Friday, June 08, 2018

Anthony, Kate, and Life

After a long night of restless tossing and turning, I sink into a chair with a cup of coffee I can barely taste. And I read that Anthony Bourdain is dead, and start tearing up.

Anthony Bourdain was your cool friend -- the one who always seemed to know things you didn't about places to go or good food or great music or what really goes on in the kitchen. It was like he had figured everything out. This interesting person with a fun, fascinating, challenging job that he created, who could live more than comfortably doing exactly what he wanted. Who wouldn't want to hang out with someone like that? Who doesn't dream of being someone like that?

Bourdain said, of his life:

I travel around the world, eat a lot of shit, and basically do whatever the fuck I want.

His eyes, his taste, his work, and his writing said he was restless. He periodically reinvented himself and adjusted what he did for a living. Today I find myself wondering if all that was less about curiosity and more about fear of standing still, or just not liking what he woke up to every morning. Maybe it will be different in another country. Maybe it will be different tomorrow. Perhaps he just found himself at a place where he saw no more reinvention, no futures, no more places to go to, only places to run from.

Bourdain seemed to hunger for life. He was an avatar of, and an advocate for, enjoying life's pleasures. To see him, of all people, decide that it wasn't worth getting up tomorrow for another bite of something delicious and new is heartbreaking.

Worse, I find myself wondering if he still knows something we don't.

Kate Spade, too. Another person who seemed to have set herself up in a life most of us aspire to. Starting and running a successful company making beautiful things. In her case, at least, there was some history and suggestion of depression. It is still tragic, but at least has a clearer cause.

Their suicides are shocking. We assume both of these people had near-ideal lives, complete with loved ones and children. Even if they found themselves under too much pressure or not enjoying things anymore, we believe they could just cash out, retire, and spend the rest of their days in comfort, doing whatever they pleased.

Bourdain said "Life is complicated. It's filled with nuance. It's unsatisfying."

Our society tends to conflate happiness with satisfaction. Similarly, it also tells us that both happiness and satisfaction are destinations, and you can arrive if you only have enough money to pay the fare.

But research and our own experiences tell us this is not true. Happiness is fleeting, and satisfaction often unrelated. There's arguably nothing worse than being happy but profoundly unsatisfied.

Happiness and satisfaction aren't destinations. They are paths, ways of living. You have to get up every day and put your feet on them. And you will find throughout your life that the directions keep changing. What got you there yesterday may not be what gets you there today, or tomorrow, or 5 years from now. That is part of the deal, and part of the joy of living.

Anthony and Kate were just like you and me. They woke up every morning to the realization their lives weren't what they expected them to be. But they also knew their lives were better than they could have imagined. And still not right, not enough, not OK.

These sudden, voluntary ends are particularly poignant for me. Of late, I am painfully reminded of how precious every moment, every sunrise, every day, every sunset is. We might all wake up not exactly where we want to be, but every new day is a chance to try again, to try to find ourselves and the lives we want.

I will take every uncomfortable, thrashing night, every bleary morning, every boring meeting, every minute of traffic right alongside every trip to a new location, every new flavor, every dream.

I want it all, I want it, I want it, I want it. Give me every minute, because there is nothing else. Watching others decide "nothing" is preferable is wrenching, especially when they were so full of so much good life and love.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Albums of Influence: The Pearl by Harold Budd and Brian Eno

This is my all-time favorite record.

I have loved it since I first heard it. I have it on vinyl and compact disc. I carry a copy of it with me on my phone and on nearly every device I own that plays music.. It is in my car. I want it played at my funeral. I have listened to it more frequently than anything else, and have periodically barred myself from playing it so I don't burn out. My wife is sick of hearing it.

"The Pearl" is an album of piano music, some electric piano, some acoustic piano. There are field and nature recordings, sound effects, and processing. Perhaps a synthesizer here and there. Some of the pieces are structured, albeit obliquely, without the clear delineations that mark so many compositions. Some of the pieces are through-composed or improvised. The 11 tracks are all in the 3-5 minute range, never outstaying their welcome or growing boring. I do not think I have ever skipped one partway through.

 There are no vocals, no pop songs, no hooks, no soaring choruses. "The Pearl" is not catchy, ugly, or dissonant. It is not "challenging", and is rather easy to listen to. In those respects, it is quite different from many other records that I respect and/or love.

It is beautiful, mysterious, dark, melancholy, subtle, and perfect.

"The Pearl" was recorded in 1984 by Harold Budd and Brian Eno, with Eno and Daniel Lanois co-producing. Budd and Eno had made a similar record in 1980, the nearly-as-good "Ambient 2: The Plateaux of Mirror", and "The Pearl" is a refinement of those ideas.

Eno, of course, is thought of as the father of ambient music. He is well-known for his work with many great artists and bands, including Roxy Music, David Bowie, and U2, and his life, works, and thinking are well-documented.

Harold Budd is less famous, but I find him fascinating. This interview from 2017 offers some perspective on the unique and fascinating mix of experiences that brought him to The Thing He Does.

Harold Budd, 2014
Budd is a man of interesting contradictions. He freely admits that he is not a good piano player, capable of only playing in the distinctive style of his pieces. He has also said that he hates pianos, and thinks they're ugly and aesthetically offensive. When he got rid of one one in his house, he said every morning he would have his tea, look over at where it had been and think "thank god that goddamn piano isn't there". And yet, he has created more than a dozen albums of what can best be described as beautiful piano music.

For a pianist who makes ambient music, Budd originally wanted to be the world's greatest jazz drummer, and spent some of his youth playing drums with the legendary Albert Ayler while in the Army.

Unlike Eno, Budd comes from a serious compositional background, but says he doesn't listen to music, and doesn't like composing. He has no instruments in his house, because he never gets the urge to play music. He draws his inspiration from visual art. He comes up with the titles of pieces first, and writes the music later.

In 2004, Budd said he was retiring (to my great disappointment). But a year later, he started a streak of writing, recording, and releasing albums that saw him put out more work in his "retirement" than he had before he retired! Not only that, but I find his recent releases superior to most of the records he put out in his early days.

In addition to his work with Brian Eno, Harold Budd has collaborated with Robin Guthrie (of Cocteau Twins), Cocteau Twins themselves, Andy Partridge (of XTC), Clive Wright (of The Avengers), and John Foxx, among other musicians.

Budd is now 82. His last released album was 2014's lovely "Jane 12-21", following "Jane 1-11" in 2013. Supposedly there's a third in the series coming. I am looking forward to it.

"The Pearl" is my favorite record of all time, and Harold Budd is my favorite musician. I have made my own ambient music, frequently (too) derivative of my influences. While I still write pop songs with blocky and clear structure, big choruses, and vocals, I hope to eventually be skilled enough to create the kind of suggestive beauty that "The Pearl" seems to effortlessly provide.

As I approach 50, it seems easier to see myself making beautiful, quiet, instrumental works like this than continuing to craft club-ready rock anthems or dark alternative concept albums.

"The Pearl" was another record that showed me how music can be beautiful. It can be timeless and free from any genre (or simply defining its own genre). It continues to suggest new ways of composition, free from grids, rules, "-isms", and tradition. Budd himself shows a compositional path that seems vital into old age, and without mastery of any instrument.

If you have never heard "The Pearl", it is highly recommended, and available for purchase as a CD or downloads from Amazon or iTunes, and is available on all major streaming services.

If you want more Harold Budd, comparable or similar works include:

  • "Ambient 2: The Plateaux of Mirror" by Harold Budd and Brian Eno.
  • "Translucence/Drift Music" by John Foxx and Harold Budd, which continues in the Eno direction.
  • "Bordeaux" by Harold Budd and Robin Guthrie, which adds Guthrie's guitar playing to Budd's keys.
  • "Jane 12-21" by Harold Budd, which is a kind of survey of Budd's style.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Albums of Influence: United States Live by Laurie Anderson

I have written about a number of musicians throughout this series, many of whom I would say transcend the idea of being a mere "musician" and rise to the level of "artist". However, of all the influential albums I can think of, of all the influential people, there are very few "artists" in the classic sense. And of all of those, at the top of the list is Laurie Anderson.

I had become aware of Laurie Anderson due to the freak success of her early 80s work, particularly "O Superman" and "Big Science", which ended up on some mixtapes Tim Reynolds made for me (and which were arguably the most "influential" records ever for me). I was intrigued, and when a girl I was after expressed some interest in her, I investigated further.

Laurie Anderson is relatively well-known, and is the rare "avant-garde" artist who has achieved some measure of commercial success. She is a classically-trained and talented violinist, and has several art degrees.

Anderson has always been interested in creating new instruments, or new ways of working with her existing instruments. In pre-MIDI and pre-digital sampler days, she created a "tape bow" violin, where the bow consisted of a piece of magnetic tape and, in place of strings, the violin body had a tape bow mounted. In this way, Anderson could "perform" a sample, moving it back and forth at whatever speed she wanted.

Another innovation involved contact microphones. Anderson would play violin in a door frame, and as the bow knocked against the sides of the door frame, the sounds of the knocking would be amplified and incorporated. She also did a piece where she put a contact microphone on her skull, and knocked on her head, amplifying the resonant sounds that result.

Anderson is less a musician than an artist, and her performances have always incorporated thoughtful and important visual elements (words and/or imagery) which are as essential as the music. One of her early art pieces involved her playing violin while strapped into ice skates frozen into a large block of ice. The ice would melt, and she would walk away.

Or this piece, where she built drum machine triggers into a suit, so she could perform thusly:

Anderson was not afraid of technology, and was the sort of artist who seemed to refuse to use it the way it was intended, always looking for the dangerous territory on the edge of acceptable use.

Famously, Anderson adopted the Eventide Harmonizer, using it to transform her voice in real time. Frequently she used this to take her soft, delicate voice and change it into a parody of masculinity and authority.

I found her records were fascinating. There were a few "songs", with had refrains (if not choruses), and hooks of a sort, but which seemed to meander and take their time, acting as vehicles and backgrounds for her elliptical, thought-provoking lyrics. Reading them on a page, it is easy to dismiss them as a kind of pseudo-profundity or stoner-ish observations. But in context, I found them gripping.

Aside from the songs, her records had other pieces that seemed less like songs and more like something between spoken word, comedy, and (slam) poetry. I came for the synthesizers, I stayed for the sheer inventiveness. Who had thought you could make music and records like this?

In 1984, Anderson released "United States Live", a 5-album(!) boxed set documenting two nights of 8-hour performances (minus some purely visual material) she'd given in New York in 1983. By then, she had released two full studio albums, her debut "Big Science" and the lush follow-up "Mister Heartbreak".

Beyond concept albums, "United States Live" suggested that each of her records was part of a larger whole. The album itself was filled with artwork strewn among the credits. Like her other work, it was by turns strange, beautiful, funny, and disturbing.

I bought the vinyl version of the album, and spent many a night in my room, playing side after side. My friends would come over, we'd turn out the lights, and just listen. I thought a lot about what she was doing. How she was thinking about a total artistic work: sound, imagery, performance. How she could take you from laughing to uncertain about how to respond to thinking and feeling. It was like being hypnotized, or listening to a spell being cast.

As I played this record over and over, I thought about what I could do to achieve similar effects. In hindsight, she is one of the most influential artists I have heard, particularly from my formative years. The notion of an intersection between commercial pop and the avant-garde can be traced 100% back to Laurie Anderson. The integration of technology and looking for new possibilities. The careful consideration of visual presentation as part of the audio experience. It is no surprise I wanted to study all of that when I went to college.

Given her visual bent, astoundingly, there is no accompanying video at all for "United States Live". Apparently the audio is the only document of her incredible shows. This doesn't seem to be unusual, unfortunately. Despite her relative importance, the only real "concert film" she's made is 1986's "Home of The Brave". Perhaps she feels the "magic" cannot be adequately captured, and that the viewer must be at the live show, in much the same way photos of artworks are not nearly as powerful as a visit to the gallery.

I saw Anderson perform as often as I could up until the late 90s. She has continued to release the occasional album. She took singing lessons and became a "better" singer. She became more musically elaborate (and, perhaps sadly, conventional), and has worked with Peter Gabriel, Brian Eno, and her late husband Lou Reed, among others. While I always listen to her records, I found them less compelling as she evolved.

In some ways, she was too far ahead of her time. She seems made for the current moment, with her unusual approach to gender. She's female, and has made several records and works focused on the female experience, but has never been conventionally "sexy". Her videos are as important (or more so) as the stand-alone music: Made for YouTube. Her content is not just meme-able, but practically memes in and of itself, complete with strange imagery and clever and thought-provoking wordplay. Her elaborate stage shows are somewhere between performance art, rock concert, and Vegas spectacle. She's more than a little wary of our rapidly changing society and the role technology plays.

I am listening to "United States Live" as I write this, and it still sounds like she's talking about not just the present, but the imminent future.