Review of 60 Minute Cities–Philly

I would like to thank Richard Allen of A Closer Listen for his enthusiastic words about my recent album of field recordings, 60 Minute Cities–Philadelphia, which is available through Bivouac Recording. Even though the first track features an Eagles celebration–Allen is a Patriots fan–he was still kind in his review, and I’m sorry to have put him through some bad memories for him from the last postseason.

Schuylkill River Trail Field Recording

Field recording by the Schuylkill River Trail.

 

“As a musician (piano, pipe organ, trumpet), he’s grown accustomed to hearing sound as music, which becomes apparent the more one listens to this set.”

It’s always gratifying when someone so succinctly understands my approach. Most of the time I don’t even put earbuds in when I’m out in public because there is just so much music taking place contingently already, and you only get one chance to hear most of it.

“The artist performs a bit of sleight-of-hand on ‘Schuylkill River Trail,’ apologizing for the relative silence of the local river and substituting the sound of a leaking fountain…A similar difficulty is found at the Race Street Pier, known more for train sounds than water echoes.”

These were among the main disappointments of the album recording process. Is it too much to ask some water to slosh against the shore from time to time? It wasn’t even doing it when the wake of a boat would reach the banks! But this is part of the adventures of field recording; you just can’t control everything.

“The album is an invitation to receive local cadences as one might receive local musicians, with an appreciation for the natural, artificial and often unintentional rhythms of life.”

Wonderfully said! Read the whole thing. Thanks again, Richard.

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Schuylkill River Trail Field Recording

Field recording by the Schuylkill River Trail.

Aki Onda on Jose Maceda at Asia Art Archive

I tried to read up on Jose Maceda before Aki Onda’s presentation Tuesday night at the Asia Art Achives in Brooklyn, but I didn’t get very far. The internet just doesn’t quite do it in this case. But Aki Onda has dug deeper, and spoke on this Filipino composer with the authority of someone who’s both steeped in and passionate about his subject. 

Jose Maceda

Aki Onda’s slideshow on Jose Maceda at the Asia Art Archive in America, Brooklyn.

Although born and raised in the Phillipines, Jose Maceda was a citizen of the world. A child prodigy on piano, he took to Paris to study at the Ecole Normale de Musique. He conducted further studies in musicology at Columbia University, anthropology at Northwestern, and finally a doctorate in ethnomusicology at UCLA in 1963. He had associations with some of the most influential musical minds of the 20th century—Nadia Boulanger, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Schaeffer, Iannis Xenakis, and Edgard Varese, among others. 

Ironically, he did not discover the folk music of his own country until a student at Columbia—I believe through the influence of Paul Henry Lang, if I’m not mistaken. Furthermore, it was not until the age of 47, after all his studies were complete, that Maceda wrote his first composition. How’s that for a late start? 

About twenty people crammed a small library to listen to Aki Onda deliver his remarks. There was an air conditioner and a fan running, in addition to background music of Maceda’s compositions. We all had to listen extra hard to hear Onda’s soft-spoken, melodious tenor voice. No one moved a muscle for almost an hour—an entire room in the flow state, a wonderful way to spend an evening.

Aki Onda pointed out that, although Maceda was Filipino, he aimed for a pan-Asian music, incorporating elements from all over the continent, perhaps most notably the use of a panoply of instruments. In a way, this reminds me of the efforts of Buxtehude, Bach, and Handel at unifying musical approaches from across Europe, most especially France, Italy, and Germany. 

At least three of Maceda’s compositions were reviewed on Tuesday night. My memory may be leaving out one or two, as I’m writing from two pages of notes hastily scribbled on the train on my way back to Philly, supplemented by a little internet research. The three were Pagsamba, Cassette 100, and Ugnayam for 20 radio stations. 

Pagsamba is based on the Tagalog text of the Catholic Mass. It’s written for more than 200 musicians, including voices, suspended agung, suspended gandingan, whistle flutes, bamboo buzzers, among other things. It was premiered in 1968 at the Parish of the Holy Sacrifice at the University of the Philipines. The church is circular in shape, and the performers were scattered throughout the audience. At times meditative, at other times haunting, the composition was said, in the words of Onda, to have “freaked out” the pastor of the parish. I’ve discovered on Facebook a restaging of this event that took place last year to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the composer’s birth. 

Cassette 100 premiered at the Cultural Center for the Philipines and features 100 performers carrying cassette tape recorders with pre-recorded music and moving according to a prescribed choreography. Onda showed us the score, and it reminded me of a lot of the aleatoric works I played in district and regional bands in high school. I have to wonder if this isn’t the composition that turned Onda on to Maceda, given his own work with cassette tape in performance. Last year at the University of the Phillipines this composition was given a revival, except this time mp3 players were used rather than cassette players. 

I’m still not sure I understand how Ugnayan works. Written for 20 radio stations, the title was actually suggested by Imelda Marcos, since, if I’m not mistaken, the work was commissioned by the Filipino government. Onda mentioned that, although Maceda had personal political beliefs, he stayed out of the public political sphere and only rubbed elbows with the government because they were funding certain projects.

One of the goals of Ugnayan was to reach out to the general Filipino public, and while, in various locations, they participated by tuning in to the radio, the idea was too esoteric for most of them, so the fruits of their involvement were limited. One has to admire Maceda’s ingenuity, though. He was certainly tuned in to a different frequency, and has there really been anyone like him since? 

I took to Maceda almost immediately upon digging into his music. Pagsamba in particular was giving me a Messiaen vibe—and it should be noted that Olivier Messiaen was also interested in folk music and experimental music. Given all this, not to mention his professional associations, I asked Aki Onda at the end of the presentation if Maceda rubbed elbows with Messiaen, and the answer seems to be yes. To be a fly on the wall in Paris in the early-mid 20th Century! What a world that must have been! I’ll have to add it to the list of places to consider if time travel ever becomes possible. 

Toward the end of the presentation, Onda asked how many of us had heard of Maceda before this event was announced. I think one hand, maybe two hands, went up. Maceda is as-yet little known, and the popularity of Aki Onda’s presentation—it sold out so quickly that he generously agreed to have two sessions that night—seems to be related to his own dedicated following in New York. But this could be the beginning of a kind of Maceda revival. Onda has been researching and promoting him relentlessly, often visiting the Maceda Archives at the University of the Philipines in Quezon City. In addition to Tuesday night’s presentation, other events are in the offing, including a few engagements later this year in Australia. I have a feeling Maceda won’t be obscure for long, and we’ll have Aki Onda to thank for that. 

Power and Light: Remastered Soundtrack from Kansas City

Recently I’ve started going through my earlier tracks and improving their sound, as I’ve learned some new tricks in the past few months. I started with Power and Light, a montage from Kansas City, MO. While I was at it, I decided to combine the footage with some photos of the various locations in that city where I recorded these sounds.

Enjoy.

 

Willie Nelson on the Road Again

I was happy to see this NPR story that Willie Nelson, after a string of illnesses, is headed out on tour.

I missed him last September when he was across the river from Philly in Camden. I was venting about this to a friend from San Diego who said, “He’s coming out here in January.”

“You should go see him.”

“You should come with me.”

I was stoned, fittingly, so I said, “Sure.” I scheduled a four-day trip out west. (This reminds me, I have sound footage from that trip I have yet to produce.)

I woke up at 5am the morning of my flight to the news that my flight had been cancelled due to weather. Ended up on a red eye the next night that took me through two connections. I slept on a bench in the Sacramento airport.

When I got to San Diego at 7:30 the next morning I was so tired I couldn’t feel how exhausted I was, and that’s probably a good thing.

We got to the concert that night and heard an amazing first set by Willie’s son Lukas. Then it was time for the main event.

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The band cranked up Whiskey River. Willie walked up to the mic, hesitated, and retreated.

The band kept playing.

He walked up again, opened his mouth, but nothing came out.

A third attempt still yielded nothing. Willie said, “Sorry!” and walked off stage.

He looked ill and it turns out that was the case. In the moment I was afraid I wouldn’t get to hear him at all. But Lukas did a great job of keeping the band going–one song after the next without interruption. Classy.

As they played Move It On Over I was beginning to accept the fact that I wouldn’t get to hear Willie.

And that’s when he came back out. He mustered up some energy, and he sounded as good as he did when he was forty. I’ll never forget that sound as long as I live. He stayed for another song or two, threw his hat into the crowd and called it a night while the band finished up the concert.

In spite of his illness, it was one of the best concerts I’d ever attended. My friend and I both said we’d do it all over again knowing what was gonna happen.

The next night at the airport I got a text. The concert tickets had been fully refunded. Another classy move.

At 85, Willie Nelson is still more prolific than people half his age, and his voice still sounds good. He’s poised to release an album of Frank Sinatra covers this coming September, having done the same with George Gershwin songs two years ago. In the past three years, he’s released five records. I feel tired just thinking about that, but Willie Nelson shows no signs of slowing down.

I’m looking forward to many more albums and many more concerts to come.

 

Field Recording, Takes and Re-Takes

When I took on the project of adding Philadelphia to Bivouac Recording’s 60 Minute Cities series, my big concern was about time. I had about a month to do it, time was scarce, and you just never know what you’re going to run into.

Penn Square Reflected

Penn Square reflected by the Wanamaker Building.

The Penn Square track is the perfect example of why. I went there to record almost immediately and ran into all kinds of problems. Now there were certain sounds from that location that I wanted to capture–not just the Founder’s Bell and the traffic noise but also a beeping warning device that goes off when a car is approaching street level from within a parking garage.

When I got there in preparation for the 4 o’clock bell, I took my best guess and set up near that garage but in a place where everything else was audible too. But I hit two snags: the beeper never went off, and a bunch of delivery trucks showed up and started slamming metal plates all over the place.  Not exactly the sound I was going for. Besides, my windscreen hadn’t arrived yet and the breeze was just a little too strong.

Having figured out that my first location was no good thanks to the delivery trucks, I moved across the street next to a statue of William McKinley. But this time I set up too near the curb, and the passing vehicles made a giant mess of clipping and other such things.

Strike two, but really it wasn’t any great loss because it was only the 3 o’clock bell, and I wanted more rings if I could get them.

A few days later I finally set up way back, nearer to the City Hall building, literally at the base of the McKinley statue. I waited for the noon bell. Lots of rings to be had. It just so happened that there was a lot of cool traffic noise, much better than the previous two times. Everything was going well. The noon bell started to ring. I held my breath.

While that was happening a lady started walking my direction like she was on a mission.

I thought, Oh no. She’s going to ask me something right in the middle of the best part.

“Sir!”

I looked away, hoping she’d, you know, see my recording equipment and figure the situation out. No dice.

“Sir! Do you have a light!?”

Ugh. What do I do?

I just shook my head no, not wanting to clutter up the recording with chatter, and that was that, but at first I was convinced that this take was also no good.

Back at the studio I wondered what to do. Another take? Use the 3 o’clock take and address the clipping? Hm.

I listened to the noon take one more time, and it was superior in every way, except for this one lady approaching me. I said, to hell with it, I’m going to use it. It’s not what I wanted, but it is representative of the random interactions we have on the street on a daily basis. I have to admit that this feature of the track has grown on me over time, since it adds a human element.

I mention all of this because field recording, at least to me, is more than just setting up a microphone and recording whatever might happen. You have to be set up in exactly the right place acoustically, at the right time, and then still have good luck.

And sometimes, at first, that good luck seems like bad luck.

Find my Instagram and Twitter posts about this album using the hashtag #60minutecitiesphilly

Improvisation on Baa, Baa Black Sheep

A few years ago a friend of mine put me up to recording an organ improvisation on Baa, Baa Black Sheep. I did it, and kept the link private, and shared it sparingly. I didn’t want it to get out.

Today I was going through old SoundCloud footage, stumbled upon this track, and decided, What the hell? Why not? So here it is. Not everything has to be so serious and earnest.

Were I to have the embarrassing surplus of free time necessary to sit down and reset this in a composition–there are priorities, after all–I would definitely trim a lot of fat, but one of the fun things about improv is its impermanence, and the ability to take a second to decide what you’re going to do next, although there is a bit too much vamping in here. Oh well. Enjoy it anyway.