Thursday, March 18, 2010

Near the midnight hour, who was that masked singer . . . ?

Listening via Facebook to my former VOA Urdu Service colleague and videographer (at left) Kevork Tashdjian's hour-long Internet radio program ("The world unites every Thursday night . . . . ") on our local non-profit public radio WEBR, and kidding him as usual about not identifying the artists being played, I'm moved to share again my own particular madness about recognizing the importance not only of the names and identities of individual artists, but their place in the evolutionary continuity of styles and genres. . . .

So here again is the full rant (do let me know whether I'm totally off the planet on this one . . . . ):

Who WAS that masked . . . musician anyway? Meditations on an obsession

Back in the late 60's, I was invited to give a lecture-demonstration on Indian classical music to a group of outgoing Peace Corps Volunteers at their orientation in Putney, Vermont, and afterwards I somehow found my way to a . . . well . . . gathering somewhere outside of town. I don't recall now why I was in the area, or even the year. But I do remember one moment from that particular evening with crystalline clarity:

The sun was setting, with the intense luminosity of dusk in the New England countryside, and there was a house set amidst fields. It might have been on a farm, or perhaps, most probably, a commune of sorts, set on a farm.

I heard waves of music pulsing at loud volume from inside the house--in a distinctive style which I couldn't quite identify (some sort of 60's rock?) but with previously unheard melodic and harmonic colors--with a few people wandering around outside, and the odd figure dancing alone in the tarnished gleam of twilight.

I moved toward the house, wanting to get closer to the source of the music. When I went inside, I discovered that one of the rooms had been turned, in effect, into an enormous dedicated loudspeark enclosure (as someone there explained), with large speakers placed strategically to broadcast out through the windows into the fields, and the THUMPPP of the bass from huge woofers drumming in my belly as I stood inside.

While I was intrigued with the novel acoustic experiment, I was even more concerned with what the music was, and who was performing it.

When I began to ask around, my questions (What's the song? What's the album? Who's playing?) were met with expressions of blank astonishment.

"Man, I have NO clue . . . does it matter? Just groove, just groove . . . . let yourself go . . . "

But I couldn't let myself go. I had to know the origins of the music, and place it in some sort of context in the musical landscape of that heady Aquarian period of turmoil and consequent creativity. That was perhaps the first time that I realized explicitly how central a clear taxonomy of every aspect of life was essential to my perception of order in the universe, and how the absence of such conceptual structures could leave me bewildered and adrift . . . .

As a child, I had collected minerals, and had consistently won first prize as a junior member of the Colorado Mineral Society in identification and display contests. I had proudly assembled a small library of books on minerals, and studied them carefully, savoring the order of the precise systems of classification by chemical composition and crystal structure. I even made three dimensional cardboard models of the most common crystal forms from Arthur J. Gude's amazing (at least to a child) cutout kits.

I had collected butterflies (pinning them carefully with pins and wax-paper strips on trays in a home-made mounting box in preparation for display), and when I wasn't collecting, I was poring over the exquisite color plates of W. J. Holland's definitive The Butterfly Book--again, wallowing with pleasure through schemes of genus, of species and sub-species, and what distinguishes one individual butterfly from its closest, almost imperceptibly different, relative.

I collected Lincoln pennies and Buffalo and Jefferson nickels and Mercury and Roosevelt dimes, and kept them carefully in their blue Whitman albums, arranged by year and mint. I collected stamps, though fitfully--but then, my taxonomic mania had to come to a halt somewhere.

In the ensuing years, those impulses translated into an exploration of the world of music through listening and collecting, among the myriad categories and subcategories of melodic and rhythmic expression around the world: seeing the development of styles, how a previous composer or performer influences the neophyte, and how the music itself evolves and is transmitted and transformed over time.

I never did learn the names of the performers of the songs booming out from that farmhouse. But to this day I still feel my frustration at being unable to identify that music, to place it in context.

But just now, as I am listening online to Pandora Radio (see my initial posting on this subject) waiting for the caffeine from my morning espresso to kick in, I feel as though I have found a new home, with unlimited options for discovery amongst the taxonomies in the wondrous world of music.

More to come by way of explanation. But in the meantime, explore on your own the richness of Pandora, be your musical preferences classical, or jazz, or folk, rock, or pop, or metal, or hip-hop, or . . . .

As we say in Urdu, "If it comes free, what's the harm?" At least up to 40 hours a month of broad-spectrum listening which you can program yourself.

Reprise: A Review of the Chieftains, following St. Paddy's Day

Yesterdays musical meditations brought me back to a glorious performance I heard last year of the Chieftains, and pending possible musings on the current state of Irish music in the coming days from my colleague Gary Thomas, the VOA Newsroom's resident balladeer, I'm reposting that review, prompted by Gary's remarks in a recent telephone conversation about the wide-ranging musical journeys of the Chieftains:

Washington Songlines: World music goes foot-tappin' and STOMPIN' with The Chieftains
[Note: This is a corrected version, as per helpful input from my VOA Colleague Gary Thomas; see "Pre-St. Paddy's Day: Update on The Chieftains".]

To change the tone a bit from my ponderous previous post:

Last night the Chieftains and assorted guests electrified the audience in the Kennedy Center Opera House with a full offering of Irish-based revels, leavened by musical allies from Scotland, Canada, Nashville, Long Island (yes, Long Island), and the Washington area itself.

This was the first Gaelic [corrected to Celtic] songfest I've attended since my college days in the early 60's, when the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem were all the rage. And after a rich (perhaps too rich in such a short time) musical movable feast centering on Arabic offerings (also at the KenCen) over the past two weeks, I was able to sit back, let my foot tap away, and enjoy--among many other aspects--the brevity of high-energy performances in rapid-fire sequence.

The core members of the Chieftains are at once consummate musicians and engaging showmen/entertainers (an interesting distinction made by my Washington-area colleague Mark Jenkins in his review of Tom Jones' recent local appearance). As commonplace and often bland as "fusion" has become in the realm of world music these days, I have to say that The Chieftains' efforts in that direction last night were dizzyingly successful.

Where to begin? Well, why not at the beginning? A light note was set when the group's founder/godfather Paddy Moloney came out on stage and began rattling off in what I thought at first was (not unusual for my ear) an impenetrable Irish accent, when suddenly he (theatrically, of course), caught himself, "realized" where he was, and slipped from Gaelic [corrected to Irish] into a mercifully midlands "English", most (but not all) of which was understandable during the rest of the evening.

A series of short and diverse pieces followed. Having heard the highland pipes before on numerous occasions, with performers blowing air into the instruments directly through a mouthpipe, I was fascinated last night to see, for the first time in my life, a live performance on the Uilleann pipes, with Paddy Moloney pumping air into the instrument with a bag under his arm. I had always found the sound of this instrument hauntingly beautiful, with its ethereal tremolo on individual notes, and liquid glides between notes (similar to the ornaments--meends--of Indian classical music). My first surprise of the evening was to see how that effect was produced, by an actual fluttering of the fingers on the chanter, or melody-pipe. At various points, Paddy would take to the tinwhistle (or pennywhistle) for equally fluid melodies in the higher octaves.

Joining Paddy as a full-time member of the group were Matt Molloy, playing a transverse wooden flute, which (from what I could tell from memories of my own flute study in my pre-teen years) has open keys, allowing the flautist to create the same microtonal slides and lambent tremolo as the Uilleann pipes; and Kevin Conneff on bodhrán (the Irish frame-drum) and vocals--the latter delivered with bell-like clarity of intonation as well as diction.

Had I not read the program notes ahead of time, I wouldn't have realized from their fiery fiddling that the two violinists were guest artists-- Jon Pilatzke from Canada, and Deanie Richardson from Nashville, also playing twice on mandolin. The first (pleasant) non-musical shock of the evening came when a gangling young man burst from the wings doing a maniacal hoedown/dervish dance to the group's music, only to be joined by the lead fiddler (of similar build--turns out they are brothers, the original dancer being Nathan Pilatzke) in an astonishing display of kick-work, hip-swivel, arm-slash, whirling-body virtuosity that is the closest I've seen to the way ol' Dionysus himself might have celebrated life had he been Gaelic/[Celtic]. And as if these two lads were not enough, at various points in the evening Long-Island born and longtime Chieftains collaborator Cara Butler brought her own distinctive footwork, and at one point, her confident full voice.

Do we have enough music yet? Not nearly. Another guest artists was Triona Marshall on the Irish harp, with a deeply moving rendition (almost time travel in itself) of a movement from the 17th century concerto by the blind harpist Turlough Carolan, often considered Ireland's national composer. Then there was high-voiced Scottish songstress Alyth McCormack, whose engaging contributions to the evening's diversity included samples of port à beul, or Scottish "mouth music" (a genre which in its syllabic playfulness I found at once delightfully similar to, yet different from, the classical Indian tarana.) And guest Nashville guitar master Jeff White's unobtrusive but strongly supportive presence concealed his chops until his own solo turns came. And not to lose sight of the other kind of bagpipes--Scottish--the second half of the program began with a rousing appearance in full regalia (including twirling puffy drumsticks) of the U.S. Coast Guard Pipe [and drum] Band.

As my wife observed, exuberance was the propelling mode of the evening. One had perhaps had enough of long, lugubrious modal meditations in recent days at the Arabesque concerts, but here each performer--again, in relatively brief but brilliant offerings--was clearly enjoying the experience, whether instrumentalist, singer, or dancer. And dancers there were throughout the evening in tasteful abundance, including an allegedly surprise appearance by eight lively local lasses from the Washington branch of the Broesler School of Irish Dance, who, while maintaining a beautifully kinetic group symmetry in their step-dancing, kept their arms dutifully at their sides, thank you very much!

As in so many of the recent concerts I've attended, the well-paced ensemble performance alternated with virtuoso solos that allowed the individual artists to demonstrate their specialties. What struck me most about the Chieftains was that while the group's bedrock Irish identity remained joyously intact (to my ears at least, though it's Scots that runs most passionately through my otherwise mongrel-blooded veins), the brief tangential shifts into adjacent idioms were utterly natural and seamless: e.g., Irish to country blues to Irish to Scots to Irish to a smashing (no? then, well, stomping) demonstration by the Pilatzke Brothers and Cara Butler of cannily choreographed seated-side-by-side-on-three-chairs Canadian? footwork.

I suddenly now remember that some years ago I did see Riverdance. But that extravaganza was so relentlessly massive and packaged that it had sunk by its own weight from my memory. The Chieftains are the real thing, at least to this old folkie/fogey--whether playing alone or in one of their globally diverse collaborations (there were several references during the evening to explorations of Mexican music . . . . )

The sponsor of this extraordinary musical offering, the Washington Performing Arts Society, deserves credit for hosting (as Paddy announced appreciatively once he had switched into English in his opening remarks) 24 programs during the last 29 years. At least I think that's what he said . . . .

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

St. Patrick's Day music rollout

In appreciation of the musical aspects of this melodious Irish holiday, I'd like to introduce a few of the prominent Irish performing groups, with the approximate date of their founding, links to their Wikipedia entries, and to albums (with links to brief musical samples to provide a sense of the group's "sound" and musical approach--of course, with further opportunities available on YouTube not only to hear but to see these groups). When available, a link to the groups' Website is also provided.

The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. (1950s) As noted in Gary Thomas' observations below, these artists were the first to establish themselves as Irish performers in the American folk music scene presenting vocals with guitar and five-string banjo accompaniment--the emphasis being on the heartiness of their singing.
*****Album: The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem In Person at Carnegie Hall - The Complete 1963 Concert [LIVE]. At the bottom of the link, under the rubric "Customers who bought this album also bought" are links to several other of their albums.
The Clancy Brothers' MySpace page

The Chieftains. (1962) Initially a four-man instrumental group, with Uilleann pipes, tin whistle, button accordion, bodhrán (frame drum), and fiddle. As noted in last year's review of their recent Washington concert., the group has collaborated for decades with a wide range of musicians, including in the reviewed performance a vocalist/drummer.
*****Album: The Best of the Chieftains. Click on "Track Listing"to listen.

The Dubliners. (1962) Again, basically a hearty-singing vocal group with a range of instrumental accompaniment and solos. bodhrán
*****Album: Best of the Dubliners. Click on "Track Listing"to listen.
The Dubliners' Web page and Patsy Watchorn's Web page

Planxty. (1970s) Also mentioned in Gary Thomas' notes, this "supergroup" included, along with its vocals, guitar, bodhrán, bouzouki, mandolin, mandola, hurdy-gurdy, harmonica, Uilleann pies, tin whistle, and flute.
*****Album: The Planxty Collection.

The Bothy Band. (1974) With the addition of a female vocalist, similar to Planxty in approach and instrumentation (and adding harpsichord and clavinet), and also short-lived.
*****Album: The Best of the Bothy Band.

Clannad. (1970s) Radically different from the previous groups, Clannad, also with a female vocalist, won a Grammy in 1998 for The Best New Age Album.
*****Album: The Best of Clannad: In a Lifetime.
The Clannad Website and News Blog

The Pogues. (1982) Also departing somewhat from tradition, though in a very different direction from that of Clannad, this group incorporated elements of rock and punk.
*****Album: The Very Best of the Pogues.
The Pogues' Website and Shane McGowan's Website

The above is of course just a sampling from among hundreds of groups, and thousands of recordings. For those wanting to pursue their listening further, below are two Websites that specialize in Celtic music, some of which may include musical samples as above: A self-described "Mom and Pop store" which specialized exclusively in Celtic Music CDs. A large on-line CD company with a separate section for Celtic music containing more than 250 pages (!) of recordings, almost all with samples of each track.

There are also on-line radio streams dedicated to Celtic music: A Google Search specifying "online radio" along with Celtic and Music brings up 23,500 hits (up from 13,700 hits a year ago.) I'll be writing later more generally about the phenomenon of Internet radio dedicated to specific musical niches.

Good listening, and again, Happy St. Paddy's Day!