Ordinarily I avoid writing about pop forms, not only because it’s not my department, but also because I don’t keep up very well in this area. Moreover, I realize I have strong biases against some of the basic premises of the music. I simply lose interest when I sense that a piece is addressed primarily to teenagers, involved primarily with the physical and sensual rather than the intellectual and spiritual, tailored to current market trends, or created primarily to make money. Of course, there are many jazz artists and a few rock groups who don’t work in these ways, and some classical, avant-garde, and ‘ethnic’ artists who do. But by and large these latter approaches are more idealistic, and more meaningful for me, and it seems preferable to leave the hits to those who have less trouble accepting their premises.
Still, despite my biases, musicians working in popular mediums occasionally reach me as deeply as anyone. If I were to make a list of the favorite albums I’ve encountered in the last few years, it would certainly have to include ‘Egon Bondy’s Happy Hearts Club Banned,’ by the Czech rock group the Plastic People, and ‘Zombie,’ by Fela and his Nigerian musicians. Of course, neither of these was a best seller, to say the least, which probably means that my own tastes are totally irrelevant to the criteria that 1979/the-role-of-number-oneail in these areas, and that anyone who wants to be with it should not listen to me.
Having clarified my perspective a bit, let me move on to two more-or-less popular music groups that impressed me recently. Both are younger and more inexperienced than the Plastic People and Fela. Yet both have some of that same kind of honesty and directness. They seem driven solely by personal and musical motives, and I found myself believing their music.
The Contradictions, whom I heard in a loft on lower Broadway on September 7, play what might be described as classical Latin jazz. The classical element is provided by violinist Francine Schwartzentruber, cellist Martha Siegel, and flutist Sarah Plant, and by the arrangements, which involve little improvisation, some intricate harmonies and rhythms, many textural inventions, and some subtle doublings. The second ingredient comes mostly from the two percussionists, Daniel Santos and Oseiku, who concentrate on Latin instruments and Latin rhythms. The jazz can often be heard in the guitar styles of Jeffrey Glenn and Rodrigo Villaseca, in the saxophone playing of Arkady Kofman, in the piano work of Peter Eggers, and in the chord changes. But within those basic boundaries, the 16 short pieces played by the nine member ensemble were quite varied.
‘Prokofiev’s Cat’ is a witty Latin take-off on ‘Peter and the Wolf.’ ‘Dawn Light’ featured violin and cello playing in octaves against insistent piano chords and reminded me a little of Messiaen’s ‘Quartet for the End of Time.’ ‘Rite’ struck me as a demonic bebop with its fast melody and quirky electric guitar solo. ‘In the French countryside’ featured lyrical lines in the soprano saxophone, violin and cello behind it, and percussion parts that drifted into wind chimes and other gentle effects. ‘I have a Spell’ maintained a steady eighth-note texture containing a number of shifting motifs, all neatly scored. ‘Just Like This’ had a Latin beat and modern jazz chord changes, but its quirky, brainy melody sounded classical.
There are perhaps a few too many ‘contradictions’ in these compositions by Eggers and Villaseca. Many of the pieces were awkwardly shaped from a traditional formal point of view, and the endings were almost always puzzling. But the group was so tight, and its conviction so clear, that I found most of the evening irresistible, even in some of its most shamelessly romantic moments. And perhaps particularly at those times.
The Static is an experimental rock trio headed by Glenn Branca. I haven’t heard them in person, although I expect to see them at the Mudd Club September 20, but was fascinated by ‘My Relationship’ and ‘Don’t Let Me Stop You,’ which arrived in the mail recently. This 45 is issued by Theoretical Records, and I understand that the group is an offshoot of Theoretical Girls, another SoHo ensemble. Perhaps that categorizes them as ‘new wave.’ Or would it be ‘no wave’ ? As I said, I don’t keep up terribly well.
‘My Relationship’ revolves around a curious kind of chord change. The two guitars alternate between a unison tone and a two-note cluster, while the drummer pounds out a beat that is extremely insistent, even for rock. The song isn’t all that ‘static.’ In fact, it changes tempo once and even builds to a climax before its three minutes are over. There is something quite extreme, however, about the way the singer intones ‘my relationship’ over and over, and these simple lyrics gradually begin to suggest a number of possible interpretations.
‘Don’t Let Me Stop You’ begins with a long list of accusations about stupid things the listener does, and which many of us are guilty of, and thus the title becomes highly sarcastic. The words are not buried in the texture the way they are in most rock, and it’s pretty hard to miss the point. The guitars and drums are equally biting as they drive their messages home over and over again, relentlessly, almost mechanically. The music is probably still rock, just as that of the Contradictions is probably ultimately some sort of Latin or Jazz. But both of them turned me on.