Archive for the “Mix Tape” Category

I recently gave an interview about our activities at Sequenza 21 to the blog A Closer Listen. I also curated a mix for them, consisting of selections by composers who participated in our 2011 concert.

You can read the article and hear the mix here.

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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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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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[Ed. — After many years in NYC but fresh to my own stomping ground of Houston, Chris Becker has offered to write some semi-regular musings on the new-music scene down thisaway. His own introduction:

In its March 2010 Global Ear column, The Wire magazine described Houston as “the weirdest and wildest of (Texas) cities” with a “rich tradition of unofficial and DIY art.” Speaking as a recent transplant from New York City (where I lived for twelve years), I can confirm that our British friends were on point with their analysis of H-Town. I am in my third month as a native, and only just beginning to take in the breadth and variety of Houston’s cultural scene– especially its music. Although I’m also enjoying the city’s classical music (Houston Grand Opera, Mercury Baroque) each dispatch I bring to you from Houston will focus on contemporary composition, improvised idioms, and works that integrate theatre, the visual arts, and/or dance. Inevitably, my love for rock, folk, blues, country, zydeco, and all out noise (Red Krayola, anyone?) 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.]

2009-2010 marks the sixth year that Houston’s contemporary ensemble and presenting organization Musiqa has presented its “loft” concert series at the Contemporary Arts Museum of Houston. Each concert program is produced in conjunction with and inspired by a different exhibition. In May, CAMH debuted the show Hand + Made featuring works that blur the lines between craft (crochet, pottery, glass blowing) and performance. As a composer who has collaborated with clay and crochet artists (often in combination with dancers and improvising musicians), I dug the curatorial concept immediately and looked forward to hearing what pieces the composer founded and led Musiqa would choose for Hand + Made’s corresponding May 20th concert.

The concert took place at CAMH with the musicians surrounded by the artwork on display – including several elaborately designed and decorated “sound suits” by artist Nick Cave (a former dancer with Alvin Ailey’s troupe, not the singer with the Bad Seeds). I was happy to see people of all ages and filled CAMH’s space for this concert, using up all of the available benches and much of the floor space.

The program – performed by three percussionists (Craig Hauschildt, Alec Warren, and Blake Wilkins) included Clapping Music by Steve Reich, Panneaux en acier by Marcus Maroney (a beautiful and relatively new work for percussion soloist on various metals), Vinko Globokar’s primal piece of solo performance art Corporal (bravely and convincingly realized by a half naked Craig Hauschildt who was required to – among other actions – slap and strike parts of his body), and Ohko for three djembes by Iannis Xenakis. The performances were incredible, blurring the lines between what was composed, what was improvised, and where “music” as one might define it begins and ends. Musiqua’s program illuminated the creative interzone that is “in-between categories” where many of Hand + Made’s artists (and many Houstonians) reside.

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Artist and performer Yet Torres is responsible for the handmade design and packaging of the new double CD Screwed Anthologies: improvised music under the influence of DJ Screw featuring David Dove (trombone) and Lucas Gorham (guitar, lap steel). David and Lucas celebrated this CD release Sunday May 30th at Resonant Interval – a concert series (“Sideways Shows For A Straight Laced City”) that features Houston’s experimental, electronic and improvising artists. David is the director of Nameless Sound, a presenting organization that, in addition to bringing experimental musicians from around the world to Houston, offers music instruction to young people in the public schools, community centers, and homeless shelters. Screwed Anthologies is a “disjointed exhibition” initially conceived at Labotanica (an experimental laboratory for art and performance located in the historic Third Ward) featuring music and mixed media performances inspired by the “screwed and chopped” music of the formidable DJ Screw. The venue for the Resonant Interval performance was an empty storefront located a few doors away from a cool wine and beer bar with its own show on its walls of lovely and haunting photographs of New Orleans. Once again, the space was filled with people ready to take in the music.

Throughout David and Lucas’ set, excerpts of DJ Screw’s music were cued and superimposed over the sometimes (but not always) heavily processed sound of David’s trombone and Lucas’ lap steel and guitar. “Under the influence…” is the tag to this project, but legacy or homage did not seem to drive the actual improvising in performance (although both David and Lucas created sounds that harkened to the slow tempos, shifted pitches and soulful timbres of DJ Screw’s mixes). The disparate qualities of each sound (including the stray transmissions of DJ Screw) hung in the air like parts of a mobile (or a collection of Duchamp ready-mades) creating an experience where one seemed to hear each component to the music as an individual entity sitting in its own time and space, even as the music unfolded in the context of a duo (trio?) improvisation. The influence of Houston-born Pauline Oliveros was apparent, along with the sounds of Houston’s birds, traffic, and weather. I am excited to hear (via bootlegging or perhaps another CD-R or two…) how this music develops on the road. David and Lucas are currently touring Screwed Anthologies throughout the South and East Coast. You can get the tour dates here.

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