Inspiration: Clarinet

I love clarinet. I think it’s primarily the tone — a bit thin compared to brass, rounder than double-reeds; ecstatic as opposed to joyous; instead of longing, despair and lonesomeness1 — which strikes me, more than most instruments, as being shaped precisely as it sounds.2

The tune that brought clarinet to the front of my mind this week is “Pamela’s Holiday”, a bright, shimmering number. Summer music.

rush & hustle
“Pamela’s Holiday,” Wendell Harrison & Mama’s Licking Stick Clarinet Ensemble, Rush & Hustle, 1994.

Some of you will recognize the brand of 6/8 at work here: I tend to think of it as the “My Favorite Things” feel established by John Coltrane’s quartet.3

Another favorite clarinet performance of mine is from the François Houle 5’s In the Vernacular CD, a collection of compositons by John Carter.

in the vernacular

“Morning Bell (prelude),” François Houle 5, In the Vernacular, 1998.

I’m not sure what to say about this piece except that it’s one of two records I’ve ever bought because I heard it playing in a record store. I had never heard anything like it before. Whatever avant-garde energies are at work, it is the attention to tone that compels the musicians.4


  1. As opposed to *lonely*, a word whose connotation is far more personal to me than *lonesome*; *lonesome* connotes a kind of performative distance between the subject and how alone the subject truly is.

  2. Trumpets, for example, look much longer and flatter in my mind’s eye and ear than they actually are; flugelhorns much taller and rounder, more akin to a french horn held aloft and upside-down. G-d only knows what I make of saxophones, though suffice it to say that they’re subjected to rather telescopic, elastic redesigns by the time my ear is through with them.

  3. Which group, I might add, made a signature of that time signature. Paul Desmond’s innovative “Take Five,” performed by the Dave Brubeck Quartet, preceded the Coltrane Quartet number by two years but it was the latter’s understanding of this relatively long swing that brought some muscle to bear. The Harrison track seems to draw from both sides of the feel, buoyant and soaring, unafraid to assert itself when needed.

  4. For what it’s worth, the other Houle work I know is far farther out than this set. F.H.’s devotion to Carter’s compositions is fierce, loving.

All This to Post a Link: Slow Movies

It’s a defense I rarely have the patience to make anymore, that of so-called slow movies, which are, of course, only slow relative to to current movie-pace conventions, whatever era’s taste might be represented in a given movie.

I think it’s worth noting, however, that slow movies are not necessarily long.1 When I first got into film, the chief examples of slow-movies were largely limited to European pictures from the 1970s. My personal choices for best-of-the-genre ((We could call it the Real-Time Domestic genre, allowing that “domestic” describes wherever the characters hang their hat(s), a location that might well be nowhere in particular. Other directors whose work fits or has fit into this genre are, off the top of my head, Roberto Rossellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, Jean-Luc Godard, Margurite Duras, Robert Altman, Yvonne Rainer, Takeshi Kitano, Tsai-Ming Liang, Horikazu Kore-Eda. There are dozens of others from all parts of the world and the entire history of cinema.)) are probably still Wim Wender’s *Kings of the Road* (1976, 175 minutes) and Chantal Akerman’s *Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles* (1975, 201 minutes), both long movies by any measure.

Kings of the Road
Hanns Zischler in Kings of the Road, 1976.
Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles
Delphine Seyrig in Jeanne Dielman..., 1975.

Suffice it to say that from one vantage, these are movies in which nothing happens, yet from another point of view they are movies in which the characters’ stakes are simply measured in smaller increments than mainstream fare.

Sometimes, as in the case of Kelly Reichardt’s middle pictures, we only learn what we need to about the characters to get us effectively through the scenario at hand: a kind of awkward effort to reconnect in *Old Joy* and a desperate couple of days (and the inevitably of reliance on other people) in *Wendy and Lucy*. Movies of such provision are frequently short by industry standards, preferring to dwell on their scenes rather than hustle viewers on to the next one.

Wendy and Lucy
Michelle Williams and Lucy in Wendy and Lucy, 2008.

Another current filmmaker who eschews contemporary pacing is Andrew Bujalski, whose directorial work2 takes a privileged look at a largely privileged class of young adults, hipsters, and students. It is not Mr. Bujalski’s aim to make boring movies but he does aim to make movies about boring people, or people made boring by their selfishness and self-consciousness.

Beeswax
Tilly and Maggie Hatcher in Beeswax, 2009.

For my part, I determined several years ago that:

  • Falling asleep during a movie doesn’t mean I’m bored. It means I’m tired. I don’t sleep when I’m bored, I smoke cigarettes (though I also smoke when I’m not bored). I would rather doze off during a movie that tries something new than remain alert throughout a movie that doesn’t.
  • By and large, I enjoy movies that challenge accepted practice on any level more than those that don’t.
  • Exceptional movies are exceptional for all kinds of reasons. Unexeceptional movies are usually unexceptional for the same reasons.
  • I prefer filmmakers that presume their audience to be a community, if only by virtue of the fact that all of its members will have seen their film(s).

All of which is to say that I don’t care if mainstream audiences ever like slow movies. My heart goes out to critics and reviewers who still feel the need to defend these films: Films – In Defense of Slow and Boring – NYTimes.com (Via Alex Ross.)


  1. Kelly Reichardt’s work, known for its real-time event structure, breaks down as follows: *River of Grass, 1994*, 100 minutes; *Old Joy*, 2006, 76 minutes; *Wendy and Lucy*, 2008, 80 minutes; *Meek’s Cutoff*, 2010, 104 minutes. The oldest and most recent of Ms. Reichardt’s films, which I have not yet seen, are the two that are of conventional feature-length. I’ll guess that compared to the middle two, both of which are favorites of mine, *River of Grass* and *Meek’s Cutoff* unfold like Jason Bourne or Harry Potter pictures, and therefore require the extended duration. If I’m wrong about this, no matter.

  2. *Funny Ha Ha*, 2002, 85 minutes; *Mutual Appreciation*, 2005, 109 minutes; *Beeswax*, 2009, 100 minutes.

Energies: Taking it from the Top

Before cable television and VCRs, to say nothing of the internet, music was, at the very least, a primary source of entertainment. In my home, the radio was frequently on, playing NPR or Top 40 AM radio, or else there were records being played. 1

From my father’s record collection, I heard jazz: Max Roach, Clifford Brown, Charlie Parker, and Miles Davis (especially the latter’s Gil Evans sessions) were handy in our house.

porgy+bess
Miles Davis, “Summertime,” Porgy and Bess, 1958.

My mother brought singer-songwriters and popular music to the scene: Arlo Guthrie, Melanie, Ray Charles, John Denver, James Taylor, and Jim Croce were favorites of mine when I was young. 2

jt-sbj
James Taylor, “Fire and Rain,” Sweet Baby James, 1970.

It is impossible for me to diminish the importance of my mother’s listening habits, which consisted, at times, of bringing home a 45rpm single of a song she liked and playing it, more or less, over and over again. Which is to say I grew up in an environment which supported broad listening as well as the cultivation of favorite songs. Though the music from my father’s collection has perhaps proven to be more enduring for me as a musician, my mother taught me how to listen to music.


  1. Growing up in Rochester, NY provided unique listening opportunities: the Eastman School of Music and the musicians in its orbit brought consistent classical and jazz performances, as well as a variety of dance and dance-related performances, sometimes in conventional halls and auditoriums, sometimes in public parks, sometimes on visits to schools. I grew up in an environment that not only embraced music as a cultural, social, and/or popular phenomenon but also from which I came to understand it as a thing people attended and attend to, a thing people do.

  2. John Denver’s “Black Box,” an irritant in adult life, still lingers in the back of my head as a piece that frightened me but which I could not resist; Melanie’s “Lay Down” paved the way, no doubt, for my ongoing alliance with fervor. Such examples are among the countless shadowy presences in my crowded music-memory.

Inspiration: Afrisong

afrisong
“Hymn to the East,” Muhal Richard Abrams, Afrisong, 1982.

I picked up Muhal Richard Abrams’ Afrisong LP yesterday, and though I was not familiar with this record, I liked the cover and have had good luck with other India Navigation titles in the past 1.

Frankly, I couldn’t be more pleased. Abrams’ playing here lands for me somewhere between McCoy Tyner and Keith Jarrett; that is, he appeals like the former in his chords/rhythms and the latter in his flight, for lack of a better term 2. Communicative and uplifting.


  1. e.g. Arthur Blythe’s The Grip, Anthony Davis’ Lady of the Mirrors, and Cecil McBee’s Alternate Spaces, three of my favorite not-too-far-out recordings from the late 1970s and early 1980s.

  2. I’m lying. I think flight is a terrific term and means, for these purposes, exactly what I trust it implies: his energy, his lift, his movement.

Remembering Luna

Luna at the window

This healing
nick is all
I’ve got

left of the thousand
bites
and scratches
she gave
me. Slowly,

all evidence of her
love, her

defenses,
will heal

and close or be
wiped clean.

I have a ten-
second clip of her

blinking

once or
twice, the only

evidence she
moved at all.




                                                 December, 2010.

Brahms on Craft

brahms

“In some of [your music] you seem to me too easily satisfied. One ought never to forget that by perfecting one piece more is gained and learned than by beginning or half-finishing a dozen. Let it rest, and keep going back to it and working at it, over and over again, until it is a complete finished work of art, until there is not a note too much or too little, not a bar you could improve on. Whether it is beautiful also, is an entirely different matter, but perfect it must be. You see, I am rather lazy, but once begun I never cool down over a work until it is perfected, unassailable.”

— Johannes Brahms, 1876, from a letter to Georg Henschel.

Energies (Polyrhythm)

Syncopation refers to the practice of inverting or otherwise shifting accents in an established rhythmic pattern. Polyrhythm, on the other hand, describes more than one rhythmic pattern occurring simultaneously. Though these elements frequently appear in tandem, especially in larger groups, I think their distinction from each other is worth pointing out.

Here’s some polyrhythm:


Orchestre Poly-Rythmo De Cotonou, “Sé Wé Non Nan,” The Vodoun Effect, 2009.

To my ear, the drums resolve in a 2/4 (two quarter notes to a measure) shuffle while the other instruments are played in 6/8 (six eighth notes to a measure). This polyrhythm yields syncopation for the ensemble’s total sound, though each rhythm sticks to its accent-pattern.

The resulting energy of the tune is sustained within the push-pull of the time signatures: the drums are steady but seem to push the other instruments, which in turn seem to drag the tempo. This is not the same thing as playing ahead of or behind the beat. It is, in fact, a difference of measure, which term should be read literally: it takes the horns longer to get back to the top of their phrase than it does the drums.

Once the vocals come in, however, the group coalesces into a collective 2/4, following the drums instead of the horns. The guitar, percussion, and organ, in the meantime, opt for a 4/4, bridging the gap between the drums and the other instruments.

If this is math, it is also rhythm. The fact that it can be quantified does not disqualify the energy and emotion it provides and amplifies. Rather, it confirms the energy and emotion, and one additional absolute truth: music does not exist outside of time.