This is unique on a number of levels beginning with the hand painted covers and John's own liner notes that are like snippets of his literary aspect. The cover painting is its own layer as it effaces the background of John performing in front of Pollack paintings exhibited at the old ICA location
There is an aspect of Musique Concrete, not in the sense that any of the sounds have been tape manipulated but in the very astute use of multi-track and emerging digital recording to convey ideas in times and places of slender resources. It is, on the whole, a studio project and serves as a vivid exposition of John's thinking as a composer in some oscillation between composition and improvisation.
Then we have his capacity to make a drum kit of the thing and the appearance of one of his cartoon voices which rival the potentials of Mel Blanc. John gave me a summary of its aspects in an aside at a recent gallery show with Matt Lavelle and Syd Smart. It consists of a set of core metaphors that loom large in his method evolution. The pieces are metaphors for defining moments and music phenomena that draws his ear. They have elements of love-hate tensions.
Overall, the structure is like a suite within a suite that circles back. In the beginning and end there is Charles Parker. The pendulum swings back and forth between the plucked and the bowed, between the percussive and harmonic with visits to melodic deftly dispersed.
It is likely to be a valuable reference for all string players seeking promptings for invention and for the rest of us who keep our ears fully engaged, it repays visits very well.
1. First Intimation of the Death of Charles Parker.
"..for solo bass with bow, (hair & nut). Extrapolated from King Pleasure's lyrics to Parker's Mood wherein the lyricist foresaw the demise of the father-creator of modern jazz."
This is one of the few pieces that might be part of Johns performance array. He made it from metaphor memories of hearing King Pleasure early in life. Laying in a crib with King Pleasure on the radio puts vocals and lyrics in focus and the instruments might seem to be an alien churning.
2. In Homage of Krupa: In Which A Traveling Band of Basses Plays the Music of Old Jazz Cats...
"..the string bass can be the most handsome of percussion instruments. The full subtitle of the piece is: In which a traveling band of 6 bass playing mantises jam on the music of the Old Jazz Cats to a non-existent audience of fertile (yet non-orgasmic) Black Widow Spiders in preparation for an engagement at Carnegie Hall. The music is meant to be a vehicle for jitterbugging." "Swing, Swing Swing" is said to be the all time best selling jazz song at the peak of its popularity as a national craze. John spent months listening to it to apprehend its core and then made a multi track percussion suite of bass sounds as it played through studio headphones.
3. Contemplation of A Blue Egyptian Goddess. "The piece explores the bases (sorry) of all music: Harmonics. The string length of the instrument enables the production of a full range of such overtones. Harmonics form the theoretical and practical foundation of scales, chords and timbres Second, and in a more metaphysical vein, the goddess referred to is, as John Anthony West writes,"a personification of universal principles, functions and processes. The Egyptians viewed the world as an entirely conscious creation, an aspect of divine consciousness>" However goddess need not be the word used in the title. Guardian Angel, Higher Self, or (the Hebrew) Maggid all cover the same ground (of being)." This intends to upend new age trends by actually embedding substance found in the real properties of sound and the mystery attending it all. It is a very lush and wide ranging merge of bass sound properties and recording potential at that time. It is a regular thicket of partials and other lurkings in the overtone biome. The total bow focus and elongated tone voicings convey this stillness of a nocturne from which rises subtle flutterings of seabirds distantly heard. There's many a twitter here.
4.Biker Bass: In Search of Heavy Metal. "How far can the string bass go? This is head bashing heavy metal rock music, or a parody of it. All sounds [noises] are made by five acoustic basses with their pickups, naturally occurring feedbacks and distortion button amplifiers. The bass player in front sings. The essence of this music is the excitement ecstasy of riding a motorcycle full out down a highway. Here the bass becomes a Harley Davidson Hog. (Could such a tune become the anthem of the Hell's Angels?) As the song says Do it!-Do It!-Do It!." This dense layered mass readily sums up the world of edgy noise rock things with sonic age and the land of Branca. John worked the controls and listened to headphones as Peter the engineer has an aversion to this sort of thing. As a sequencing trick, it explodes like a seal bomb after the contemplative harmonic wash before it but sets things up well for what follows. It has this deliberately stupid plodding beat to distill the essence of jackboot thug stomp as Johnenvisions it.
It could be mistaken for a lost out take from a Big Black record save for that voice, one of many used by John for word pieces he does with bass to support his literary element. As a straight narrator/reader he has few peers and probably could have made a whole other career of voice overs.
Quartet: "Based on Bartok's 5th String Quartet (but none could tell). Another concept: the inner child. First alone, unattended, in a crib (at times we all were). Then playing stick ball. Then a plaintively singing duet. Then a reprise of crying, now for four basses. The form for the second and fourth movement is an arch.
which creates a unison harmonic-rhythm (as in choirs of primitives, madmen and geniuses). Listen, then you'll understand what I mean." I should mention that I'm utterly unfamiliar with the Bartok as my set of the quartets was something I gave to WMFO in the 80s and I need to get another version. So I'll just run with dumb janitorial asides on what the parts conjure.
These are some long sobs. It would be perfect dinner music for the segment in The Tin Drum where the characters go to Schmoo's Onion Parlor, a bistro where patrons immerse themselves in onion fumes to engage in cathartic sobs. The bowed melancholia is nonetheless larded with a low end sonic fullness and wealth.
Plucky pluckage package of improvised bats and balls in alleys forlorn but brightened by the game engagement.The percussive rises again.
This also plucks well and broods a bit. Tones are bent every which way. Fat strum clusters dart this way and that before shifting to rolling plucks. He has a hammering thing going on with the fret hand that must be a handful for thick bass strings.
Jeeze, the opening bow sweep jars well if such a thing can be conveyed. Startle comes to mind. There is a melodic motif that hints at Amazing Grace. It seems to involve a couple of basses.
9. Second Intimation of the Death of Charles Parker. "...for pizzicato solo, formed from the material of the First Intimation."
The first and last form bookends of capabilities in miniatures with this pluckiness to answer the bowing whereby it began.