Hey Joe

Hey Joe,

Thanks for nominating me to list ten (listen) music albums that are important to me and still in rotation. I couldn’t respond exactly as requested in facebook land, because it’s a bit complicated. I’ve been interested in others’ responses to this challenge and tried to look back for previous posts and got swamped in timelines. So I want to do mine all at once as a blog post, to make it simpler.

And I don’t know about albums as a primary focus. It seems a hifi, concept orientation to music, only part of the story. I feel like my experience has been shaped by so many different forms beyond albums – singles, (b-sides), mix tapes, concerts, surprise encounters, dance parties, late night community radio, playlists, playing, singing, kitchen parties, buskers, networks of experience.

I think I can start with that, with networks of experience. And there will be some albums in there, too.

As a pre-teen girl in Britian in the ‘60s, with my name, and  born in Lancashire — I was just up the coast from Liverpool, I learned songs by heart as each single appeared on Radio Caroline, a pirate station. I don’t own any Beatles albums, but always enjoy singing along whenever I hear the songs, which can be startling for people in the hardware store. I also loved the Animals back then, partly because they were from Tyneside, where I lived. I also learned to sing local folk songs in Geordie, the impenetrable dialect of the northeast, like Cushie Butterfield, and still have the sheet music by my side right now, next to some songs in Gaelic. Another favourite musical experience of those early years was the music of Dr. Who, which I would dance to as the program started.

My first experience of albums was as a teenaged new immigrant to Canada, listening to my brother’s Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin albums, and then later with my best friend, listening to Moody Blues. Between us, we had all of their albums, and we would lie on the  living room floor listening on her dad’s stereo. But my strongest sonic experience as a new immigrant was to the sound environment: we lived by Highway 27 in Toronto, in a high-rise. The intensity of traffic was new, the acoustics of concrete, and the pleasurable surprise of a vacant lot. It was full of summer insects that evening, and their chorus really struck me, beating with the traffic hum. I had never encountered crickets like that, and it was only recently that I discovered the reason: because of industrial farming practices, the cricket population in Britain had been reduced by the sixties to a few hundred, in the south, far from where I lived. That sonic memory of cricket chorus remains very strong, and the electric music I was drawn to had a similar feeling of strange new worlds and possibilities.

More strange new worlds. On community radio, listening in Peterborough in the ‘80s late at night, I heard sound art made from spoken word, from field recordings, from all kinds of sounds that expanded any definition of music I had heard before. The hosts spoke less of albums than of pieces, people, groups, events. And I wanted to do field recording. A decade later, I was doing community radio in Toronto as part of a collective, playing field recordings. There are so many of these albums of recordings that I could point to now, but perhaps the one that I have returned to the most frequently is The Sounds of Harris and Lewis,by the Touring Exhibition of Sound Environments, in part because of the way it involves the stories of people from the local communities. There is a moving poem about gutting herring and familial guilt and love, and chimney sounds that evoke the harsh winds that scour the islands.

So many dance experiences it is hard to know where to start or what to choose. But in my current playlist I have Madonna Music, Tito Puente Dance Mania, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan Shahen Sha, Dion Jones and the Filth Velvet Fever, Bajofondo Tango Club, Eight O Five Jive Swing Set,  Astor Piazzolla Tangamente Disk 1, Aron deMille steel drum live. And Grace Jones Private Life. This latter, I encountered initially as the single Slave to the Rhythm, on the radio. Then bought the cassette and then the CD of Private Life: The Compass Point Sessions. Good for dancing and singing along, too. And strutting, and… One of my former grad students also loves Grace Jones and made a painting of her for me as a gift, that I can see from here.

I listen to Eliane Radigue’s Kyema: Intermediate States in the mornings sometimes, alternating with classical Indian ragas. Kyema is an album, but also just one piece. It has a similar expansive and reflective effect on me as the ragas, a pleasurable slowing. The CD was given to me by James Tenney, my PhD supervisor, when he returned from a sabbatical in Berlin. Tenney’s influence deepened many aspects of musical experience. He and his wife Lauren Pratt used to have Sunday afternoon gatherings to talk about and listen to music. His compositions are some of the most clearly articulated I have ever heard, so elegant. I hear Malcolm Goldstein play Tenney’s Koan when he came to our class. I used to play Tenney’s electronic pieces from the Bell labs period for my sound class at Concordia. He inspired me to work for a year on a John Cage score called Circus On… I attempt to play his beautiful Three Rags on the piano. And I had a transformative experience listening to Critical Band in concert in Toronto in the ‘90s, a feeling of deep bliss. I love how this piece begins with a unison on concert A, reminding me of many pleasurable moments listening to orchestras tune up. Then that harmonic space expands beautifully in all directions for almost twenty minutes. No wonder he gave me Kyema.

I have only memorized one piano piece successfully, and play it frequently. It is the opening to Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier, the prelude in C, and it always improves my temper. It feels as though the harmonic progression works through my brain, setting things to rights, as I play it. At least one researcher believes it was actually composed by Bach’s wife, along with several other works, which are my favourite Bach works as it turns out. Different pen style apparently. But many Bach pieces have a powerful effect on me, especially while playing the piano, especially with all that conversation between the parts. Glenn Gould’s State of Wonder with the Goldberg Variations is a good response to anyone who claims that Bach lacks emotion. And I had the most amazing surprise encounter with Bach, on a ship called the Bella, on the St. Lawrence River near Anticosti island. A group called Forestare played a concert of baroque music that was unforgettable, accompanied by the thud of waves on the hull. I made a recording, but can’t post it for copyright reasons. I did record the audience and that is okay to post: https://soundcloud.com/andrasound/bella-forestare-audience

Another piece focuses and calms me in a similar way to the Bach, a work aptly named Peace Piece, by Bill Evans. This is an improvised piece using a repetitive motif in the left hand, intended to be accessible to people of different levels of ability. Another one that I play a lot on the piano.

So there are some ideas about albums and other things, in answer to your nomination. Not quite what you asked for, but I hope you enjoy it anyway.

Au plaisir,

Andra

 

 

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Reading Some Notes on Song, thinking of Marty Allor

I am reading some notes on song and thinking of Marty Allor. Actually “Some notes on song: the rhythms of listening” by John Berger, published in Harper’s magazine, February 2015, 64-69. I found the photocopied article in a box I had brought from Montreal when I was finally sorting through that black plastic container that used to sit on my desk at home with readings. “There is always too much on my writing table, too many papers” (65) says Berger and then describes how he found a postcard written weeks before. Berger’s article still has the pink sticky note that says simply “To: Andra from: Marty”, written more than two years ago now.

I remember that day I went to work and as usual stopped in to Marty’s office to say hello, because he was there most days. “What are you reading?” I asked and then followed a rich discussion about Berger’s remarkable writing, and especially this writing on song and listening. And then when I checked my mailbox later in the day, there was the article, thoughtfully photocopied and left for me by Marty. I read part of it right away, and put it away to finish later, planning to discuss it again with Marty after I had completed my reading. But then the cancer diagnosis happened, and I started treatment right away, never to return to that apartment, my things packed by someone else and transported to my new home.

“Songs refer to aftermaths and returns, welcomes and farewells. Or to put it another way: songs are sung to an absence” (65).

“Oh Shenandoah, I long to see you.”

Marty Allor, I long to see you. Or to talk to you, to have another conversation.

“The tempo, the beat, the loops, the repetitions of a song offer a shelter from the flow of linear time–a shelter in which future, present, and past can console, provoke, ironize, and inspire one another.” (64)

There is much in Berger’s brief article that is relevant to my current interests, so finding it now is a particular gift. I remember other gifts of connection that Marty gave me, like the Agnes Varda film The Gleaners and I, that became so important to my thinking about method. I never got the chance to again discuss “Some notes on song” with Marty. He died in February 2016, a year after this article was published, while I was still in treatment. But as I sing the songs in this article, Shenandoah and Carrickfergus, I feel consoled and once again inspired.

“A song, as distinct from the bodies it takes over, is unfixed in time and place. A song narrates a past experience. While it is being sung it fills the present.” (64)

Travelling the Relais Nordik

This summer I took passage on a provisioning ship, the Desgagnes Bella, from Rimouski Quebec to Blanc Sablon and back, visiting many communities along the north shore of the St. Lawrence River, and Anticosti Island. The ship makes the voyage, over a thousand kilometers in each direction, in one week — more or less.

The more or less part comes from the fact that schedules are determined by the amount of cargo that is being transported. Passengers are asked to keep a 48-hour window open at the end of their voyage, in case of lateness. On my trip, we left Rimouski about 24 hours behind schedule, and by the time we returned we were a little further behind. The cargo backlog was due to ice blockages in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, earlier in the season. I had originally booked by trip for early May, but at that time the river was so blocked with ice that the ship could only go as far up as Sept-Iles. They had been accompanied for several weeks in the spring by an ice-breaker. I remember reading in the spring that one of the ice-breakers called on to do this for another ferry was originally destined to go to the Arctic with science experiments to measure climate change, but the experiments had to be cancelled when the ice-breaker was diverted to support the ferry service. By late June, the river was clear of ice except for the very mouth of the river, by the eastern section of Anticosti Island, where the water was bergy. We saw many icebergs during the trip, and I remember the first sighting well. A lithe young woman with piercing bright eyes pointed over the railing. Iceberg! (Same in French and English). She gave me the binoculars and soon I too was pointing excitedly. At first we saw them at the side of the river, near the mouths of tributaries. By the time we approached Labrador, there were bits of ice everywhere, bergs and bits of bergs, really bergy water.

There must have been about sixty cabin passengers who boarded at Rimouski, the majority Quebecois. The ship has some characteristics of a cruise, with an exercise room, bistro, dining room and tourist shop. But no balls, or casinos. Stops take place day and night, and on quays passengers must pay attention to the marked pedestrian route by the cargo area. Some cargo quays are close to the villages, but sometimes they are much as 10 kms. away. It is possible to get around by bicycle, if you are willing to ride against the substantial winds at times. At each port, the first container off and last one to be loaded is a smaller unit for passengers’ bicycles.

At Sept-Iles and Natashquan, passengers boarded the ship who had driven up the North Shore of the St. Lawrence to the end of the highway. Cars are stored in containers for the duration of the voyage. The highway now ends at Natashquan, and beyond that point, the residents of the villages on the north shore of the St. Lawrence river rely on this ship to deliver provisions each week, 44 times per year with a short break in the winter. Many of the passengers who boarded at these highway ports were local residents, most of whom had seats in the lounge rather than cabins. The ship, an essential service beyond the roads, also provisions Anticosti Island, an island in the middle of the river that is larger than Prince Edward Island.

It was on the way to Anticosti Island that the passengers were introduced to an unexpected treat. A group of musicians joined the ship at Sept-Iles and had an open rehearsal which we listened to on our way to Anticosti Island. On the way back, they boarded again to go back from the island to the mainland and we were treated to a full concert of baroque music by Bach, Lully, and Vivaldi, played by the ten guitarists, contrebass player and orchestral leader of the Montreal group Forestare. You can get a feeling for the energy in the room by listening to this audience ambience, recorded as we waited for the concert to begin: https://soundcloud.com/andrasound/bella-forestare-audience. The concert took place in the bistro, where there were also presentations on life in the villages, and whales that are sometimes sighted on the river. We did not see any, but I was thinking often of the right whales who died within weeks of this voyage in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and the research to discover why this is happening.

Our voyage was particularly calm, and only on one foggy night (after the concert) did the waves seem a bit higher, more pitch. I was intrigued by the purring rumbling rhythm of the ship’s engine in those seas, and made a recording in my cabin. I had done many recordings throughout the voyage, sometimes eight in a day. The majority were done during soundwalks in and around the ship, inspired by my interest in a particular ambience, and most were under two minutes in length. The recording of the ship’s motor rumbling in the waves is by far the longest recording, a register of the calm I felt at that time, and my enjoyment of the comforting and enveloping ambience: https://soundcloud.com/andrasound/bella-deep-rolling. it brought to the surface a contradiction in my listening experience: I often find the sound of the diesel engines used in road transportation and construction to be annoying or disturbing. As in the film Duel (1971), where an unseen driver’s big rig sounds demonic, I often hear such diesel engines as like snarling beasts dominating the sound environment. But during the Relais Nordik, the recordings are suffused with the sound of the ship’s diesel motor, which seems comforting and enveloping to my ears in this context, only when heard on a system with good bass response. An interesting contradiction that inspires more thought.

Here are some other favourite recordings from that trip:

Busy cargo hammering: https://soundcloud.com/andrasound/busycargohammering1. On Anticosti island, the quay is very long. In this recording, trucks loaded with softwood tree trunks load a barge. while the Bella discharges cargo and workers on a nearby ship make some repairs, their hammering echoing across the bay.

Bella foghorn: https://soundcloud.com/andrasound/bella-foghorn. Every two minutes in fog, which is common through the northern part of the route. The two minute intervals, deep hum and woolly atmosphere create a warm atmosphere of insulated slowness.

Bella dining room: https://soundcloud.com/andrasound/bella-dining-room-ambiencewav. The food on the ship is excellent, with local seafood available throughout the voyage: halibut, turbot, hake, lobster, snow crab… The restaurant staff are very friendly and English menus are available. The voyage is a great opportunity to hone French-speaking skills, with a knowledgeable, amiable crew and adventurous, reflective passengers who are patient with tentative French speakers like me.

Kegaska waves: https://soundcloud.com/andrasound/kegaska-waveswav. Waves recorded near the cargo quay at the village of Kegaska.