Author Archive

What Not With Skyline (photo by Chris Becker)

As a recent transplant to Houston, I am just beginning to take in the breadth and variety of the city’s cultural scene, especially its music. Each article will focus on contemporary composition, improvised idioms, and performances that integrate theater, visual arts, and/or dance. Inevitably, my love for rock, folk, blues, jazz, country, zydeco, and all out noise will creep into future writing. The goal is to expand people’s perceptions (including my own) about how and where one can find innovative music.

Last Month (August) I visited Kaboom Books for the first time and in addition to buying a few great used books including a copy of Ralph Ellison’s Shadow and Act with its wonderful essay about Charlie Christian, I met and spoke at length with one of the owners about Kaboom’s former home New Orleans. For this summer’s White Linen Night, Houston sound artist Doren Bernard turned Kaboom Books into a sound installation with a mysterious piece of entirely comprised of sounds recorded within the store. As I moved through the aisles of Kaboom that night, Doren’s piece seemed to sit at the edges of my peripheral hearing creating an effect similar to seeing a ghost and then – after blinking your eyes – seeing nothing but the space where your spectre had made its presence known.

A friend from New York asked me for a little more detail regarding my comparisons in last month’s Houston Mixtape #3: The Epicenter Of Noise between his city and Houston and each town’s respective “noise” level. He rightly pointed out that Houston, being more spread out with little or no zoning regulations, results in a more horizontal (as opposed to vertical) cityscape thereby diffusing and spreading out the noise of the city.

Horizontal also means you get to see wide-open skies and gigantic cloud formations from an uncluttered 360-degree perspective.

Clouds Over Tommie Vaughn (photo by Chris Becker)

Maybe this is a stretch, but I do wonder if Houston’s big skies and flat lands inspired the artist Mark Rothko directly or indirectly while creating the fourteen paintings contained in the Rothko Chapel. I do know Rothko worked closely with Philip Johnson and Houston architects Howard Barnstone and Eugene Aubry in designing the sunlit chapel that would contain his fourteen paintings, and there’s no question in my mind that sunlight played a role in the planning and construction of the chapel. On a recent visit to the chapel (which is located in Houston’s Museum District), I was struck at how dramatically Rothko’s paintings transform in appearance as the light from the chapel skylight shifts in relation to cloud cover and Houston’s crazy weather patterns. These changes occur almost minute-to-minute, and the paintings transcend their frames, colors, and textures.

It makes absolute sense then that composer Morton Feldman was asked by John and Dominique de Menil to compose a tribute to Rothko. In his essay regarding the resulting work Rothko Chapel , Feldman writes that his choice of instruments was affected by the space of the chapel as well as by Rothko’s paintings and that he wanted the music to “permeate the whole octagonal-shaped room” just as the paintings seem to continue beyond the borders of their canvases. It’s a ways ahead, but on February 11, 2011, the Houston Chamber Choir and Da Camera of Houston will present Feldman’s Rothko Chapel as well as works by John Cage and Erik Satie in the Rothko Chapel to celebrate its 40th anniversary.

On September 21st, 7:30 pm at the Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, you can hear a performance of Thomas Tallis‘ 40 part motet Spem in Alium by the Houston Chamber Choir. This is another piece of music that permeates “the whole” of any space it is heard.

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Trills Flavia. (Music and Film by Jonathan Jindra. Dancer: Paola Georgudis. 
Girl in TV: Valentina Canastaro. 
Assisted by: Simon Pena)

Jonathan Jindra’s weekly experimental music concerts Binarium Sound Series continues 8pm Sunday nights here in Houston, Texas at The Mekong Underground, 2808 Milan Street (right next to Kohn’s bar). This is a wonderful series where you will hear intimate performances by local and visiting artists performing composed, improvised, electronic, and acoustic experimental music.

This Sunday’s August 29th Binarium program features Jonathan’s electronica project Trills. Trills is manifested in Jonathan’s live performances as well as several online digital releases – many being collaborations with other similarly minded artists. His recent full length split with Glasgow artist Dissolved entitled PH:14 has been his most successful release to date with over 43,000 downloads in its first month of release. Trills’ repertoire to my ears is rooted in the music of groundbreaking electronic artists like Tangerine Dream, Vangelis (especially his soundtrack to Bladerunner) and Popol Vuh.But Jonathan has name checked for me a handful of more contemporary artists as influences, including Boards of Canada, Pan Sonic, and Autechre.

I’ve listened to a bunch of Jonathan’s music and still feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of his talents and repertoire. And I don’t want to pigeonhole Trills with only a cursory familiarity of countless 21st century electronic artists that flood the web trading digital files of original groundbreaking music the way I traded cassette tapes of the same back in the day. The best thing to do is go to the Trills website and enjoy the music and video samples, and then forget what you’ve heard when you check out this Sunday’s show. Jonathan’s set will be accompanied by custom video projection. About This Product joins Trills on this bill.

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Outside the Eldorado Ballroom, Houston, TX (Photo by Chris Becker)

…(Houston is) one of the epicenters of noise bands and experimental music. Nobody even knows that, you know?Dan Workman of Houston’s Sugarhill Studios.

Here’s an excerpt of a recording I made of a Houston thunderstorm using a Zoom H4 recorder positioned just behind the front screen door to our house. You might want to turn down the volume about half way through if you listen to this headphones:

Houston rain and thunder

Part One

New York City – the city where I lived for twelve years before relocating to Houston, Texas – is LOUD. In my mind’s ear, I can STILL hear the car horns, the jackhammers, the fire truck sirens (we lived one block away from a fire station), the garbage trucks flipping over dumpsters filled with glass and concrete (BEEP! BEEP! BEEP! BEEP!) and…the subways. Oh Lord, the SUBWAYS! Two musician friends of mine wore earplugs every time they traveled underground. My wife ALWAYS covered her ears when the trains screeched to a halt at the platforms. Loudspeakers in the stations and on the trains intermittently blared out jaunty yet nearly incomprehensible warnings about rerouted trains and “suspicious packages.” (Remember…if you SEE something, SAY something!) And microphone feedback? The MTA’s gotcha covered.

Quick! Without thinking, imitate a New Yorker! You started YELLING, right?

So being a sensitive composer with sensitive ears, the first thing I noticed about Houston once we’d moved down here is how much quieter it is compared to New York City. And what tweaked my ears my first few weeks on the ground wasn’t the omnipresent hum of the Interstate 610 loop. It was the unpredictable antiphonal chatter of Houston’s bird population. The screeches and cooing were so intriguing to me, I spent the first couple months in our new city composing a piece of “musique concrete” utilizing several recordings I’d made of the birds in our front and back yards. There is a truly rural almost wild (as in wilderness) vibe to the city outside of downtown and the aforementioned beltways.

How did a city that to my ears is so much quieter than NYC come to be known as an “epicenter of noise”? Make no mistake, some of the Houston noise artists I’ve checked out make Nine Inch Nails sound like Sting. But one thing the Houston musicians I’ve reached out to regarding the “noise” scene agree on is that one person’s “noise” is another’s poetry. The hierarchal notion that a note from a clarinet somehow contains more emotional profundity than the sound of a hammer hitting a nail doesn’t really exist in the minds of (most) 21st century musicians (One of my “non-noise” composer friends pointed out that noise just like “music” can “evoke a wide range of sentiment”). But my research yielded so MANY Texas musicians either explicitly flying the “noise” flag (Concrete Violin, Spike The Percussionist, Richard Ramirez) or so loosely attached to however one might define “noise” (the grime meets speed metal music of B L A C K I E is one such example) that I wondered who or what exactly I could write about in this dispatch.

It occurs to me that one of my favorite recordings, “Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground,” was created by a Texan (Blind Willie Johnson in case you didn’t know). The timbre Johnson’s vocal lies somewhere between a whisper and a scream while his phrasing conveys a feeling of both defiance and resignation. Consider the title Johnson gave to this recording. Has the uniquely Southwestern connection to the earth – the dirt that we all will return to one day – disappeared in the years since the 1920’s when Johnson tracked his performance? I don’t think so. And in the noise of that recording (the slide on the guitar strings…the rumble of the grooves of the record itself…) is there some precedent for the Dadist freak outs of Houston ’s Red Krayola? Or the electric jug playing of the 13th Floor Elevators? Or the stinging strings of Lightning Hopkins, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, or Little Joe Washington?

Perhaps “noise” – that succinct descriptive noun – is actually in practice a portal to a sensory experience that isn’t so easy to describe but one we immediately feel and understand. To quote Morton Feldman: “…these moments when one loses control…and with a thrust there is no sound, no tone…nothing left but the significance of our first breath.”

Like rain and thunder. Or “cicadas making noise…” Or the crazy Houston doves that carry on their pygmy like conversations from the trees around my house from sun up to sun down.

Part Two

Alexandra Marculewicz Adshead at Labotanica (Photo by Chris Becker)

Houston’s gallery and performance space Labotanica is currently hosting a monthly concert series called hereherhear that features women in experimental music. The first concert in June included artists from Houston, Baltimore, and New York. Last Friday, I attended July’s hereherhear concert event featuring the collective Pear Prickley Pear, vocalist/ composer Alexandra Marculewicz Adshead, and DJ/Electronic artist Khrystah Gorham. On display at Labotanica was Yet Torres’ mixed media installation EYE-CANDY DELECTABLY which explores objectification and the body via Torres’ own mysterious, grotesque, and at times humorous iconography. Plenty of people turned up for the concert, and I was happy to see that at a little after 7pm the performers would be playing to a full house.

Earlier in July, Alexandra invited members of the Houston community to email her mp3s of samples that she might incorporate into her performance at Labotanica. I responded with my front and back yard bird piece and was delighted when Alexandra contacted me to say that she would indeed use it for her upcoming gig. Samples from Pear Prickley Pear and composer Steve Layton would also become a part of Alexandra’s show.

Alexandra’s recorded works blend composed structures with improvised sometimes heavily processed vocals that at times is character driven or seemingly inspired by the sounds of nature, animals, and even her one-year old daughter. What struck me when I first listened to her music online was the sound of her voice – her tone and the emotive quality it contained. A voice sometimes jumps out at you in that way.

In performance, Alexandra utilized the laptop computer to play back the composed structures of her works while processing her live vocals through a variety of unpredictable effects. In one piece, she told the story of a woman’s descent into madness with a delivery that initially sounded as if she were reading a slightly unnerving bedtime story until flange and delay transformed her spoken words into the sound of the voice you hear when your frontal lobe isn’t functioning. Her closing piece did indeed incorporate my bird (noise?) piece into multidimensional landscape where slowly looping chorale-like vocals rose to several crescendos before morphing dramatically into a texture that included percussive effects and (more) bird song from Layton. The whole set was a thoughtful and engaging blend of techniques and technologies.


I wonder if “noise” as Houston has come to know it is due for yet another wave of creative development. For a movement that is by nature very “underground” – much of Houston’s experimental artists are well documented thanks to the Internet and what I believe is a very Texan impulse to preserve history (and share some good stories) in words both written and sung. Or screamed. Houston is a comfortable and nurturing place for experimental artists. And there are probably many reasons for that fact that I have yet to sort out.

(Special thanks to Joseph Benzola, Douglas Henderson, Mark Kemp, Daniel Salazar, Ryan Supak, John Stone, Yet Torres, and Michael Vincent Waller for their sharing with me their thoughts on noise.)

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Photo of The Ink Spots Museum by Chris Becker

Being a recent transplant to Houston, Texas, I am only just beginning to take in the breadth and variety of the city’s cultural scene– especially its music. Each dispatch I bring to you from Houston will focus on contemporary composition, improvised idioms, and performances that integrate theatre, the visual arts, and/or dance. Inevitably, my love for rock, folk, blues, jazz, country, zydeco, and all out noise will creep into future writing, the overall goal being to expand peoples’ perception (including my own) of where one can find innovative forward-thinking music.

There may be a connection between Houston’s (lack of) zoning laws and the way that the past, present, and future inform each other throughout its landscape. Maybe that sounds like a cliche. But, if you’ve ever ridden the Houston’s Metro 80 bus through the Third Ward up Dowling Street, past Emancipation Park, and – just before turning left at Sparkle’s Burger Spot toward the glass cathedrals of downtown – observed an unfenced horse enjoying some grass in someone’s front yard, you know that I’m not talking some tourist board hogwash. There are many “zones” throughout this city dedicated to celebrating its history and nurturing its creative spirit. And they sometimes seem to appear out of nowhere.

The Ink Spots Museum (located in Houston Heights) is dedicated to archiving and celebrating the life and work of Texas born guitarist, singer, and educator Huey Long. The museum’s curator Anita Long (Huey’s daughter) welcomed my wife and I for a visit earlier this month and like many Houstonians I’ve met since our relocation from New York City, she was generous with her knowledge of Houston’s cultural scene. Every musician I know would take great comfort in knowing that a family member like Anita would take care of their legacy after they were gone. The museum and its accompanying website (featuring plenty of photos, audio, and video) serves to remind people that the history of American music includes the collective participation of many, many artists each committed to their respective craft. Which is one way of saying you might know that Huey Long was a member of  The Ink Spots (from 1944 to 1946 with Bill Kenny as their leader), but not know he also played guitar in ensembles that included Dizzy Gillespie, Earl Father Hines, Sarah Vaughn, Charlie Parker, Fats Navarro, Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, and many other luminaries of 20th century jazz and popular music.

Huey Long (who lived to be 105!) was born in 1904 in Sealy, Texas. For the people in Sealy as well as on the farms in surrounding areas, music was a vital part of a day-to-day dominated by hard labor (by the time he was a teenager, Huey was working as a sharecropper). Describing those formative years in Sealy in his pictorial autobiography The Huey Long Story, Huey recalls the names of no less than four different pianists (including his brother Sammy) playing “rags” on the pianos in people’s homes. “Ragtime” was indeed heard in Texas in the early 1900s as was what would become known as “the blues.” Huey’s sister Willie – also a pianist -studied music in Houston, at Wiley College, and brought back to Sealy classical and popular sheet music to play note for note when “grown ups” were in the house and improvise off of when the youngsters were on their own (some parents considered improvisation to be almost sinful behavior).

In addition to classical, popular, and ragtime music for piano, Huey was exposed to the up-tempo groove oriented music (my description) played on guitar at all night “suppers” (which included plenty of dancing, eating, and gambling) as well as its more somber and “sorrowful” counterpart known as “slow blues.” Huey began playing both guitar and piano, eventually moving to ukulele – a very popular instrument at the time. After setting out on his own at the age of fifteen and relocating in Houston, he began playing banjo (tuning it like a ukulele but an octave lower) and joined the Frank Davis Louisiana Jazz Band. This was a popular and well-respected band in its time, that played for both whites and blacks in Houston’s segregated communities. He would begin playing guitar after relocating from Houston to Chicago and joining Texas Guinan’s Cuban Band (who traveled to Chicago from New York City to play the 1933 World’s Fair). Later, Huey would join Fletcher Henderson’s Band and Earl “Father” Hines’ All Star Band (I apologize for skipping ahead a bit, and neglecting a lot of formative music making…)

Fast forwarding a bit…

Two sessions Huey did around 1946 with trumpeter Fats Navarro, tenor saxophonist Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, pianist Al Haig, bassist Gene Ramey, and drummer Denzil Best were released on two separate records: In The Beginning…Bebop (which is a compilation of sessions by three different bands) and of Fats Navarro’s recording Nostalgia. These recordings feature some truly kick ass guitar playing from Huey who definitely holds his own in the company of two phenomenally creative horn players. The rhythmic interplay between guitar and piano (and bass and drums…) is incredibly funky. This is bebop (probably) inspired by the music heard at Sealy’s all night suppers: Danceable, unpredictable, and filled with sly humor.

Huey Long in 2008 (photo courtesy of Anita Long)

Teaching and composing music – including several chord melody solos based on themes from European Classical repertoire – would be a major part of Huey’s life along with researching his family tree creating an exhibit of his life’s work that would become The Ink Spots Museum. Anita talked to us about the possibility of the museum one day becoming a virtual exhibit – and there is plenty of history and music from Huey’s life as well as from Texas that should be shared with the world. For now, in addition to the website, there is this small museum – a standing structure in the midst of Houston’s un-zoned landscape – that you can make an appointment to visit. 

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