The second part of our musical ping-pong begins in New York and swings through the underground clubs to unusual 5/4 time, tells of a blind multi-instrumentalist, abandoned nuclear power plants and finally floats through folky Turkish-Ottoman soundscapes.
This time, the journey leads us from …
Gil Scott-Heron – Me and the Devil
Mathias: It is well known that the author of Me and the Devil Blues, Robert Johnson, likes to spread the story that he is only such a gifted guitarist because he sold his soul to the devil. But for a long time I didn’t hear that this was an adaptation. That’s how much jazz poet and rap pioneer Gil Scott-Heron’s made the song his own on his 2010 I’m New Here with the help of Damon Albarn‘s (!) keyboard overdubs. Rolling Stone describes it as follows:
With relentless toughness … darkly oppressive beats, sometimes just hand claps – with the whiskey-soaked spoken-word crooning of the singer, which is always in the foreground here. A modern equivalent of gospel and blues. The Black Preacher reached the clubs.
John Zorn – Briel
Don: Hi Mathias, I’m glad we’re doing this series again and thank you very much for this insider tip. In one review, a critic described the musical mix as “like Massive Attack jamming with Robert Johnson and Allen Ginsberg”, that pretty much sums it up for me.
It’s a real shame that Scott-Heron passed away a year later in New York. Perhaps the song New York Is Killing Me can be seen as a farewell song, the accompanying video by Chris Cunningham is also highly recommended.
Which then immediately brings me to my inspiration from Gil Scott-Heron to John Zorn.
When I was in New York for the first time in 2014, I also had the pleasure of seeing the composer, bandleader and multi-instrumentalist play at his club The Stone (then still at this location).
For me, he is one of those artists I will probably never really understand, yet I am very taken with his approaches and ideas.
A few excerpts on his musical works:
- In addition to freely improvised pieces, he has also developed playful approaches that are not based on a notated score, but where the individual musicians can influence the development of the compositional flow through a given sign language.
- He plays a mixture of free jazz, hardcore, punk, noise and death metal with various ensembles or even such wacky genres as jazzcore, a combination of hardcore and free jazz.
- On the other hand, he also composes a lot of film music, has worked for orchestras and ensembles like the Kronos Quartet, devotes himself intensively to the artistic processing of his Jewish roots and also does a thousand other things.
- And he is also a great representative of the New York downtown scene.
On his music labels Tzadik and Avant, he has recorded and produced a great wealth of albums. Very many works released under Zorn’s name were merely composed by him.
I particularly like the piece he composed, “Briel” here in the version by the United States Navy Band.
Of course, the Silk Road Ensemble‘s version is at least as good, they’re clearly having a blast.
Kevin Morby – Harlem River
Mathias: Wow Don, what an interesting venue and an even more interesting artist. I was really pleased to read that the place a few blocks away is still there. When I think of New York, Lou Reed is usually the first thing that comes to mind, funnily enough he also played at the Stone.
But I’d still rather take a long walk north, past Central Park, and then sit by the Harlem River for 7 minutes and be hypnotised by the drums. Kevin Morby, actually a Texan, had just moved on to Los Angeles when he released his debut album in late 2013 was meant as a tribute to New York. Until then, he had played bass with the great Woods and with The Babies and celebrated something of a breakthrough with Harlem River. In the meantime, I especially appreciate his fantastic arranging skills.
It’s great how perfectly dosed he is with trumpets and background vocals in his 2014 Singing Saw, for example. But now back to the river that really isn’t one. 🙂
New York Ska Jazz Ensemble – Take Five
Don: Well, unfortunately I really can’t part with this wonderful city: It really does offer so much and even more. And besides, the streets there were and are always full of music: swing, musicals, punk or hip-hop originated there.
New York has always been considered one of the musical pillars of the world, producing a strong and diverse mix of all genres. A wonderful composition of maps and storytelling can be found on the page The importance of music in New York City.
As you know, I’m a fan of exciting genre blends, and the New York Ska-Jazz Ensemble is a must in this context.
I’m already curious how and where it will continue, but I’ve already taken Harlem River firmly into my heart.
Big Apple bonus track: Englishman in New York, because it’s so beautiful.
Radiohead – Morning Bell
Mathias: That’s what I call a classic, I would say that even the biggest jazz muffle knows the song. In the original, Paul Desmond wrote the song in 5/4 time, which was very unusual at the time. The standard was rather the classical 4/4 or the 3/4 waltz time. Maybe that’s where the name Take Five comes from. Funnily enough, every song from the 1959 album Time Out is written in a different time signature, which brought the band a lot of criticism in advance. After all, people wanted to dance to the records. It’s bad enough that they dared to press their own songs instead of the more popular jazz versions of well-known songs.
Anyway, the 5/4 now leads me straight to Radiohead. As a band at the supposed rock’n’roll summit in 2000, releasing an album like Kid A completely irritated and overwhelmed not a few. Symptomatic is the song Morning Bell, in the wonderfully weird and yet catchy 5/4 time.
On the album Amnesiac, released 8 months later, Morning Bell appeared again, but now not in 5/4, but in 4/4 time. Radiohead are known for recording multiple versions of their songs, in this case both versions made it onto the albums.
Boston – Foreplay/Long Time (Rachel Flowers)
Don: Morning Bell comes along wonderfully driving and now I can even say for what reason, thanks to you! Maybe I’m starting to get more into Radiohead now too.
I just read that the band was renamed Radiohead in 1992 after a song by Talking Heads called Radio Head. But let’s let David Byrne speak personally at the 2019 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction: He praises Radiohead’s musical and release innovations above all else, and is a big fan of the band himself.
The albums Radiohead released over the course of their career forever changed the music industry they so heavily criticised, and the experimental approach is considered to have paved the way for the sound of alternative rock.
Another truly exceptional and innovative individual is world-renowned multi-instrumentalist and composer Rachel Flowers, whose music spans multiple genres.
She was born 15 weeks premature, resulting in permanent blindness a few weeks after her birth.
In the documentary Hearing is Believing: The Story Of A Blind Teenage Musician, her wonderful story is told. The film follows her in her daily activities and we learn more about her childhood and family life through her mother and brother, with whom she lives. Many of Flowers’ musical abilities seem to be inherited and run in her blood. Her parents bonded over music and were both musicians.
I discovered a terrific version by her of the Prog Rock Boston classic Foreplay/Long Time:
Bonus: The complete album Tarkus by Emerson, Lake & Palmer as a jazz piano version.
Evelyn Glennie (feat. Björk) – Oxygen
Mathias: It’s hard for me to imagine how learning an instrument can be done without seeing. Impressive! There are actually a lot of people who have managed to become outstanding musicians with very limited senses. How do you learn to play an instrument without being able to see? And how do you hear music without hearing?
While researching these questions, I quickly came across Evelyn Glennie. She became profoundly deaf as a result of a childhood nerve disease and ‘despite’ this has become a world-renowned percussionist and composer. Her percussion teacher taught her to perceive and distinguish sounds through their vibrations. In this TED video, she beautifully demonstrates why listening to music and sound involves much more than letting sound waves hit your eardrums.
Among many of the world’s great orchestras, Evelyn Glennie has collaborated on music with Björk, who plays a blind woman who perceives the world around her as music in Lars von Trier’s drama Dancer in the Dark (2000). Now the piece Oxygen, which the two recorded together in 1998:
Brandt Brauer Frick – Masse
Don: What a fascinating woman, Glennie (lives) music and describes her connection to sound so remarkably vividly. And then Björk on top of that.
I took away two quotes from her TED Talk:
- “Music really is our daily medicine.”
- “Whatever the eye sees, then there’s always sound happening.”
I had a similarly breathtaking sound experience in 2011 at a concert by the techno project Brandt Brauer Frick at Berghain in Berlin. In December 2022, I was able to experience them again at the Berlin Philharmonie.
The idea here is to combine repetitive and grooving formulas of electronic dance music with the sound world of new classical music. For this purpose, instrumental parts of classical musical instruments are recorded or performed live and electronically processed as samples.
Sounds kind of complicated? It’s best to listen to their debut album, You Make Me Real and let the medicine take effect.
Apart from the music, which really has something new for me, their music videos and artwork are in no way inferior. One of the last videos was shot in a nuclear power plant that was built near Vienna in the seventies. After its completion, there was a referendum in Austria against nuclear power.
Fortunately, the nuclear power plant was never connected to the grid and instead served as the backdrop for their latest single project, “Masse”. The plural is crucial here: “Mass” is not just one video. Each instrument was placed in a different room of the power plant, each soundtrack filmed entirely on its own.Review Das Filter
On the interactive website, viewers can decide whether they want to hear and see the drum set from the reactor, the wooden percussion from the control room or the violin from the roof of the power plant: masse.video
By the way, the video is produced by Anorak Berlin.
Krzysztof Penderecki – Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima
Mathias: Interesting how music can turn a nuclear power plant into an aesthetic experience. It almost makes it seem non-threatening. I especially like the interactive website. The look of the switching elements is also reminiscent of the visual language from the TV series Spaceship Orion, which was filmed just a few years before the construction of the Zwentendorf nuclear power plant.
This jump now is relatively hard. David Lynch. Twin Peaks. Season 3. Episode 8. “Gotta Light”. 2017. A scene lasting about 11 minutes … a nuclear bomb test … a nightmarish trip … the birth of evil a.k.a. BOB … set to Penderecki’s “Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima”. He wrote the piece in 1961 for 52 string instruments originally only as an attempt to find a new musical language.
I was struck by the emotional charge of the work … I searched for associations and finally decided to dedicate it to the victims of HiroshimaKrzysztof Penderecki on the subsequent changing of the title of 8’37” in Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima
Unfortunately, I can only show an excerpt of the scene here, but you’d better watch the season in its entirety on Showtime, there’s nothing like it!
Burhan Öçal & Pete Namlook – Nerden Geliyorsun Part II
Don: Thank you, I have to digest that first. Somehow it reminds me of the equally poignant music by Hildur Guðnadóttir from the mini-series Chernobyl, which I was able to experience live shortly before the pandemic: I found a short video clip of 2020 from the Silent Green in Berlin.
You can find all of Hildur’s wonderful music in this Spotify playlist.
Speaking of Atom and music, an artist I’ve been following with great interest for years calls himself Atom™ and has a seemingly endless back catalogue of crazy songs, projects and collaborations. He goes by more than 60 different pseudonyms, but most people might know him from his project Señor Coconut and the album El baile alemán, on which he covered Latin American versions of Kraftwerk songs.
Upon further research, I then came across an exciting collaboration with him and Pete Namlook (spelled backwards, the surname of the artist Peter Kuhlmann in german), with a similarly crazy discography of 330 albums and just as many wacky pseudonyms.
What fascinates me about Peter Kuhlmann is the range of musical influences as well as his own productions, and the general openness towards all forms of genres.
If you want to learn more about Kuhlmann, who unfortunately died in 2012, I can recommend this wonderful documentary (18 min). In here, he also describes his very own definition of ambient music as a musician, gardener, cook, observer and perhaps also philosopher in his sound laboratory in Hödeshof, Traben-Trarbach.
I found a project with the Turkish percussionist and singer Burhan Öçal from 2004 particularly inspiring. Actually, I didn’t find out much about the album, but the CD inlay describes it quite well:
It took 5 years for Burhan and Peter to finish this album. Ottoman instruments and a massive amount of percussions had to be edited bit by bit and to be enhanced with the sound of our times by Pete Namlook. The seven parts of this album range from massive percussive rhythms to traditional Turkish Ottoman folk music to chill-out / ambient soundscapes at their best.
Bonus: Silence V is a very atmospheric landscape, ambient in production and relatively sparse in instrumentation.
We found almost all of the above songs on Spotify and put them together in a handy playlist.
Thanks for reading, there’s more 🏓 on page A:
Beyond Inspirations — Side A
This is a brand new Beyond Tape series with a back-to-back-compilation where one track will be the inspiration of the next one. From famous Jazz venues and massive beards over to field recordings and hard live jams in Japan.