Zoilus by Carl Wilson

Archive for January, 2004

Kagel Exercises

January 31st, 2004

What was Under the Volcano’s version of Mauricio Kagel’s Variete, tonight at The Gladstone Hotel? To start, a variety show. With a beautiful performance by the Art of Time Ensemble, including accordionist extraordinaire Joe Macerollo and other outstanding local players. So: Variety = avant-garde? It seems everything becomes avant-garde again, if you wait 70 years and add extra sex.

This isn’t entirely a complaint, but it was, frankly, harder to take in Kagel’s music due to the visual intensity of the show: ie., naked ladies, naked ladies, naked ladies. Or, if not naked, at least underwear-clad and hanging from trapezes.

In fact part of me wants to go on full feminist attack: Are the men ever near-naked? Do the women ever get speaking parts? I am restrained by the poignant presence of the Eggshell Woman (Rebecca Hope Terry), who speaks only one phrase but the best-measured one in the performance. And then there’s the wonderful dance (notably by Kate Alton and Stephanie Thompson), aerial work (Stacy Clark Baisley and Heather Hammond - despite the prior crack, I would be a gargantuan hypocrite to complain about how sexy it was), fire dancing, clowning, contortionism, magic and, of course, the mysterious semi-animate pig.

In that list lie all the levels of “how can they do that?” that are, for me, essential to the live theatre and too often ignored (look up Grotowski on actors’ “extra-daily” powers and social role). Yes, I think some of the manipulative feints were nearby to accidental. No matter, they worked. Nigel Shawn Williams was an extraordinary MC. And I don’t want to blow any secrets - there are shows left this weekend; information here but … well, there should be more audience plants in every kind of show everywhere.

I had a nice conversation afterwards with John Millard, of Happy Day and other noteworthy musical projects, talking about the ways in which Kagel’s score is able to reference vaudeville and cabaret without falling prey to the banal nostalgia-of-cool that so often evokes little more than, as John said, “Oh here’s some more Kurt Weill in a language I don’t speak.” Kagel’s music has a depth and dimension of field that never reduces itself to transcription of received ideas, but very much carries a current of live electricity. And the arrangements make the orchestra seem several stadiums times its own size.

John was right to say the fact that it was difficult to pay the music the attention it is due there was so much visual stimulation is “a pretty good dilemma to have.” Who cares that you had to mentally slap yourself in mid-movement to hear the marimba doubling the bass clarinet, the sudden entrance of organ, the cello moaning in time? But does it seem quite right that what lingers most are memories of skin on skin and certain bodily countours - and not very many traces of the text (a delectable if not all that substantial effort from US poet Heather McHugh) or emotional content? No. There could have been a more subtle approach to the substrata of the physical score. And more fealty to the composer’s blend of South American wry vigour and European dark sophistication: We North Americans pay enthusiastic tribute to that legacy much more than we honour or fulfill it, and that syndrome was present and accounted for tonight.

Instead, at-ready eroticism dominated, so I was left more hot and bothered than thoughtful, and that’s not all there is. (Kagel leaves the actual action of his “instrumental theatre” up to the selection of the company, stipulating only that there be some; all reports are, in fairness, that he was delighted when he saw the 8 o’clock show tonight. [I saw the 11 p.m.])

Cavils aside, director Ross Manson deserves a bucketful of credit for bringing this work to North America with all these creative lights and bells - a production that may show up some of the weaknesses of this city’s performance culture, but also displays many of its neglected wonders.

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Hungry Like Christian Wolff

January 29th, 2004

My Globe and Mail column this week is a quick introduction to the work of Christian Wolff, the last surviving member of the New York School of composers (the others were John Cage, Morton Feldman and Earle Brown). Wolff has been composing since he studied with Cage at 16 (!) - and he turns 70 this year - so he embodies a very rare degree of depth of experience in the experimental-music world.

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to get very much said about this kind of material in a newspaper article; you can’t assume any background on your readers’ part, so by the time you’ve explained what’s the what, there’s precious little space left for discussion of it. Special thanks to Toronto composer Martin Arnold for providing pithy quotes on what sets Wolff apart from the, er, pack. If you’re around Toronto, you can see Martin improvise a set with Wolff as part of the Arraymusic Scratch! festival this week, running through Saturday.

Also in today’s Globe and Mail is a very short review of the recent Sun Kil Moon album by Mark Kozelek of Red House Painters fame - pegged to Kozelek’s gig at the Horseshoe on Friday night.

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The Destroyer/Frog Eyes Axis of Evil

January 22nd, 2004

This just in from the desk of Destroyer: Dan Bejar is currently rehearsing with Frog Eyes for a joint tour of North America, April-June, in much-warranted celebration of Yer Blues, the upcoming new Destroyer disc on Merge.

The intriguing fact here is that after their opening set, the Frog Eyes musicians will mutate into the new Destroyer band and back Dan on his set. Two of Zoilus’s favourite bands join forces! It should make for a dramatically different sound than the live band from the previous Destroyer record (This Night) and from the solo-crooner-with-synthesized-orchestra that’s to be found on the recorded version of Yer Blues. (Which, by the way, you can sample at the Merge site by clicking on the link above.)

For future updates keep yer peepers trained on Zoilus.com, the first name in Destroyer news.

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Straight Outta Tuva

January 22nd, 2004

This week’s stories, a column on vanishing cultures and Tuvan throat singing, and a feature on the Hidden Cameras’ new show with the Toronto Dance Theatre, which from word-of-mouth so far sounds better than I’d even imagined, and what I’d imagined was pretty fucking great. I’m seeing it on Friday. If you’re in the neighbourhood buy tickets now. By the way in the Tuva piece I accidentally call Huun-Huur-Tu a trio; they’re a quartet. Mea culpa.

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In My Undie

January 15th, 2004

Prince Paul, undie vs. mainstream hip-hop and a beginner’s guide to rockism are the subject of a pseudo-Platonic dialogue in this week’s Scene column in The Globe and Mail. A pretty surface-skimming one, I’m afraid, but it’s attracted some interesting debate and embellishment from readers already by early afternoon — the lighter side of publishing a kinda half-baked column.

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The Top 25 of 2003

January 10th, 2004

In a nutshell. Comments follow. You get a star* for being Canadian.

25. The Blow - The Concussive Caress, or Casey Caught Her Mom Singing Along With The Vacuum
24. Aesop Rock - Bazooka Tooth
23. The Blue Series Continuum - Good and Evil Sessions
22. VA - Livin’ Lovin’ Losin’: Songs of the Louvin Brothers
21. The Gossip - Movement
20. Neil Michael Hagerty - The Howling Hex
19. Outkast - Speakerboxx/The Love Below
18. British Sea Power - The Decline of British Sea Power
17. Califone - Quicksand/Cradlesnakes
16. The Notwist - Neon Golden
15. The New Pornographers - Electric Version *
14. PW Long - Remembered
13. The Shins - Chutes Too Narrow
12. The Reigning Sound - Time Bomb High School
11. Songs:Ohia - The Magnolia Electric Co.
10. The Hidden Cameras -The Smell of Our Own *
9. John Oswald - Aparanthesi *
8. The Constantines - Shine a Light *
7. Lightning Bolt - Wonderful Rainbow
6. Drive-By Truckers - Decoration Day
5. Vic Chesnutt - Silver Lake
4. Robert Wyatt - Cuckooland
3. The MF Doom albums: King Geedorah - Take Me to Your Leader and Viktor Vaughn - Vaudeville Villain
2.The Barcelona Pavilion - It’s the Barcelona Pavilion*
1. Frog Eyes - The Golden River*

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1. Frog Eyes - The Golden River

January 10th, 2004

So many elements contribute to making a “record of the year” for any avid listener. It’s not an accident that this is among the least-known of the albums on the list - when a friend in Vancouver brought me out to a gig by this Victoria, BC-based band in the spring, I got to experience the joy of discovery, like unwrapping a birthday present or hearing a secret whispered in your ear… though in this case, Frog Eyes resident genius Carey Mercer was bellowing, howling, moaning and crooning that secret to a lot of quite drunk, quite young Vancouverites in a downtown bar. Later, in the summer, I saw them at Wavelength in Toronto and got to share the secret with a bunch of friends at my own local nerve centre. So that’s one kind of pleasure.

There’s also the pleasure of recognition: Mercer reminds me more of Pere Ubu’s David Thomas - I admit it, an idol - than just about anyone in rock has managed to do, even though his style is so much his own that I am not even certain Mercer’s ever listened to Ubu. The similarity is in the unlikeliness of each man for the rock-star role, and yet how fully - to overflowing - they each fill it. When Mercer’s not singing, he seems like a mild-mannered, conservative professional, the good husband (to Frog Eyes’ drummer, actually) and provincial, Vancouver Island guy that he probably partly is. But when he performs, he is inhabited by ancient animus, infused into him by the bacchanalian swirl of the music, organs and drums and guitars that recalls carnival, the baroque, Wagner, psychedelia and the likes without ever becoming over-complicated or fussy.

Getting the album (the band’s second, though I’ve yet to pick up the first, The Bloody Hand) and especially the lyric sheet was another revelation: Like Thomas’s, Mercer’s singing style obscures the words, so you can’t tell how absolutely original his song structures are, how his imagery seems like a contemporary-Canadianized rendition of the paintings of Brueghel, Goya and Bosch, an environmental and social manifesto of certain import but unsure meaning.

Stimulated by all that, I wrote a couple of my best pieces this year about this album - for C Magazine and The Globe and Mail -and I am grateful for the booster shot for thinking about music that the disc turned out to be.

And as a result, and this is almost always the best measuring stick, I simply felt compelled to put this one in the player more often than anything else this year.

The Golden River">1 Comment

2. The Barcelona Pavilion - It’s the Barcelona Pavilion

January 10th, 2004

The story of my musical year, with rare exceptions, was most intensely one of in-person experience, the direct and the local. Nothing summed that up more than the penultimate concert by the current configuration of Toronto’s electro-laptop, two-singers, two-bass quartet The Barcelona Pavilion at Wavelength in December - singer Maggie Macdonald’s last with the band, for the usual, damnable kinds of internal reasons.

They got about half the audience, me included, up on the stage, not just at the end of the show but from the very beginning, highlighting the enjoyably absurd tension that makes the BP what it is: a band absolutely maniacally devoted to breaking down the performer-audience barrier, but also determined to confront you with aggressive (but humorous) demands once you reach the other side. The word “exhort” comes to mind.

They’re also the rare case of a band that began from ideas and concepts rather than from music, a fact that’s drawn slagging from other Toronto musicians on occasion, all of which just makes it more interesting, though rather silly when you consider just how much their songs - “New Materiology,” and the two German-language tunes here, and last year’s march-tempo manifesto “How Are You People Going To Have Fun If None of You People Ever Participate?” - just plain rock. The official marching band of the Torontopia movement.

Full disclosure: They’re also friends. Because if you had people like this in your town, you’d make friends with them too.

Also check out Toronto’s download-of-the-year, BP singer-bassist Steve Kado’s cover of Outkast’s “Hey Ya” in his solo guise, The Blankket (Scroll down to mp3).

It’s the Barcelona Pavilion">3 Comments

3. King Geedorah - Take Me to Your Leader and Viktor Vaughn - Vaudeville Villain

January 10th, 2004

While the Outkast record deserves a high proportion (but not all) of the praise it’s gotten, and I did miss out on a lot of hip-hop this year, these two projects by a hip-hop outsider figure were the most out-and-out enjoyable, individual, eccentric hip-hop joints I heard this year. MF Doom in two guises: First, as a monster rapper right out of the Godzilla movies, second as a battle MC moving through a treacherous land not of his own making. King Geedorah especially was the soundtrack to my summer - I put it on and just could never shut it off again.

4. Robert Wyatt - Cuckooland

January 10th, 2004

A rare sighting of the Silver-Plumed Wyte, one of England’s most elusive and intoxicating songbirds, known to frequent lush glades full of misting wonder, sprays of anger, and clouds of unknowing. One among many albums on this list to rock on the border of kool electronix and underground pazz-and-jop (just as Top 40 hip-hop and R&B have been doing for several years), it is among the very most assured, as Canterbury old prog-jazz-rock hand Wyatt never met a musical style he couldn’t crush down and incorporate into the idiosyncratic, diamond-hard soul at the core of his seeming balmy harmlessness.

It’s worth noting that this album, for all its gorgeous ramadingding, also contains some of the year’s best protest music — a curdlingly angry lullaby for Palestine, the names of various major figures in human-rights atrocities sung as if part of a language soup, emphasizing the way that the world at large remains deaf to their existence. Only Wyatt can be this fierce and this mild simultaneously; it’s a kind of aural Ghandism, not argued, just performed, demonstrated. Now, you world leaders, follow the bouncing ball.

And - does it need to be said? - one of the world’s great, great voices, great singers- the post-hippie, white British socialist Billie Holiday.

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