World Premier: Wu Fei’s Hello Gold Mountain at Ingram Hall

Soaked to the bone by the torrential rains that accompanied my walk to Vanderbilt’s Ingram Hall, I sank, rather damply, into my seat and began to scribble some notes on the topic of requiems in the now half disintegrated notebook that accompanied me to Chatterbird’s premier of Wu Fei‘s Hello Gold Mountain on Saturday, a piece the composer describes as “a requiem for the lost possibilities of the Jewish community in Shanghai”. Those notes I have since disregarded because too many words can, so easily, do a disservice to the truth and at this point in the experience they hang round my neck more like a millstone than a medal. And that is because Hello Gold Mountain is, at—and in—its heart, so simple.

I don’t mean simple in the sense that anyone off the street could play it. That is far from the truth. There’s an argument to be made that Hello Gold Mountain is as much a double concerto for oud and guzheng as it is a piece for chamber ensemble. Cadenza-like passages in multiple movements highlight the virtuoso touch and technique of oudist Shanir Ezra Blumenkranz and the composer herself at the guzheng. I mean “simple” in the sense that the truth behind the piece seems so basic, so fundamental, that it could be—perhaps should be—taken as a given.

For many years leading up to the Second World War, Shanghai was often one of the only ports open to Jewish refugees fleeing an increasingly troubled European continent. Those refugees, thousands of them, were all crammed into a small area in Shanghai which came to be known as the Shanghai Ghetto. The story is not familiar to many today, myself included, but it is the inspiration for Wu Fei’s most recent large-scale work. Of course, a requiem is, traditionally, a mass for the dead. The form may very from one tradition to another, sacred to secular, but the general purpose remains the same, whether dedicated to an individual, the victims of a tragedy, or humanity as a whole. But can one hold a requiem for that which never happened?

When thinking back on Hello Gold Mountain, it is hard for me not to draw comparisons to another “Jews in exile” piece of relatively recent memory, Osvaldo Golijov’s Grammy-nominated song cycle Ayre. But what I think is most interesting about that comparison is not what they have in common, but how they differ. Hello Gold Mountain does not dip heavily (or really at all) into the klezmer tradition the way Golijov did in Ayre (and just about everything else he was writing at the time). Perhaps those are just the quirks of the individuals who wrote them, maybe it’s the difference between a Jewish composer’s approach and a Chinese composer’s approach to the topic. But I’m inclined to believe there is more at play.

Hello Gold Mountain relies heavily on two instruments, the oud (a lute-like instrument with roots in the Middle East) and the guzheng (the Chinese take on the zither family, this one with 21 strings). (By now, I’m sure you’ve realized that the oud here represents the Jewish refugees and the guzheng their eventual destination in Shanghai.) Separately, in the hands of their respective players, the two featured instruments provide their share of memorable moments. Blumenkranz’s solo passages on the oud often approach the level of poetry, with just enough rhythmic flexibility to convey the fear and trepidation of a refugee bound for the unknown. One can feel the pull of gravity (or is that destiny?) in his runs. Wu’s playing is, as always, haunting, often with the weight of generations behind it. But where she truly sets herself apart is when she pushes the guzheng to its limits, attacking the strings in an aggressive, almost violent manner.

But where Hello Gold Mountain really hits its stride is not in the solo passages, remarkable though they may be. It is when the guzheng and the oud step back and melt into one another becoming, at times, nearly indiscernible from each other when I think the true depth of the piece is revealed. It is then, when the unique and beautiful characteristics of the individual instruments join together to create something new and exciting, that we get a glimpse of the elusive “possibilities” Wu refers to in her description of the piece. But those moments, like the Jewish refugee community of Shanghai, are fleeting. And it is their impermanence that we mourn here.

At one point, midway through the performance, it became evident that one of the strings on Blumencranz’s oud had been rendered somewhat out of tune. It was then that Wu appeared to hold a trill on her guzheng for quite some time while he worked to get back in tune and then, with a nod to the conductor, they were off again. It is perhaps a cheap metaphor, one performer supporting the piece while another regains his footing before continuing on together, but I’m going to run with it anyway.

With the war over and continuing political unrest in China, the Jewish community in Shanghai began to disperse. Some relocated to the newly formed Jewish state of Israel. Others continued on to San Francisco, known in Chinese as “Old Gold Mountain” to begin a new life in America. And even though it is now a much neglected story, the Shanghai Ghetto remains an important chapter in the Jewish wartime experience and warrants wider retelling. Hello Gold Mountain is an important step in the sharing of that story.

As the final movement of Hello Gold Mountain wound to a close, the house lights came up for a communal singing of a brief melody printed in the program. As the house lights dimmed once again and Chatterbird performed the final strains themselves, the stage lights changed to a golden hue. The color of “Old Gold Mountain”, to be sure, but also the color of sunrise and of the dawn of new possibilities.

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A New (old) Direction

“Most rock journalism is people who can’t write interviewing people who can’t talk for people who can’t read.”

That’s what Frank Zappa told the Toronto Star in 1977. I’m not going to go so far as to say that Zappa’s assessment of music journalism is 100% accurate – sure, there are journalists (yes, even bloggers) who write beautifully, I’ve certainly interviewed a few musicians who are both brilliant and articulate, and I’ve interacted with enough of my readers online and in person to know that they’re certainly not idiots either – but still, after a several years in and around this business, I have to say, there’s a grain of truth in what Zappa said. Maybe a few grains…

Most of us, I think, come to this business out of a place of relative purity. We love music and we want to share it. But there are certain pitfalls that go hand-in-hand with an industry where everyone knows that a few kind words from one person or another can result in a few extra dollars in another’s pocket. A constant diet of flattery and free stuff is enough to feed any ego, and when it begins to fill your inbox, it’s hard not to develop a taste for it.

When it began, The Indie Handbook, was as much a reaction against Before-It-Was-Cool-ism as it was a pursuit of anything new and exciting. Our initial concept for this project, in fact, was born out of satire. Think about it. The very idea of an Indie Handbook—a how-to guide to being independent—is utterly ridiculous.

I know I say these things now at the risk of alienating some of our longtime readers. But I don’t want any of you to feel as if you’ve been duped. You haven’t been. The content here has remained pure even if my motives for posting some of it haven’t always been. I can say with complete confidence that I have never shared a band on The Indie Handbook that I did not genuinely like and, if you asked her, I imagine Kristin would echo that. I think the same can be said for Kate, and Dan, and Kathy, and Melissa, and any other guest poster whom I’ve forgotten at the moment.

Over the years, we put a lot of time and effort into the posts that appeared here. I would much rather spend several hours editing a single paragraph until the rhythm and pacing of each sentence is exactly the way I want it (something I’ve done dozens of times) than copy and paste a press release (yes, it happens—it happens a lot). But your value in this business is predicated on getting there first, not getting there elegantly. No one cares what you say or how you say it as long as you say it before anyone else. And that’s never been for me. I’m more likely to give you 800 words on a two-song single than three sentences and an mp3. I suppose, in that sense, The Indie Handbook is more a product of the 18th century than our present one and, in a way, it is.

Not everyone knows this, but Kristin and I met in college where we were both music history majors. And in the years The Indie Handbook has been languishing since it was a “several posts a week” blog, that is what I have missed the most. Rock and roll is an oral tradition. Jazz, country, pop, the blues, they are too. They are not codified. They are passed down from one generation to the next. More of us in the music media need to think of ourselves as historians first. We need to put less emphasis on wielding our power and opinions like a cudgel and focus more on the stories we are recording and sharing. Forty years from now, no one is going to care how you or I felt about a mediocre record riding the chillwave boom of 2009, but they might want to know about the time Will Oldham and Angel Olsen turned up in Columbus at midnight, unannounced, to cover an obscure Kevin Coyne record under an assumed name.

Every day, we are making history. It’s usually boring, but it’s history. And that’s where I want to shift my focus. I will still have opinions and I will share them. New music will come along that I love, I will share that too. But, from now on, I am a historian first.

Lesley Gore, a personal reflection from a simple fan

Part Time Pop Star
Lesley Gore (1946-2015)

Like so many kids who were raised on oldies radio, I couldn’t tell you how long I’ve known the music of Lesley Gore. To say “all my life”, while it’s almost certainly an exaggeration, is about as accurate as I can be. My earliest memory of Lesley Gore does not even involve the lady herself, but a performance of “It’s My Party” on this episode of the sadly neglected monument of 1980s children’s television, Kids Incorporated. But even that memory would never have registered had the song not already been a part of my life. I have no recollection of the first time I heard “It’s My Party”, though I can say with as much certainty as one can with early childhood pop culture memories that I knew every word of that song before I could even identify any music actually written during my lifetime. For me, Lesley Gore was never some obscure chronological colloquialism of my parents’ generation. She was a fact—a universal constant—like the speed of light or The Beatles.

No doubt you know her work. A dynamic performer with songwriting chops of her own, her biggest hits have been a part of the musical vernacular for half a century. In the coming days, much will be said about Lesley Gore, her influence over the world of music, and in the world at large. Many will rhapsodize about her proto-feminist anthem “You Don’t Own Me”. Some will lament the label-induced pigeon-holing of Lesley Gore (a lifelong lesbian) as a lovesick, boy crazy teeny bopper. And justifiably so.

But I am not here to justify Lesley Gore. As a straight male born more than two decades after her first hit, Lesley Gore never did anything for me socially. Yes, I do get goosebumps when I listen to “You Don’t Own Me”, not for any altruistic reason, but because it is a brilliant performance of a great song. Growing up in a pre-internet world where everyone I knew was obsessed with Hanson and Smashing Pumpkins, a familiarity with pop star two generations out of fashion (and a girl singer at that!) resulted in a social life that was anything but sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows. At that age, there is no justification for timelessness. These days, there is no need for one.

A few years ago, I sat in an all night diner with Chicago math metal power trio The Cell Phones after a show in Columbus. As it was October, the conversation inevitably turned to their plans for a Halloween gig: a Lesley Gore cover set they had titled Gore. Of course she occupies a great deal of shelf space in my record collection, but I have never known anyone else for whom that was true. So I asked. “We’re huge fans” they said.

Lesley Gore died of lung cancer on Monday, February 16, 2015. She was 68.

MADBOY/MINK, pimping the disco

MADBOY/MINK (if you know who took this photo, let me know)
MADBOY/MINK (if you know who took this photo, let me know)

2014 was the year I gave up on synths. (I know, it surprised me, too.) Five years ago, I lived for synthpop. I put an electronic record confidently at the top of my “best of the decade” list. (I went back and listened to that record again this week, it’s still firmly in the top two.) And yet, for whatever reason, in 2014, I decided I’d had my fill (too much terrestrial “alternative” radio perhaps). It’s ironic, then, that the best record I heard in 2014 was a disco record into which synths and laptops factor heavily. And it wasn’t even close.

For my part, MADBOY/MINK were a complete accident (Indian disco swing doesn’t often find its way into my inbox). Following one of the myriad rabbit holes that dot the internet landscape while reading up on a film featuring band member Imaad Shah, which I had screened as part of a film festival I was jurying at the time (M Cream, an Indian indie certainly worth two hours of your life if you can track down a screening), I came across a Bandcamp page featuring a single five-song EP called All Ball released about six weeks earlier. All Ball is the lone official release from the band, though a YouTube search would indicate that the Mumbai duo have a number of other tricks up their sleeve.

From the moment “Alley Cats” drops it’s first disco-shrouded Old Possum reference into the music hall mix to the bassy burlesque of “Taste Your Kiss”, All Ball swings unrelentingly, a godsend to all who, like me, still consider the Verve Remixed albums to be the greatest compilation project undertaken by a single label. Inject a healthy dose of funk into tracks like “Lemonade”, “Funkenstein” (self-explanatory), and “Pimp the Disco” and you have a debut that mines the best bits from a hundred years of popular music and combines them into something new, never dated, and always filthy (pimp the disco / bring it to its knees / I like my generator with a little bit of sleaze).

MADBOY/MINK are Saba Azad and Imaad Shah. They are based in Mumbai, India. They’re EP is called All Ball. It is on Bandcamp. It is also free (which is about infinity dollars below market value).

Cosmos – Fitness Forever and the next to last days of disco

Fitness Forever - Cosmos
Fitness Forever – Cosmos

“Disco will never be over. It will always live in our minds and hearts.” So begins Matt Keeslar’s final speech in Whit Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco. While the death of their club and the dawn of the Eighties spelled the beginning of the end for the Doomed Bourgeois In Love, disco’s fate, it seems, was far from sealed. Enter Fitness Forever with their second album for Elefant Records, Cosmos.

After their first album left frontman Carlos Valderrama empty, as he describes it, the band were left with ample room for stylistic exploration. In time it seems, the band took to mining a vast depository of ’70s music for inspiration. The result is an album that has more than one foot (let’s say one and a half feet) firmly planted in the disco era. But John Travolta, this is not. Cosmos, while a disco record in spirit, is more stylized in practice, marked as much (or more) by the metered cool of bossa nova as the licentious revelry of Studio 54.

While Cosmos is an album very much at home in the musical landscape, it’s not the sort of record to settle down in one place for very long. While numbers like “Disco Quiz” and the title track may be the most reminiscent of the last days of disco (well, I say “reminiscent,” but then, I’m not really chronologically qualified to reminisce about such things), tracks like “L’amore Annegato” play it closer to the ghost of Getz/Gilberto that haunts the whole of Cosmos. One would even be forgiven for comparing songs like “Hotel Flamingo” or “Le Intenzione Del Re” to latter-day Belle & Sebastian.

At its heart, Cosmos is driven by a loving embrace of an amalgam of influences: lush instrumental textures straight from late ’70s radio, shuffling rhythms and intricate jazz progressions, and bossa nova inflection. It’s enough to send Ted Boynton awkwardly cavorting his way across the dancefloors of Barcelona in pursuit of plain-looking girls.

At the end of that speech from The Last Days of Disco, Matt Keeslar’s character Josh declares, “Disco was too great and too much fun to be gone forever. It’s got to come back someday.” Whether that’s a part of his impassioned speech that Josh “actually believes” is irrelevant, because, if Fitness Forever’s latest is anything to go by, that day is here.

More info about Cosmos on Elefant Records

RIP Zoobombs and a call to bands from the rest of the world

(c) 2012, Eric Robertson
Zoobombs at Ace of Cups, 2012

About a month ago, I read a blog post from one of my favorite bands. Well, to be honest, I read an awkwardly worded Google translation of a post from the Zoobombs website. If I understood it right, the band have decided, after roughly two decades, to put an end to the Zoobombs legacy. With the departure of two key band members, the remaining Zoobombs have decided that it is best to bring this chapter to a close and to begin anew.

I think I agree with them.

It’s never fun to say goodbye to your favorite bands, especially the ones you never had a chance to see in person. But in most cases, it is inevitable, we all know that. (Thankfully, I finally did get to see Zoobombs — about a year ago, here in Columbus — after missing their apparently phenomenal set at Canadian Music Week in 2011. And while the local turnout was, honestly, pathetic, it was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen.) We want to wish all of those Zoobombs the best of luck with their future projects. I have all the confidence in the world that they will be every bit as good as the epic garage-psych freakouts that made Zoobombs’ shows the stuff of legend.

All of which brings me to a second point. This is something I don’t often do, but I am issuing what, in the academic world might be called “A Call for Submissions”. Of course, we’ve always encouraged all bands to send us their music, and we get dozens of submissions every week. But those submissions, not surprisingly, skew toward Europe and North America. And while that leaves us with plenty of good material to work with, I also know the world is a big place and there’s much more out there and I don’t want this blog to remain US/Euro-centric if it doesn’t have to.

I know there’s a burgeoning punk/DIY scene in China (I’m pretty sure I’ve talked about Hedgehog here before) and I know there’s more to Korean music than K-Pop and “Gangnam Style” (remember all my gushing about Vidulgi OoyoO?) and of course I’ve just done a whole thing about Japanese psychedelia. And, for that matter, Tuareg and African blues bands have been experiencing a surge in popularity here in Columbus recently. The point is, I know you all are out there, and I would love to hear from you.

There are a few Korean and Chinese blogs and YouTube channels I catch up with when I can, but it’s difficult to even do that more than once every few months. So, please, email us at the.indie.handbook@gmail.com. We’re dying to expand our horizons.

P.S. Don’t worry about any language barrier. As long as I can hear the music, that is all I need. Google Translate and I will do the best we can with the rest. BUT, when you email, please at least try to include words like “band”, “music”, or “press release” in English in the subject line, just in case they get sent to the spam folder. That way, I will know to rescue them. God only knows how many submissions and press releases I have lost because they were written in an alphabet or character set I do not understand.

We can’t wait to hear from you. (Europe, North America, we still love hearing from you. Keep up the good work. South America, Australia, Oceania, we hear from you on occasion, but we wouldn’t mind hearing more.)

Bill Frisell on playing with Paul Motian: the rest of the interview

Bill Frisell
Bill Frisell

Earlier this year, I interviewed jazz guitar legend Bill Frisell about a memorial concert he was curating in memorial of his longtime friend and collaborator Paul Motian. That concert has long since come and gone, but I’m not sure I ever shared the full transcript of the interview with you. At the time, I remember, I just wanted to play the recording of our conversation for everyone I knew, simply because it was so surreal. The man has been in business for a long time. The stories he can–and does–tell are remarkable. He’s played an integral role in the last 30 years of jazz. There’s no downplaying his experiences or their importance in the oral history of an American art form. And as I sat in my car, engine off, tape running, fingers freezing, praying my notoriously spotty cell phone reception wouldn’t suddenly drop the most interesting phone call of my life, I had to constantly remind myself that this was for real.

Of course, it wasn’t practical at the time, to give you all the full interview. But I think the things he says, especially about his introduction to jazz and that very first session with Paul Motian are just too important to keep to myself. But now, with the news that Bill will bring his Big Sur Quintet to the Wexner Center in Columbus this December, I think this is a good time to bring you the rest of my interview with Bill Frisell.

From an interview conducted in March 2013.

TIH: Yeah. I mean, I read in one interview you gave a few years ago, you described getting that call to play with Paul as being sort of a BAM moment for you…

BF: Oh yeah. It was really huge and not for anything…it wasn’t about…at the beginning, we didn’t even have any gigs, really. It wasn’t about making any money or anything like that, but it was this opportunity for me to really be myself in the music. He was calling me to be—it wasn’t like just another guitar player he was looking for, it was more like a personality I guess he was looking for. And I felt like doing his music, I was able to find my own music somehow.

TIH: What were those first sessions like for you?

BF: Well, the very first time I went to play with him was in 1981, like January of 1981, and you know, I’d never met him, but the phone rang and it was him and I couldn’t believe it. (laughing) And he said “Hi. This is Paul Motian. Do you want to come over to my house…or, my apartment…and play?” And I was like, “What?!” I could not believe it. So, I go over there and it’s me and Paul and Marc Johnson was there who I’d never met either at that point. And Marc was the last bass player to play with Bill Evans—you know Paul’s history with Bill Evans—and I came in there and they were talking about…Bill had just passed away recently, so they were talking about that. So I was just feeling like, what am I doing here, this electric guitar player, you know? They were trying to figure out what tune to play. And they said, well, let’s play ‘My Man’s Gone Now’, which is this George Gershwin tune that I really associated with Bill Evans.

TIH: Yeah…

BF: It was another one of these kind of heavy moments when I found myself drawn into this sort of unreal, dreamlike..you know, playing that tune with those guys. And playing electric guitar? How am I fitting in with this, you know? I don’t know. He thought it was ok, I guess. We kept on playing and he kept calling me back and I’d go over there every week or every few days even. And sometimes different people, first with Marc Johnson, and then Joe came over and eventually led to what was—the first gig we did was a quartet. It wasn’t until about nine months later that we did our first gig. And a little while after that a European tour and that’s when we recorded. That was the first time I recorded with Paul, as a quintet.

Much more can be found here.