Henry Cowell-Piano Music

July 29, 2008

Henry Cowell

Piano Music (Smithsonian-Folkways 1994)

Link removed at the request of Smithsonian-Folkways

It is difficult, almost impossible, to redefine an instrument as familiar as the piano, but Henry Cowell did so by reaching into it and using the strings to manipulate his playing. His work with tone clusters and string manipulation inspired Bela Bartok to adopt his methods. In addition, John Cage utilized his methods to develop the prepared piano. His maverick ways led him to commission Leon theremin to create an instrument called the Rhythmicon that was later popularized by Joe Meek. Cowell even spent four years in San Quentin Prison on a “morals” due to his bisexuality and continued to compose and conduct the prison band until his pardon in 1942. After his release, his music became a bit more conservative, but he mentored such musicians as Lou Harrison and Burt Bacharach and served as a consultant to Folkways.

That is just a drop in the bucket in this man’s fantastic and creative career. There is something so powerful about how he strikes the keys. Sometimes he demands your attention with thick clusters of slammed keys, but he is equally magnetic when he plays in a more minimalistic style. It is hard to quantify the emotion spent by the striking of a key, but his playing truly leaves me in awe of how one person can transform a musical instrument into a magical one. There is something elegant, yet brutal and severe about how he approaches the piano. He turns the piano inside out as he uses every inch of his instrument to create a powerful, dynamic music that inspires and moves me like few others can. Since I’ve been rambling about phobias and the spiritual all evening, it is only fitting that I share some of the most heavenly sounds thine ears have heard. It isn’t always pretty, but it does hit upon personal chords that remind me that music can be a transcendent force in our lives.

Ecstasy of St. Theresa

Fluidtrance Centauri ep

http://www.mediafire.com/?zy0tmxlyyym

During the heyday of shoegaze, there were many more classic eps than actual albums. Slowdive, Ride, Swervedriver, Moonshake, Telescopes, Moose and others had their brightest achievements on their first eps, not their full length albums. Yes, Pygmalion, Mezcal Head and Nowhere are great albums, but their singles and eps just encapsulate all that was excellent about these bands in a consise statement. All of the aforementioned bands had bright futures in which they delivered on their potential to varying degrees, but there was one band that only had that one great ep and not much else.

Czechoslovakia wasn’t exactly a hotbed for musical innovation, but it did spawn Ecstasy of St. Theresa. the band was named after St. Theresa’s vision of a handsome angel that appeared at her bedside to pierce her with a spear and set her her heart afire with passion. I always loved the sexual nature of this beatific image and it fits the hazy, sensual air of their ethereal music. The ep is derived from a Peel Session and stands as the pinnacle of their short career. Later albums found them embracing early 70s Pink Floyd and the ambient scene of the time, but these three songs tapped into the majesty of the Cocteau Twins at their most ornate moments circa Treasure and mated it to the woozy feedback of My Bloody Valentine. It is a combo attempted by most of their contemporaries, but none of them succeeded except this band. The first track”Fluidum” is so perfect and such a distillation of all that I loved about the few years this genre thrived. It is oozing with a lazy sexuality that reminds one of a day spent in a bed exploring the birds and the bees.

Quintron

These Hands of Mine (Skin Graft 1998 )

http://www.mediafire.com/?1yuvhmx03mm

Like many of you, my phobias are somewhat irrational. I flinch at the sight of Great White Sharks. When Deep Blue Sea came out, I had to cover my eyes during all movie previews because I couldn’t bear the sight of animatronic sharks on the big screen. I even get nervous on boats due to the possibility that a fin may break through the waves. Rollercoasters are another thorn in my side. I’ve ridden on some rickety devices and screamed like a baby after the first moments of an incline. However, I always hold this album in high esteem for its ability to provide retard strength on a trip to Kennywood Amusement Park.

I was visiting Pittsburgh and we had the bright idea to get high and listed to Quintron’s These Hands of Mine all the way to Kennywood as I kept puffing away in the hope that it would alleviate my anxiety about hurtling to my death on a goddamn ride. Looking back, this was not the best course of action, but it worked like a charm. I became a big boy and laughed like a village idiot on every accursed contraption in my path. Quintron was the carnival barker that I needed to prod me out of my skin.

My sober self prefers his work on the Bulb label or his collaboration with the Oblivians, but I always loved Quintron’s thoroughly campy and sleazy version of r&b and soul on These Hands of Mine. I’m always a sucker for the Hammond organ, so its prevalence on this record makes it even more appealing to me. It’s hard to name an influence or touchstone for his work because I don’t know if anyone else has orbited this planet before. It’s sloppy as hell. Nothing is actually catchy. The co-star of this mess is the Drum Buddy, a “mechanically-rotating, five-oscillator, light-activated drum machine which can either be set to play automatically, or manipulated to create a number of different sound effects.” He uses his wife Flossie to provide high-pitched, cartoonish backing vocals to his rants. It’s downright mental and I don’t recommend it to everyone, but it’s a lovably noisy and absurd mess that serves as an excellent soundtrack for your next road trip to an amusement park.

Jennyanykind

Revelater (Elektra 1996)

http://www.mediafire.com/?mt0ddyvcbnu

The major label frenzy to sign anyone within sniffing distance of your Nirvanas and Sonic Youths resulted in greater exposure for some and ruin for others. Were advertisements in shitty rags, MTV airplay and product placement in the rural malls really going to make Jennyanykind, Scrawl, Jesus Lizard and Jawbox more palatable to most folks? Hell, most of these bands weren’t even palatable to me by this point.

I have no clue why a major label like Elektra decided to sign a band that was enamored by Jesus Christ, Jerry Garcia, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Howling Wolf, Flaming Lips and Pink Floyd and market it as an indie-rock album. Sure, their work had a raw, punky edge at times and their earliest work was released by the No. 6 label(Beme Seed, Crystallized Movements, Luna, Nada Surf, etc), but this was surely a big ass square block in a teensy-weensy round hole. It’s a shame since Revelater cuts the fat from their meandering jams and rants which results in bizarre southern rock songs about the apocalypse, humility in the face of god’s power, the dangers of a sinful life and repentance.

This isn’t a shtick–No sight of high pitched whines and tree costumes ala Danielson. Michael Holland’s lyrics are earnest explorations of his own struggles with faith and the misdeeds of his past. He comes off as troubled and angry on half of the tracks while the other half play loose and fancy free with light-hearted hippie psych that wouldn’t sound out of place on an early 70s Dead record. I’m more interested in the angry, conflicted side of Holland that searches for meaning in the universe in a three-minute pop song on his major label debut. What were they thinking? It was commercial suicide and sit kind of sunk the band for good. Yes, they released many more albums, but they sort of blew their cosmic, soul searching load on this one.

Revelater got no respect from anyone. Its been dismissed by hipsters, hippies and christian rockers alike. However, I believe it may be one of the most underrated albums to result from the major label feeding frenzy of the 90s. Revelater is a fried, almost paranoid ode to the power of a vengeful god masquerading as an indie-rock album. Love it to death and like most of this band’s work. i’ll be posting more this week.