Tordini & John Hollenbeck)
  8:40 – Chris Potter Quartet (w/David Virelles, Joe Martin & Marcus Gilmore)
  10:00 – Tim Berne’s Sideshow (w/Ralph Alessi, Matt Mitchell, John Hébert & Dan Weiss)
  11:20 – Ralph Alessi Quartet (w/David Virelles, Drew Gress & Nasheet Waits)
  12:40 – Ethan Iverson-Mark Turner Duo

Giya Kancheli: Chiaroscuro (ECM New Series 2442)

2442 X

Giya Kancheli
Chiaroscuro

Gidon Kremer violin
Patricia Kopatchinskaja violin
Kremerata Baltica
Recorded December 2014 at Lithuanian National Radio and Television, Vilnius
Engineers: Vilius Keras and Aleksandra Suchova
Mixing and mastering at Emil Berliner Studios, Berlin by Rainer Maillard, Manfred Eicher, and Vilius Keras
Produced by Manfred Eicher
U.S. release date: November 6, 2015

“Despite the world’s obvious achievement, our planet is still torn by bloody contradictions. And no progress in artistic activity can withstand the destructive force that easily cancels the fragile process of construction. (…) I write for myself, without having any illusions that ‘beauty will save the world.’”
–Giya Kancheli

The words of a composer-in-exile who lives so deeply inside time that he creates outside of it. Kancheli speaks them not in the interest of putting forth a mission statement, but to assess the measure of his art against the metric of history, the last century of which has birthed some of its brightest galaxies and darkest nebulae. In the context of his personal astronomy, Kancheli seeks out vestiges of indifference in a world built on denial of the same. On this disc you will find no healing but the honesty of a mixed spirit. Surely, the music not only abides by such sentiments but also thrives on their shadows.

The 2010 title composition, first in a program of two, is scored for violin and chamber orchestra. Despite its perennial format, it reads neither like a concerto nor a tone poem, but rather a procession led by one who follows his own invisible nature. The feeling of inseparability is strong as these figures—nodes in a pathway of nerves—bond and separate. The bass drum rumble that opens their 23 prosaic minutes of communication signals the subterranean heart of it all, which by virtue of the shimmering strings that follow sews its raiment anew. As in the music of Valentin Silvestrov, the piano here adopts a commentary role. Its very involvement reveals an internal expanse rivaled in scope among his previous works perhaps only by Trauerfarbenes Land.

Violinist Gidon Kremer and his Kremerata Baltica handle every note with the admiration of a curator. Kancheli opines humbly about the musicians’ contributions and recognizes that the simplicity of his thematic moon shines by the light of many suns. In this recording, he dubs Kremer the “true author” of Chiaroscuro and he himself its “co-author.” The level of integration and respect achieved from both is something to behold with awe. Likewise, the distance and birdlike liquidity of Kremer’s high notes in the final phase.

Kancheli and Friends

At a slightly longer duration of 25 minutes, Twilight (2004) is scored for two violins and chamber orchestra. Kremer is joined by protégé Patricia Kopatchinskaja, last heard on ECM playing the music of Galina Ustvolskaya. Although it is Kancheli’s first piece for this instrumentation, and written at Kremer’s behest, it will feel familiar to the Kancheli initiate. Inspired by a row of poplar trees outside his Antwerp studio, whose significance became clear to him after a brush with death, it treats life as a gift twice given. The addition of a second leading voice emphasizes this metaphor and changes the landscape considerably, collapsing the former procession into a molecule of new rotations. Merest hints of Kancheli’s past thematic staples whisper through the overgrowth, speaking through the photosynthesis of the present. Interrelationships of soloists and orchestra are gnarled and rooted, each pouring out from the last in the manner of a divided cell. Melodies and atmospheric changes occur with such aching force that it is all one can do to keep the skeleton from trembling.

Twilight abounds in prismatic effects. Like an enhanced chamber music, it magnifies the immediacy of smaller forces with implications of unwritten futures. A direct emotional line takes shape from motif to motif until a naked mystery prevails. Kancheli is therefore correct in his self-assessment: This is not an album in which to seek sanctuary. That being said, one may discern a ray or two in the bleakness of its canvas, for to the interpreters’ authorship must be added the listener’s own.

As is always the case with the Kancheli experience, moments of apparent eruption are in fact the opposite. Nowhere truer than in this program, where the occasional outburst is, if anything, an “inburst,” pushing the focal point ever farther toward forgetting. Cavernous engineering thus allows the orchestra’s solitude to come spilling out in consumption of tension. We do well to see these dynamic affordances, like album’s title, as variations on a grander theme—in this case of mortality, and the parentheses that are its beginning and end.

Kancheli’s most important recording since Exil.

(To hear samples of Chiaroscuro, please click here.)

Book Review: The Last Weekend by Nick Mamatas

The Last Weekend

Nick Mamatas has turned the zombie genre on its head—or rather into its head. His first-person protagonist is Billy Kostopolos, an alcoholic writer now working in the San Francisco Bay Area as a driller. His job as such is to dispatch the reanimated dead with said power tool and to work the bereaved through the initial trauma of witnessing his process. What may seem prosaic in theory turns out in practice to be 250 pages of harsh poetry.

Many reviewers will tell you the novel isn’t really about zombies. You’re damn right it’s about zombies. Neither Billy nor Mr. Mamatas would’ve cared enough to write it otherwise. Sure there are greater dangers, earthquakes and the living among them, but these are intermittent. The nuance is that zombies are ubiquitous to the point where one need only care when they become a threat. The novel stands apart by what it does. It deals a lot with writing. On that note, anyone who gives a rat’s rump about the craft should read Mamatas’s Starve Better (Apex Publications, 2011). Those who have will recognize where autobiographical impulses have bled through. Like the author, Billy types with two fingers and has lobbed his erstwhile self from one coast of the US to another, scribbling his way to sanity and sustenance along the way.

But in the context of The Last Weekend, the putting of ink to page takes deeper purpose as a method of record. Though Billy might be the last to admit it—“History’s written by the winners…and there ain’t any winners anymore, so it’s the end of history”—he is an historian. For a self-deprecating barfly who spends the better part of his days nursing hopes of a half-lit future, writing is the most reliable form of memory, as evidenced when he shares his recollections of 9/11 with cinematic clarity but has vaguest impressions of the zombie apocalypse. Like any writer worth his booze, he is a coveter and transformer of experiences all the same.

The writing itself is snappy and delicious. Mamatas navigates even the most vulgar passages with enough turns of phrase to keep your feet gyroscopically centered. And there is much to offend in this story. At least one reader out there, from behind a virtual goalie mask, has slap-shot accusations of sexism. But The Last Weekend is no more sexist for Billy’s hormonal rants than Star Wars: The Force Awakens is feminist for having a female protagonist. Billy is the first to admit his inadequacies when it comes to women. Romantic failures are what drove him to the bottle in the first place. The smokescreen of his explicit talk proves that the greatest threat to humanity, reanimated or not, is ego, and further underscores the hard truth that patriarchy is as much a question of personal ideology as systemic violence.

In any case, by dint of his lackluster profession we can hardly expect Billy to be the shining star atop the gender tree. I doubt you’ll like Billy as a representative of his species, but you can trust him as a writer. And while he’s exponentially more likely to spew Henry Miller than Luce Irigaray, women are his strongest allies. Case in point is the conspiratorially minded Alexa, who recruits herself into his milieu of one in the hopes of breaking into City Hall, where she believes government secrets await. It is in pursuit of that information where this synopsis ends, should you wish to pick through the rubble yourself.

Is The Last Weekend a masterpiece? No. Neither does it want to be. Will it linger after you close the back cover? Yes. And if that isn’t the sign of good writing, and of a writer who has all the right tools strapped to his belt, then you might as well take a drill to my head.

(ARC kindly provided by Skyhorse Publishing.)