Monday, October 4, 2010

Day 38: Jay Ungar & Molly Mason "Harvest Home" and Lyle Mays "Solo" Improvisations for Expanded Piano"

I wish there was a good reason I was getting a late start today, but there really isn't. Also, I've let the CDs take over again and I'm starting to hear the tell-tale crunch as the CDs get under foot. Someone warned me about this, but if I started listening now it would just set a dangerous precedent.

Jay Ungar & Molly Mason
Harvest Home

I don't actually have this cover, I lifted it from the Amazon site. This was in a blank jewel case with nothing but the CD in it, and I suspect that's how it came since it was still firmly attached to the case. So up until I pressed play, I had no idea what was about to happen. It's from Angel, so I thought it might be a classical CD, or maybe a soundtrack.

Turns out it's a pair of traditional folk musicians. Ungar is the fiddle player and Mason is the singer/guitar player. One of the reviews over at Amazon indicates that their music is used in Ken Burns documentaries and A Prairie Home Companion. Which seems completely in place.

I don't have any context for where each song comes from. Usually groups like these pull from a variety of traditions including European and early American, sort of 'settlers music' I guess.

There's a kind of 'back porch virtuosity' that goes with this music. These are generally very technically proficient musicians able to play rather intricate figures on demand. And yet, it's supposed to sound as if your visiting uncle and aunts casually whipped out some instruments after supper and started laying down these tunes unrehearsed. Which is something that could really happen, no doubt. It's a neat trick that this brand of folk or 'traditional' music manages better than most. There manages to be an absolute respect rightfully so for the masters of this music, for their professional musicianship, without really appearing as professional musicians in the way they're regarded or carry themselves. This is not to say that they create the illusion that they have 'day jobs,' but rather that notion that the concert hall or coffee shop undergoes a musical transubstantiation to become a backporch on a lazy summer.

It's kind of remarkable. I've spent a little bit of my time on this project looking at the set of pretexts that goes into each music. The blues musicians hard workin', hard travelin', the jazz musician's kung fu-esque lineage of masters, etc. I don't have the liner notes on this to compare, it's really just something that is occurring to me as I'm writing this, thinking back to the performances and presentation on shows like the aforementioned Prairie Home Companion. It's a neat trick, because no one diminishes the musicianship, they celebrate it while at the same time presenting it as accessible. This is clearly the opposite of jazz which creates a clear delineation between those who can play and those who are just to listen.

Holy crap, it's that beef song! Or something, that song that's always used to portray upbeat down home wholesomeness! Bonaparte's Retreat/Hoedown. Man, that has been killing me for years. This is why I would get these CDs, this is why I'd collect things like this, because then not only would I finally know where the songs that inadvertently make up the soundtracks of our lives but I'd have them if I needed them. Granted, that just doesn't come up, but if it does, man am I ready.

There are two whole pieces here for Thanksgiving, which is two more than I knew there were. The first one is just a regular instrumental Thanksgiving Waltz, the second is a Hymn from the five part Harvest Home Suite that has an overture and four seasonal movements that starts with autumn. This is done with a small chamber orchestra, apparently. So the Angel label wasn't misleading after all.

Lyle Mays
Solo-Improvisations for Extended Piano

There's a bit of danger in the idea of 'solo piano improvisations.' Less prominent a stereotype than the shirtless guitar noodler, the pretentious piano noodler is just as cheesy a college commons room caricature. You've seen them, broodingly tinkling out their seduction towards 'deep freshmen girls,' their bodies slumped into a question mark so their mopish bed head can obscure their face as they milk the sustain pedal and arpeggios, perhaps rocking back and forth.

The sustain pedal on the piano is, like caps lock in the persistent (is there any other kind?) meme, cruise control for cool.

I started writing this before I hit play thinking I'd have to backtrack, but I'm on the second track (I had to check) and there is a whole lot of sustain pedal going on here. Off to the liner notes to see what I'm supposed to be getting here.

Well, it's pretty much as advertised, and I kind of respect the experiment. So, the story goes in the largely sparse liner notes, Mays finished a tour with Pat Metheny then sat down and literally improvised the entire album. But then, apparently using an enhanced piano that is essentially a regular piano with a bunch of other stuff rigged to it to do things like amplify it and, it turns out, record the notes he was playing so they could 'orchestrate' some electronic accompaniment. This, it seems, is what is meant by 'expanded piano.'

I have to admit to a bit of dissapointment. I was hoping for some John Cage-esque prepared piano type of construction that would turn the piano into a compact percussion line. Instead it's somewhere between George Winston and that douchbag in the dorm lobby. Which is a little unfair, there's nothing objectively bad about what's happening...if anything in music can really be objective. It's more a bias against all those people taking up practice rooms at college that I never saw in classes pounding away at the pianos while holding down that sustain pedal like it was a land mine that would explode if it was let up.

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