Sun Ra / Arnold Dreyblatt – [Album]

Thursday, 04 June 2009

Ever taken a dare, and then regretted it? Not just taken one, but fully set yourself up for it? Challenged the world, and then had it slap you back as hard as it could?

That's kind of how I feel here. "Oh yeah!" I said, "I can review anything. Give me your most challenging, weird, obscure music, and I'll make sense of it!" And I ended up with Sun Ra and Arnold Dreyblatt.

Sun Ra at least seemed like a feasible task. I mean, I saw him and his Arkestra back when I was in college, when my musical tastes were far less sophisticated than they are now. And I enjoyed it then (up to a point—my journal indicates I did eventually get bored with it), so surely today I can not only enjoy it, but explicate it.

The problem is, maybe my musical taste hasn't advanced all that much. For while I can certainly enjoy this record (all the way through—more than in my college days), I am no closer to explaining it.

First a little background. For those of you not familiar with Sun Ra, he was one of the farthest out there practitioners of far-out jazz. Not only did he claim to be from Saturn, and wear a spacesuit on stage, but he played like he was at least from somewhere other than Earth (even if not specifically Saturn). And Nothing Is captures him at his most extreme, or at least near it.

The key to this album, recorded live in the mid-60's, is to just let it take you where it wants to go. Don't try to anticipate, or even follow it, just go along for the ride. Sun Ra was a master of big band improvisation, and that's what we get here. The credits list eleven band members, and at the peak of the CD ("Shadow World") they are all firing away. It can be overwhelming, but it is, to be honest, some pretty glorious noise.

Of course, there's more to Nothing Is than everyone playing at once. It does build to those orgies of sound. The opening cut, "Dancing Shadows," is a subtle interweaving of horn and percussion. "Exotic Forest" is a bit more of jam, various instruments stepping in and out of the mix. "Shadow World," as I said, throws everything in. Then it all tapers off again, as one by one they step back. And then some vocal choruses to ease us back out.

Nothing Is is not an easy album to get into. Your level of tolerance for (seeming) musical chaos will determine whether you find it initially interesting or repulsive. And then it takes some deep listening to get beyond that impression of chaos, and discover the structures underneath it all.

Arnold Dreyblatt's Nodal Excitation is another beast altogether. At least here I can explain what is going on. Appreciating it, let alone enjoying it, is another question.

Dreyblatt is described as a minimalist composer, and that surely fits. He takes the notion of subtle variations on a theme to an extreme level. Each of the eight "movements" on Nodal Excitation consist of, basically, the same repetition of plucking and bowing a bass viola. There is some slight change in the tempo of the plucking from movement to movement, but it is the same note over and over. Behind it, a pianoforte, pipe organ and hurdy-gurdy provide very subtle coloration.

The strumming is too percussive, almost abrasive, to function as ambient music—background that we can listen to or ignore as we choose. No, this demands that we keep listening, forces us to find its variations. And it takes multiple listens to really tune into the variations, to find the differences in each movement, to tune into the background tones. It is not until track 6 that things really start to happen, that the organ comes in to provide an actual counterpoint. And the entire piece does reach a satisfying conclusion.

Despite my use of the word abrasive, it's not really unpleasant. Just difficult and demanding. It challenges you to really listen, to find those variations, to find the music within the repetition.

Multiple listens did bring me to some appreciation of this disc. But it's not something I'm going to throw on to get me through the day.

Meanwhile, I feel the need for some rock'n'roll.

Sun Ra –
Arnold Dreyblatt –

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