I heard on the radio this morning that Kurt Vonnegut has died, aged 84. In a way I feel like a bit of a sham fan of his - I've only ever read one book by him, and that his most famous, Slaughterhouse Five. But I can genuinely say it is one of the best books I have ever read. I was introduced to it probably eight or nine years ago by my then girlfriend. The combination of science fiction and autobiography is extraordinarily powerful - the fantasy and the comedy offset the horror and the tragedy, making them all the more affecting. I remember on first reading it having a strong sense of the author's whole life having lead up to the telling of that one story, being filled with the search for ways to adequately tell what had to be told. In a way, though they seem vastly different in so many ways, perhaps there is a link between Paul Celan and Vonnegut in their relentless search for adequate representation of the unrepresentable? I shall be rereading the novel very soon, and also looking out for more of his work in order to remedy the gap in my knowledge, as some small tribute to what he accomplished.
Having been good for a while I've recently been buying a great deal of recorded music, much of it on vinyl. Having never had a record player as a kid, LPs are still a bit of a novelty to me. Great finds have included an LP of Gagaku on the Everest label (which makes an excellent counterpart to the Ocora CD I already own; the koto and biwa seem much more present and punchy on the LP); Steve Lacy, George Lewis, Misha Mengleberg, Arjen Gorter and Han Bennink playing the compositions of Herbie Nichols and reminding you that jazz should always be radical, complex, puzzling and fun; and an LP I just had to buy entitled Late Fourteenth Century Avant Garde, featuring the Early Music Consort of London playing music from the court of Avignon during the Papal Schism of 1378 to 1417, some of which is absolutely barmy, in the best possible way!
The three best musical experiences of the recent weeks haven't been on vinyl, though. First, on the 25th of March my friend David Stent and I heard the Ulysses Ensemble perform at the Jacqueline du Pre Music Building in Oxford. The group, which is committed to performing 20th and 21st century chamber music without a conductor, were extraordinary - relentlessly precise yet full of energy and individuality. A long flute diminuendo dying steadly away to absolutely nothing at the end of one section was absolutely gripping, strange as that may sound. The group opened with Schoenberg's Kammersymphonie No. 1, Op. 9 arranged for five instruments by Webern - a beautiful piece, perfectly showcasing their talents, though the strain of reducing fifteen parts to five sometimes showed compositionally. They followed by Ravel's Chansons madecasses which I could not get on with at all - it seemed all decadence and exoticism. But this set off the main event beautifully, which was Pierrot Lunaire. I had never heard a live performance of it before, and had previously admired rather than loved it. But the group brought out the beautifully variegated colours of the score, and the soprano Julieanne Klein (whose French pronounciation during the Ravel had seemed a little odd at times) was perfect - intense, theatrical and funny. The ripeness of some of the verse seemed entirely knowing, and the whole thing was pulled off with a real bite.
Second, I have been listening to the music of Radu Malfatti on CD. Radu has become a bit of a bugbear these days, a byword for hyperaustere minimalist composition and improvisation. It is often enjoyable to spend time with figures that have been critically typecast, I find - the labels usually tell only half the story at the very most. (A case in point is my interest in JH Prynne, the 'incomprehensible', 'elitist' poet.) The CD Radu Malfatti, on the Edition Wandelweiser Records label, containing one composition for solo trombone and another for string quartet, is a case in point. Yes, the material is all of the breathy white noise variety, interspersed by pauses, but the variety within that material is extraordinary. The music often gets relatively loud as well, and the pauses are never so long as to lose the tension. This is very far from being inaudible concept music or intellectualised ambient music - it is full of light and shade, beautifully poised and in the right frame of mind I find listening to it actually very exciting. The improvised music on the CD beinhaltung (Malfatti with Phil Durrant on violin and Thomas Lehn on synthesiser) is totally different. At times there is continual low level activity, at others the sounds become quite lively. The sense of the space and of the musicians really listening to each (though not straining to prove to their bandmembers that, yes, they really caught that last lick) gives the music a warmth and humanity. For a taste of this area of music (the composed side rather than the improvised side), I recommend the Wandelweiser radio stream, available at the Wandelweiser website, www.wandelweiser.de. It is worth spending time with this music and listening to it in a variety of different frames of mind and with different levels of attention.
Finally I have managed to obtain a copy of Bill Dixon's legendary 1966 record, Intents and Purposes. I really rate much of Dixon's work (I even named a band after this record for a while, without having heard it!), so I am extremely pleased that it lives up to my expectations! Dixon's trumpet techniques were very far ahead of their time; in fact a lot about this record seems strangely contemporary. (My friend and colleague Taylor Ho Bynum has written some very interesting thoughts on Dixon from a brass player's point of view here and here.) Hearing Dixon solo over a pretty raucous upper medium sized band is wonderful, and the ensemble writing is extremely sophisticated. It is basically episodic, but everything given a very well judged space. Dixon's sense of timbre extends to his composing - some of the tutti chords, including cor anglais multiphonics in the middle of them, are extraordinary. There are also Mingus-like harmonic touches, and percussion that manages to be active and detailed and yet strangely static. Two of the tracks are overdubbed - unusual for 1966. And the whole thing is only just over half an hour long. One does not feel short changed at all, however. Many of my favourite albums are very short. I find that if the music is really great one does not exhaust it by re-listening - and how great to be able to listen to the same album twice in an hour rather than only once!
[PS - I've also been listening a lot recently to one of Dixon's colleagues. This has been linked to in a number of places already but if it points a few more people to it it will be worth it: absolutely priceless Cecil Taylor interview.