Monday, September 30, 2013

They're Not Only in It for The Money

The current lineup of Grandmothers of Invention is, from left,
Napoleon Murphy Brock, Max Kutner, Chris Garcia,
Dave Johnsen, and Don Preston.
Photo courtesy of Max Kutner.


Well, I tried. I had two passes to last night’s performance by the Grandmothers of Invention at the Sellersville Theater, and despite my best efforts ― emails to friends, and, when they received no response, a posting on Faceboook ―I found no takers for the second one. If you haven’t guessed, yes, my feelings are hurt, but it was my friends’ loss, because the group put on a lively, satisfying (if very loud) show.

The band had members, only two of whom actually played with Frank ― 81-year-old Don Preston on synthesizer and iPhone, and the irrepressible Napoleon Murphy Brock, who acted as master of ceremonies, plays tenor sax and flute, and got a good aerobic workout with his high-stepping choreography. (He’s more audience-friendly than Frank ever was.) Chris Garcia hidden in his fortress of percussion, channeled the voice of Captain Beefheart, and Dave Johnsen, formerly of Project/Object, had a few shining moments on bass, but it was the young Max Kutner who stole the show, standing in for Zappa on guitar. If his solos lacked Frank’s fierce intelligence, they surpassed his virtuosity, and nearly every one was greeted with a standing ovation. Much of the time, Napoleon seemed content to stand aside and let him go.

The band played all of One Size Fits All (minus “Sofa II” in German), and a suite from Burnt Weeny Sandwich, along with a few random selections. In the twenty years since Zappa’s death (has it really been that long?), his heirs have boiled away his obsessions and his anger, distilling the silliness and the razor-sharp music making that have become his legacy.

Long live the Grandmothers.

Oh, and fellows, if you’re looking for someone who can do the German lyrics to “Sofa,” I’m available. Ich bin Eier aller Arten, after all.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Why do we like sad music?

The Sunday New York Times has an interesting article by Professor Ai Kawakami describing a study on listeners' reactions to music the author characterizes as sad. The conclusion — that there is a disconnect between the emotion we feel while listening and the emotional content we think a piece music expresses — may have a certain plausibility, but I can't believe these researchers have ever listened to music. Consider the methodology:

A participant would listen to an excerpt and then answer a question about his felt emotions: “How did you feel when listening to this music?” Then he would listen to a “happy” version of the excerpt — i.e., transposed into the major key — and answer the same question. Next he would listen to the excerpt, again in both sad and happy versions, each time answering a question about other listeners that was designed to elicit perceived emotion: “How would normal people feel when listening to this music?”

Our participants answered each question by rating 62 emotion-related descriptive words and phrases — from happy to sad, from bouncy to solemn, from heroic to wistful — on a scale from 0 (not at all) to 4 (very much).


Who ever listens to music in this way? I rarely talk about my own reactions to music in emotional terms, but my response, especially with longer pieces, depends long-term direction. In other words, the one moment of ecstasy (no jokes, please) grows out of everything that has come before it, as well as the mood I bring to it. I don’t see how much emotion I could experience listening to one excerpt after another in a clinical setting. It would be too much like taking a test, and nothing like an aesthetic encounter. After a while, and not a very long while, I’d stop feeling anything at all.

And how unstable would a listener have to be to shift mood every few minutes just because the music changed? "Now I feel happy! Now I feel sad!" The music used in the study — Glinka’s “La S├ęparation” (F minor), Felix Blumenfeld’s “Sur Mer” (G minor) and Enrique Granados’s “Allegro de Concierto” (in C sharp major and G major versions — must have been extraordinary if it could flip emotions on and off like a light switch. I've got to get me some of that.

Interview with Don Preston

The Grandmothers of Invention will appear at the Sellersville Theater September 29, and I had the pleasure of writing a preview, based on a phone interview with Don Preston. He spoke to me from his home in LA, and evidently and evidently had just gotten out of bed. You can read the article here.

Preston played keyboards for Frank Zappa in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He appears on Uncle Meat and 200 Motels, among other recordings. His last gig with Frank, he said, was the set that produced Mothers at the Roxy and Elsewhere.

The Grandmothers has five members, only two of whom played with Frank. Besides, Don, there is Napoleon Murphy Brock, who also played on Roxy. The other three are relative newcomers, and two of them — guitarist Max Kutner and bassist Dave Johnsen — are quite young.

Don said they will perform the complete One Size Fits All album. We discussed, briefly, the difficulty of Frank's music, which, of course, as with Carter, is not the point. The difficulty arises from the desire to say something other than what is commonly being said (nor it is the only possible response to such a desire), but it strikes me that Frank didn't care for rock musicians. When he put his bands together, he tended to hire instrumentalists who were either classically trained or had a background in jazz. (The original Mothers were the exception, since they played together as the Soul Giants before Frank joined and took over the group.) He and Don Preston originally bonded over Stockhausen, and it was only later than Don came to appreciate the pop and doo wop elements in Frank's work.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

More coments on my Carter talk

These two comments from members of the Philadelhoa Friends of Classical Music:

"Wonderful lecture given by Joe Barron, well thought out, and capturing the tenor of Carter's compositional life. I had not realized the extent of his personal relationship with Charles Ives, and I especially enjoyed some of the compare and contrast examples of both of their work."

"I knew nothing of Elliott Carter beyond his name, and Joe's presentation gave me a running start for future listening. He gave a solid overview of Carter & his music's development along with musical examples, but, as usual, there wasn't enough time for enough music! And as a result, I plan on listening to more of this composer's music."

"I suspect that exploring Carter's music on one's own could be much like entering a dark, thorny woods, but the journey was made far easier and more productive with Joe as our expert guide."

Seriously, I'm available for your next corporate event.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Speaking of Carter

After decades of listening, study, and concertgoing, I gave my first real lecture on Elliott Carter last night. I spoke to the Philadelphia Fans of Classical Music at a beautiful private apartment (co-op, really) in Melrose Park, about a fifteen-minute drive from where I live. About 18 people showed up, and they all stayed to the end.

It was Carter 101. I covered the basics of his life and goals and played about twenty or so musical examples, which I burned onto a single CD a week ago. I spoke off the cuff, with a few notes, and had to edit myself as I went along. I had only two ours to speak, with a ten-minute snack break. That wasn’t nearly enough time to impart all of the information I could have. (I never mentioned the Congress for Cultural Freedom.) I therefore focused on Carter’s on Carter’s relationship to Charles Ives and his music, and his appreciation for poetry, which helped me organize my thoughts. I felt I stammered, faltered, repeated myself too often, but no one seemed to notice. I was tired and hungry when it was over, as I am after an afternoon of cycling.

Reaction has been uniformly positive. The comments left on the group’s website have been complimentary. One person even said she’d be interested in a second, more detailed presentation focused on a single time period or a few pieces. Another said he was particularly impressed that “18 people came and listened to music by one of the most difficult composers of modern times, stayed through the whole presentation, and came away (in large part) loving it.”

Now that I know I can do this, I’m thinking of hiring myself out for weddings and graduation parties.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Voyager I crosses into interstellar space

NASA has confirmed that Voyager I, now more than 11 billion miles from earth, crossed the heliopause in August 2012, thus becoming the first manmade object to enter interstellar space.

Americans are now littering on a cosmic scale.