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Posts Tagged ‘music’

Lost in Music

July 24, 2014 | by

Musical mind control from Mesmer to the Satanic panic.

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A hysterical patient in a catatonic fit, supposedly caused by the huge tuning fork. Désiré Magloire Bourneville and Paul Regnard, Iconographie photographique de la Salpêtrière (1876–1880).

To lose oneself in music is generally regarded as a good thing—an ecstatic experience, or at least an absent-minded pleasure. But despite the Eminems, Daft Punks, and Sister Sledges of the world, Western culture has often had niggling fears about letting go in that way. What if the music can make you do things? What if surrendering to it means surrendering the parts of yourself that hold you back from madness, adultery, and murder? What if heavy metal sends teens on killing sprees? What if rock and roll makes girls shed their sexual inhibitions, causing a rash of nymphomania and pregnancy and the collapse of social order—or what if it can whip crowds into a malleable frenzy, leaving them the pitiful stooges of Communist or other sinister causes? What if it can be used with other forms of thought control to turn people into Manchurian Candidate–style automatons?

The fear, however implausible, that music has mysterious powers—that it can hypnotize or brainwash, making us the playthings of malign manipulators or our own dark instincts—has crept into the public discourse surprisingly often over the past two hundred years. Concerns about the medical, sexual, social, and political consequences of musical hypnosis are an essentially modern business; until the eighteenth century, trance states were often seen in a positive light, even as a way of connecting to the divine. But against the background of the internalized self-control demanded by modern urban society, trance states have been increasingly regarded as pathological symptoms—something to be explained by doctors, not priests. Read More »

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An Absolute Truth: On Writing a Life of Coltrane

June 3, 2014 | by

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A few years ago I found a used, first-edition hardcover of Dr. Cuthbert Ormond Simpkins’s 1975 book, Coltrane: A Biography, online for $150. I had long admired its feverish, street-pulpy story about the saxophonist John Coltrane, whose powerful music increasingly seemed capable of altering one’s consciousness before he died in 1967, at age forty. Posthumously, the mythology and exaltation of Coltrane, as well as his musical influence, only grew. But by that point, Simpkins had already researched and written Coltrane’s story, expressing an uncompromising, unapologetic black voice rarely found in the annals of jazz before or since.

I forked up the money for the hardback. The dust jacket bears an impressionistic black-and-white painting of Coltrane playing soprano saxophone. The rounded, sans serif font resembles that of Soul Train, the popular TV show that premiered in 1971. On the back cover is a photograph of a young, Simpkins sporting a West African dashiki shirt, a high Afro, thick sideburns, and a beard.

Simpkins’s idea for the book was conceived during his senior year at Amherst, in 1969; he worked on it during breaks from Harvard Medical School in the early seventies. Simpkins possessed no credentials in jazz or literature. The publisher of the original hardcover is Herndon House; quick Google and Library of Congress searches yield no other books from that publisher. There are identical typographical errors in all three editions—first and second hardback, and paperback. (Sarah Vaughan’s name, for instance, is spelled once as “Vaughn,” and Nesuhi Ertegun appears as “Nehusi.”) All indications point to the book having been self-published, the original piece preserved in two later editions. Read More »

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John Ashbery Reads “A Boy”

March 18, 2014 | by

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Today the composer Christopher Tignor releases a new record, Thunder Lay Down in the Heart, whose title track is a twenty-minute work for string orchestra, electronics, and drums. The composition is named after a line from John Ashbery’s 1956 poem, “A Boy,” and it begins with a haunting new recording of Ashbery reading the poem in his Chelsea apartment, which Tignor has graciously allowed us to feature here.

Tignor says:

“A Boy” rang out to me while I was writing “Thunder Lay Down in the Heart.” My song titles usually come in response to the music, and I often find myself looking through books of poetry to turn my mind on in that way. When I was a student at Bard, I studied poetry with Ashbery—he was my advisor—and when I read this poem, I responded right away to the conflict between the protagonist and the visceral narrative tension of the storm: the sound, like thunder, of falling “from shelf to shelf of someone’s rage,” the rain at night against the box cars, the inevitable flood.

It’s precisely that kind of unfolding I hoped to embody in my musical work, with its own flooded lines, dry fields of lightning, and cabbage roses. A reviewer recently described the work as its own “vast electrical disturbance.” Hard to disagree.

 

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Jewel-Toned Insides: Talking with Throwing Muses and Tanya Donelly

December 17, 2013 | by

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David Narcizo, Kristin Hersh, and Bernard Georges.

The debut album by Throwing Muses was released in 1986, at the beginning of my sophomore year of college. Back then I had a friend who listened almost exclusively to artists on the British independent label 4AD, and I wanted to have musical tastes as esoteric as his. He told me that Throwing Muses—who lived in Boston, like we did—was the label’s first American signing, and I bought their record without having heard a note of it, only moments after a clerk in the Harvard Square branch of Newbury Comics slipped it into the “new releases” bin. I reasoned that since the record had come from England, and Boston was the easternmost major port in the United States, I was probably the first person in America to buy it, and for a long time I went around saying this. At that time my friends and I played a lot of I-heard-them-before-you-did—I saw R.E.M. in a tiny club with only fifteen other people before they were famous—and naturally there was a little of this involved, but my proprietary feelings toward Throwing Muses were more personal. I had finally found the music that was meant for me. Read More »

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Sit and Cry with the Door Closed

October 28, 2013 | by

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How do you say good-bye to Lou Reed?

For many of us, he’s been unavoidable, not just as a musical touchstone but as a cranky éminence grise: walking his dog, sitting in cafés with Laurie Anderson and berating waitresses (“Oh, c’mon, you know how I like my eggs.” “No, sir.” “The fuck you don’t!”), turning up at tribute concerts at St Ann’s, Tibet House, and Town Hall.

For a while, he and Laurie Anderson could be found at Les Deux Gamins, on Waverly Place, every morning around nine A.M. After Laurie left, Lou Reed would continue reading the New York Times, then look around the café to see if there was anyone who hadn’t noticed him. If there was, he’d slowly get up, saunter over, and tap them on the shoulder. “Hey. Hey listen. You got a cigarette?” The casual no, no, sorry was then followed by a visible HOLY SHIT! IT’S LOU REED, as he leaned over them with solicitous menace. If they looked sufficiently disturbed, he’d whisper, “Could you go get me one?” They sometimes did.

The tenderness and mercy and wonder of songs like “I’ll Be Your Mirror” and “Pale Blue Eyes” and “I’m Set Free” wasn’t always easy to find in the geezer who seemed to have more ways of saying fuck you to well-wishers and critics alike than Eskimos have words for snow. But if you could get him talking about Doc Pomus or Dion or Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans, the light of the true believer would shine in his eyes.

At Jenni Muldaur’s birthday party last year, she had an old Victrola set up, and I brought a box of forty-fives—the Bobby Fuller Four, the Drifters, the Hombres, the Shirelles, Nervous Norvus. Lou Reed started looking through them admiringly. He stopped when he got to the Jaynetts’ “Sally Go ’Round the Roses,” holding it up like you would the Holy Grail.

“I love that record,” I murmured.

He tilted his head and gave me a look equal parts who the fuck asked you? and me too, me too!

 

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Elegy for Lee

October 23, 2013 | by

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In 1965, celebrated jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan released the song “Speedball” on his album The Gigolo. A year earlier, the title track from his album The Sidewinder had become the biggest hit in Blue Note Records’s history, reaching number twenty-five on the Billboard LP charts, even appearing on a Chrysler TV commercial during the World Series. Although “Speedball” never attained the commercial success of “The Sidewinder,” it endures as one of Morgan’s best-known originals, and, with the possible exception of Art Pepper’s album Smack Up, its title serves as the most barefaced allusion to the monkey on midcentury jazz’s back.

Drugs, risk, rebellion—this unholy trinity seems more evocative of rock-and-roll longhairs than clean cut men in suits, yet these dark elements remain central to the jazzman archetype established by Charlie Parker. Between the midforties and early sixties, tons of talented players were strung out: Art Blakey, Hank Mobley, Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis, Grant Green, Dexter Gordon, Jackie McLean, John Coltrane. If Coltrane later provided a countervailing archetype—the sober, spiritually aware, gentle genius—then Parker embodied creativity’s menacing, consumptive side. Morgan got lost between these poles. A promising, prodigy it-kid, he received his first trumpet at age thirteen. Five years later, he joined the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band. That same year, in 1956, he recorded his first Blue Note album as a leader, and soon after played on now legendary recordings such as Coltrane’s Blue Train, at age nineteen, and Arty Blakey’s Moanin’, at twenty. His own early output ranks as nothing short of astonishing—eleven albums as a leader by age twenty-two—which is why his 1961 departure from Blakey’s Jazz Messengers takes on the sinister weight of an omen. Read More »

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