Experiments in drone. That’s pretty much all that you need to know about these two tracks (yes, only excerpted here) from Brooklyn’s Man Forever. The first track up is “Surface Patterns” which is followed by “Ur Eternity.” Both tracks are similar in scope and purpose, with Glenn Branca’s brand of minimalism taking up the aesthetic reigns. The ever-growing rumble mixed with the incessant jungle beat percussion is reminiscent of the sounds that Branca conjures from an orchestra in his 6th Symphony. The songs on “Pansophical Cataract” inspire the listener to search for sounds and patterns within this cloud, and repeated hearings reveal any number of paths that one can take.
The artist behind Man Forever is one John Colpitts. He’s best known as the drummer of Oneida and also for his work with Boredoms and White Hills. Colpitts also works with So percussion, and has more recently completed a collaborative album with So entitled “Ryonen” released on Thrill Jockey earlier this year.
“Pansophical Cataract” is available through Thrill Jockey, and there are even a few copies of the album left on orange vinyl. You can also listen to samples from his other releases on his artist page on Thrill Jockey.
Colpitts is taking Man Forever on the road for the summer. Check the tour dates below:
Apr 25, 2014 Baltimore, MD The Metro
Apr 26, 2014 Winston, Salem, NC Reanimator
Apr 27, 2014 Richmond, VA Balliceaux
Apr 28, 2014 Charlottesville, VA The Southern
May 08, 2014 Albany, NY The Low Beat
May 24, 2014 Pittsburgh, PA Gooski’s
May 25, 2014 Erie, PA Basement Transmissions
May 26, 2014 Columbus, OH Double Happiness
May 27, 2014 Detroit, MI Trinosophes
May 28, 2014 Milwaukee, WI Cactus Club
May 29, 2014 Bloomington, IN Magnetic South
May 30, 2014 Madison, WI Good Style Shop
May 31, 2014 Louisville, KY Dreamland
Jun 01, 2014 Dayton, OH Blind Bob’s
Jun 03, 2014 Poughkeepsie, NY My Place Pizza
Jun 22, 2014 Raleigh, NC King’s Barcade
Jun 23, 2014 Knoxvile, TN The Pilot Light
Jun 24, 2014 Asheville, NC The Mothlight
Jun 25, 2014 Atlanta, GA 529
Jun 26, 2014 Chattanooga, TN Sluggo’s North
Glenn Branca’s 6th Symphony “Devil Choirs at the Gates of Heaven” has been my go-to large scale work lately. It brings to mind several thoughts that I have about music in general and about a composer’s intentions.
As I listen to a symphony by Branca (and I think that I have listened to most of them, and of the ones that I have listened to I have done so several times) I often find myself wondering what the score looks like. Immediately after trying to imagine the score I ask myself if that even matters. The next thing that comes to mind, especially when listening to this work in particular is how a composer (it can be any composer) can manage to have such a firm hold on their style, where their music is instantly recognizable, like Stravinsky or Webern or Ravel, yet still manages to say different things.
I guess that might be an assumption, that the composer has to be saying different things with each work that is produced. For example, listening to each of Branca’s symphonies, each (for the most part, No. 9 is an anomaly) calls for an army of guitars, and a drummer. There might be some other instruments mixed in there, but the most noticeable thing (and I think that it’s the thing that everyone that has every listened to Branca’s music, or at least knows about his music) are the guitars.
The cloud of noise that is created throughout the 6th symphony accomplishes different goals in each of the movements, yet it still (on the surface) remains just that – a cloud of noise. Of course, we can get into the argument about what noise is or what is considered noise, for days. For my purposes I’m going to say that noise in Branca’s symphonies is that cloud of sound. It’s so pitch saturated that it becomes pitchless and there are so many performers on stage, each of whom are attacking their instruments in a wild tremolo, that the intense, dense layers of rhythm become rhythmless. The music is recursive, and in being so creates a situation where everything that is becomes nothing, and everything that seems like nothing on the surface is what the piece is all about.
This might sound a little too vague, or faux-philosophical and lofty, but allow me explain. Let’s go back to how the cloud of noise is used in a couple of the different movements. Take the opening of the symphony: it starts quiet enough, but as the movement begins to take off the strummed guitars’ monotony severs itself into two different layers where one layer forms a consistent harmonic backdrop while the other layer allies itself with the percussion, providing sharp stabs of accent every so often. That “every so often” becomes more and more often as the movement progresses, yet the layer of harmonic noise continues underneath. It is steady and omnipresent. The growth of the movement occurs via the interplay of these two layers. So we could say that the cloud of noise, as it pertains to this movement, provides the backdrop. It is the base of sound, the music has no choice but to grow continually louder. By the end of the movement the layers come together again, combining their pitch and rhythm material into a dense haze.
As with all minimalist music the more that the piece repeats the material the more that the listener is allowed to search “inside” the sounds that they are hearing. Lines start to peak out from the cloud, some interplay comes into focus.
In the second movement an infinitely ascending line continues for the first four and a half minutes. The pitch material exists on its own, and there is no evidence of any guitar strings being attacked, or any strumming of any kind going on. All there is is pitch, and at the same time there really is no pitch. As soon as you are able to put your finger on it it is gone. There are some tones buried within that remain constant, while the upper limit continues to expand. It is music that describes infinity in many ways. Infinite space, infinite time (timelessness). Listening to this ever ascending line that seems like it is never going to reach its destination, it simply floats there, hanging in space. But there is motion, there is motion without direction. Sure it is ascending infinitely, but we have no idea as to the ultimate destination of that ascending line. The listener is left with no frame of reference, and that is exciting. There is a tension that is built up throughout the movement that is the result of all of this uncertainty. We begin to start listening for something specific to happen, we want there to be a great big arrival point. The longer that this ascent continues the more that we want to hear it and the greater our expectations become of something increasingly spectacular. It’s the same experience of needing to have a leading tone resolved, only this leading tone goes on for almost 5 minutes. When it settles down, and we decide that we have indeed reached a point of arrival there is an immediate release of all the tension that has been building up.
I feel that this is something that more traditional composers aren’t able to harness. That tension. The ever growing intensity. Branca is able to create such a high degree of it here without any change in dynamic (it remains fairly loud consistently throughout the movement) and once again there are several other things that he is doing “without.” There still isn’t a clear statement of pitch. Instead we are presented with all of the pitches at once. That mass of pitch becomes, once again, cloudy and formless. The shape, however, changes and moves through time. The movement is more about an idea and a depiction than it is about pitch relations. It’s the development of one idea that fits into the work.
The third movement uses more monotony than anything else. Consistent chords ringing out with a steady pulse. Everything sounds like a downbeat. Again, as with minimalism, we have rhythm that is so persistent that it becomes anything but a rhythm. Our ear treats all the repetition as if it is something that can be ignored. This movement is also maybe the most abrasive of the symphony, and the most exciting, in my opinion. The final cadence brings us to the loudest caterwaul of sound that we have so far experience.
There is some dizzying contrapuntal work during the opening of the fourth movement, and finally we have some shifting layers of sound, where there was pretty much none in the first 3 movements. Two different lines bounce back and forth, a constant blanket of activity over which haunting and thin ephemera passing in and out of each channel in turn.
That there can be such contradictions in a single work is interesting enough to think about. That they can be achieved in exactly the opposite way that one would first think is another thing altogether. Creating a work with no discernible use of pitch, by using all pitches all the time; and a work with formless rhythm while having a persistent rhythm throughout. As I’ve said a million times before, it’s about learning to hear differently, it’s about making sense of the apparent contradictions that are presented to us in a piece of music, the things that we never thought were possible, ideas that can not be expressed in any other way. Listening to music, such as a symphony by Glenn Branca, requires the listener to consider something that they have not only never considered before, but never thought about considering before.
Sure, I understand that if I really wanted to make the proper reference to the book I would have used Branca’s 9th symphony, but after listening to it I can honestly say that I don’t enjoy the work at all.
I don’t want to specifically talk about Branca’s symphonies exactly. I just wanted to move away from the seemingly non-stop album reviews. They are tedious to read and possibly more tedious for me to write. I’m becoming more and more selective with regard to actual album reviews. I have my favorite bands, and I get some (ie. very little) good stuff via email, but from the beginning I have mentioned that I wanted to start to write something that went deeper than just a review. I’m not comfortable with the purpose of writing if it is just to sell something. That’s what I feel like when I am writing an album review sometimes, I feel like I am just trying to sell music, and I don’t think that the main purpose (or any purpose, for that matter) of a writer, or an artist, is to sell anything.
I began to touch upon things that I have been thinking about in a few of my more recent posts, regarding abstraction in music, temporality in music in my post about Autechre, a topic so seldom discussed in music regardless of genre. There was also the Glenn Gould connection post from a few weeks ago, but there have been other things I’ve been considering.
Perhaps Branca is, in fact, a good jumping off point for a discussion of the manipulation of temporality in music. When listening to his symphonies one must, in some ways, throw away everything that they think they know about listening to a piece of music and start over. And there are a lot of pieces of music that require just that.
My next few posts are going to attempt to tackle a few interesting cases of different ways that musicians play with the listener’s perception of time. These manipulations will happen in a variety of different ways, and to different ends. Some of the songs that I am going to be discussing will be taken from things that I have already talked about a little bit on the blog, while others will be taken from familiar bands looked at in different ways.
Temporality, and its use in music, is maybe the most fascinating element of organized sound, and the hardest to describe without getting all metaphysical. I think that I have noted in a few posts about how temporality is suspended in minimalist music, where the incessant repetitions create a void of sorts for the listener, allowing them to focus in on the sound between the sound; the creation of aural illusions where the listener is hearing something that perhaps isn’t written into the score. That is what I would consider a meditative disposal of time, more like a contradiction if you think about it. Minimalism subverts time by making it the most surface level characteristic of the music. The same rhythm, repeating over and over and over and over and over again ends up not being tedious, but rather creates a new kind of silence where the mind starts to filter out what is happening on the surface. One can hear resonance, and the collection of overtones and pure timbre.
I can’t help but think back to the time that I drove up to Toronto in 2005 or so, to catch a performance by the University of Toronto percussion ensemble. There was a performance of Cage’s 4’33”, and Varese’s “Ionisation.” Those pieces, though great, didn’t leave a mark on me as profoundly as did the piece that had just started when I walked in.
As I stood there in the entranceway to the concert hall a performance of James Tenney’s “Having Never Written a Note for Percussion” had just begun. I can’t do justice to the piece by trying to describe what the experience was like, though I will try.
And that’s part of the thing, is that this is a piece that is so simple in concept that capturing it in a recording could not possibly do it justice. The listener is an integral part of the piece. Imagine the slowest, most gradual crescendo that you could ever experience being played out on a single tam-tam (if I could venture a guess, it was being performed on a 40″ instrument) from a performer that was not visible. The only thing that could be seen was the front of the instrument, while the performer must have been kneeling behind it, and with soft mallets (and therefore no sounding attack) they gently built up the amplitude.
That’s it. The piece is simply an incredibly lengthy crescendo that is followed by an equally lengthy diminuendo. But being there you feel like you are standing inside the sound. For the first second that I walked into the room I could remember the break between the “silence” that I was experiencing just outside the door to the hall and the sound that I was now in the middle of while standing at the back of that hall. As I stood there that memory of the divide slowly faded and all that my mind could focus on was what was happening right there in front of me, and all around me. Time had stopped. In that time I could focus on every single little pitch and overtone that was created. The sound enveloped everything in the room, so present as to seemingly take a physical form. Now, the sound was not loud enough to make anyone recoil in pain, it was just in the room with us, creating a presence.
The piece built up so slowly that the idea of past, present and future were irrelevant. There were no more points of reference. Time had effectively ceased to exist. And that is something that is very difficult to get through on a recording.
I think that in this way Branca’s symphony (several of them, but I’m thinking of the 3rd specifically right now) and Tenney’s piece have a lot in common. They are contradictions of simplicity and complexity, of loud and quiet, something and nothing, all at the same time. Branca’s wall of microtones, as well as Tenney’s, find similar ways to grab hold of the most illusive element of music, and that is the manipulation of temporality. They grab a hold of it and turn the entire piece into the exploration of that one impossible thing.