Good times, bad times

High notes, bass lines, nothing in between

Greetings,

The mailer is back after a bit of a layoff. It’s time to assail evil music-industry overlords, and celebrate unsung musical innovators. Most likely in that order.

It’s been a while since the last release, so please excuse any creeping nonsense below.

Happy New Year,

Will

Sent From My iPhone


Within & beyond the purview of a classical mailer

It’s hard to believe what’s happened the past few months: the ongoing COVID battle, police shootings & protests, some real talk (but mostly talk) about racial justice, arguments about face masks and health policy, schools reopening, RBG’s death, and so on.

While these things affect the health and livelihoods of musicians and others in our corner of the world, I don’t have a universally-pleasing, bullet-pointed screed filled with solutions for you to nod your head to. That is beyond my ability. Sorry.

What I’d like to say is that things feel unusually dire right now in a way that is notable even in an industry as mercurial as the music business. Orchestra seasons? By and large canceled. Gigs, teaching, lessons, festivals, fundraisers, community events: canceled, postponed, moved online. Now it’s an order of magnitude more difficult for musicians to make a living, and that sucks.

The best thing you can say is that some things will probably get better with time. Others — like representation, racial equity, and corrective actions thereof, negotiations which proceeded glacially before the pandemic hit — require a lot more work. A lot. And the outcome is not guaranteed. We will need more than just good luck.


The Evil Empire was built brick by brick, click by click

I have friends who still buy CDs when they’re chasing a music fix. I like it. That charming, anachronistic gesture not only ensures a trusty physical copy to use in perpetuity. Buying a CD is also a way to send a reasonable slice of profit back to the artist who made it.

Aside from CD and vinyl freaks, though, nearly everybody these days turns on the great hose of streaming content — via Youtube, Apple, Spotify, etc. — and siphons off workday-length quantities. It’s the Golden Corral listening model: pay a little, get a lot. Problem is, the people making that music don’t always make money off your streams. A few pennies (or fractions of pennies) here, a nickel there. It’s a bad deal, unless you’re doing Taylor Swift or Drake numbers.

In late July, Spotify CEO Daniel Ek went after people criticizing his company’s streaming model. Ek blamed artists for not being innovative enough to make money on Spotify.

There is a narrative fallacy here, combined with the fact that, obviously, some artists that used to do well in the past may not do well in this future landscape, where you can’t record music once every three to four years and think that’s going to be enough. […] It is about putting the work in, about the storytelling around the album, and about keeping a continuous dialogue with your fans. […] I feel, really, that the ones that aren’t doing well in streaming are predominantly people who want to release music the way it used to be released.

Ek uses the classic “if-you-can’t-hang-with-the-big-dogs, stay-on-the-porch” line of defense, which is similar to “if you can’t stand the heat, stay out the kitchen” but less tuneful. It’s a bilious declaration coming from an ostensible industry leader, fluffed out with the kind of useless advice you’d glean from googling shit like “how 2 make a sucesssful music carer” and never leaving the first page of results.

Lots of musicians and critics and industry types have come calling on Ek after the billionaire Swede uttered his pronouncement, so rather than dwell on that I want to move on……. to our Big Announcement!

<<AIRHORN DROP>>

Congratulations, readers and friends. Spotify is officially Enemy Number One in these streaming wars!

<<green & black confetti twinkle down from the rafters>>

<<Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow” rolls>>

<<Tim Cook breathes a sigh of relief>>

Apple has been off-and-on flirting with the title since offering iTunes as a lame-o paid version of Napster. For a while it seemed like Youtube might be it when they really started jamming on the copyright claims and take-down notices for perfectly legit material. (That’s ongoing, we’re keeping tabs.) Twitch and Zoom and IG and all the others are still on the radar screen with their selective stream-torpedoing at a time when artists have nowhere else to perform. And TikTok was heir-apparent before actual sovereign governments and other entities involved themselves in its operations, thereby upping the stakes beyond the purview of “just music” and rendering our angst moot, or perhaps misplaced, for the moment.

The torch has been passed. The crown belongs to Spotify.

***

You’re not evil if you use Spotify. Hell, I do sometimes, although I enjoy it much less than when AdBlock nullified all those DYNAMICALLY INSERTED ADS WITH INCONSISTENT VOLUME that run every ten or so minutes.

For those looking for an alternative, Bandcamp has come to be regarded as a sort of less-corporate, anti-Big-Streaming platform. Some of the specs bear this out. For instance, Bandcamp:

  • takes a cut of 10-15% from sales, leaving the rest to artists

  • waives their cut entirely on certain days

  • enables merch sales on the same page you buy or listen to music, with a layout pleasantly reminiscent of MySpace

  • lets lurkers stream for free, but allows artists to paywall certain tracks or projects

That’s a good start. Other people think so too — you can read any number of thoughtful pieces about it. But it’s really only one thing, and Bandcamp and other niche-y music services (Idagio anyone? Can I get a Primephonic amen?) are unlikely to divert more than a small percentage of Spotify’s or Youtube’s or Apple’s daily music commerce. These are just facts.

***
You already know what the bottom line is. It took the music of millions to make all these platforms profitable. Meanwhile, execs grabbed the bag and did the dash. It’s not wrong if you want to use ‘em, but they already used us — bands and quartets and ensembles and DJs and orchestras and fans thereof and and and — and we let them get away with it.

Bandcamp isn’t the antidote. Physical sales only go so far. But think of them as tools of resistance against a monolithic empire, one that prefers things go in one direction, their direction, for as long as anyone’s willing to row their boat for them.


I’m sorry about this but

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The mailer is made possible in part by a grant from the Bernard Lawrence Madoff Pyramid Fund for Performing Arts Criticism.


Choose your record review: Julius Eastman Femenine

What follows is a review of a vintage performance by Julius Eastman newly released on the Frozen Reeds label. I imagine readers have varying degrees of familiarity with Eastman. Pick and choose sections below to build your own customized review of Femenine.

***

  1. (Already know about Eastman? Skip ahead to #2.)

    Julius Eastman was an inventive, unconventional composer whose orbit included leading art-music composers and practitioners in Buffalo and NYC in the 1970s and ‘80s. Eastman played piano, sang, and danced ballet; he wrote with a looseness and fearlessness and an eye toward provocation that now — decades later — has garnered him deserved praise and renewed attention. While his CV is embossed with the usual line items befitting an artist in ascent — attended Curtis Institute, performed at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center, collaborated with the famous and influential — Eastman’s final years were an ignominious coda, marred by joblessness, homelessness and drug addiction. He died in 1990 at 49 years old.

  2. This new Femenine record is actually a release of a 1974 live performance of Femenine in Albany, featuring Eastman and members of The S.E.M. Ensemble. So, there’s nothing technically NEW about it. (If you want to quibble about that point then just vault ahead to #9.) And in fact, this isn’t even a brand-new release because it dropped in June of this year! Okay, whatever, let’s just keep it moving.

  3. What does it sound like? In the simplest terms, it’s the same thing over and over for 72 minutes. Minimalism, baby! (Or its groovier descendant, postminimalism, if you like.) But in Femenine things change subtly, and each subtle change becomes increasingly digressive as the piece unfolds, something that’s usually only possible when a composer has taken a great deal of care establishing context at the outset. There are also notes of stewed plum, cherrywood, and spice box with a long, smooth fini—wait, sorry, that’s the rioja I’m drinking right now, not Femenine.

    Anyway, the past few weeks my morning ritual has been: pour some coffee, fire up the laptop, and turn on Femenine, every day wading a little deeper. It’s the type of piece that requires patient listening, where details emerge unexpectedly the 15th or 25th time — a crafty flute gesture previously inscrutable, a moment of calm while the ensemble reloads for the next section, or unison ostinato lines that take a hard-right into barricades of spiky chords. These are what you’re after.

  4. (If you’re pressed for time, bypass these ensemble & recording notes & stagger toward #5.)

    The S.E.M. Ensemble are an outfit led by Czech composer Petr Kotik. Kotik and Eastman were two of the group’s founding members, and while Eastman has been dead for three decades, the S.E.M. Ensemble carry on. They’ve premiered works by John Cage (more on him later), Morton Feldman, Pauline Oliveros, and La Monte Young. For this particular S.E.M. performance, Eastman plays piano and leads the group through its novenas. There are “automated sleigh bells” that pulse throughout; flute, vibes & violins round out the instrumentation.

    NB: This Femenine performance is a treasure, but if you pop it on your stereo you may notice small audio abnormalities. It’s raw, sometimes shaky. I promise you will be unfazed, and in fact, quite charmed.

  5. (Already know why Julius Eastman rules? Then head to #7, my friend.)

    Eastman knew how to position his works in opposition to the prevailing attitudes and tastes of his day. (He was an excellent marketer, you might boringly note.) That his work took time to find a wider audience is no fault of his own. Here was Eastman, an artist who happened to be Black, and queer, confronting his listeners, forcing them — at least for as long as a piece lasted — to question dearly-held beliefs. He chose titles for his works (Gay Guerilla; N****r F****t; Crazy N****r) by reclaiming previously pejorative terms. He wasn’t afraid of alienating people. Here’s something Eastman said: “What I am trying to achieve is to be what I am to the fullest: Black to the fullest, a musician to the fullest, a homosexual to the fullest.”

  6. (If you won’t read a single bad word about John Cage, scroll instead to #7.)

    We mentioned John Cage. Cage is spoken of as a sort of Phil Jackson of art music: a seer whose musical theories were, for a time, perfectly realized both in composition and in practice. He wrote ambitious works that defied musical convention. (For example: As Slow as Possible, a piece which takes a tidy 639 years to perform, just changed chords for the first time in seven years!) But Cage’s imagination — much like Phil Jackson’s vaunted triangle offense — had its limits.

    In a delightful write-up at Red Bull Music Academy, writer Marke Bieschke details a performance of Cage’s Song Books staged by Eastman that completely baffled the Zen master. Cage himself was in the audience, and had less than kind words for Eastman afterwards.

    What do you have to do to piss off John Cage? Suffice it to say: you make objectification and queerness the focal points of a performance of “Solo for Voice No. 8” from Song Books when maybe, as Eastman suggested at the time, recent performances had been feeling dull or dry. This, assuredly, angered the high priest of experimental music. As Bieschke notes, the performance instructions for “No. 8” were rather cryptic. That is to say, open to interpretation, but … not just any interpretation.

  7. (Still don’t want to hear about Cage? Fine, fine. #8 is for you.)

    This recording of Femenine is from November 6, 1974. The Cage incident took place a scant seven months later, in June of 1975. As such, this record is a valuable artifact documenting a key moment before all the Sturm und Drang. That’s not to say the November concert was staid or conventional: Eastman wore either a dress or an apron (depends who you ask), and served soup to the audience.

    But you might wonder, rightly, why exactly Cage cared in the end? As a friend of Eastman’s has postulated, Cage was a gay man who didn’t like advertising the fact that he was gay. Fair enough, but Eastman was quite the opposite: proud and unapologetic (see again: above Eastman quote). Cage might have … could quite possibly have …. definitely … thought Eastman was needling him with this performance. Maybe.

  8. (Don’t need a big-picture summary? Pop down to #10 to finish things off.)

    Why does this all matter? Because Eastman was really, really good at what he did. Because he deserves the adulation we reserve for the likes of Steve Reich — tough news about him recently tho, huh — and Morton Feldman; and because our understanding of this time, his time, needs to be reconfigured. It’s not just because Eastman was queer, or Black. Lives matter because of the substance you imbue them with, and Eastman had chops, charisma, zaniness and genius in excess. He had something to say. As critic & composer Kyle Gann notes, “There was no timidity or theoretical obscurity to his music — it cut to the chase.”

  9. To recap: you can find this recording, put out by Frozen Reeds, over here on Bandcamp. You might also consider buying the 2005 compilation Unjust Malaise, which tidily collects seven works and a short intro speech by Julius Eastman at Northwestern University. I loved hearing him speak.

  10. Thanks for reading. Or if you skipped the whole thing: thanks for nothing, but do go listen.


Tweets to print, roll up & smoke, supplies permitting


Hit these links before you slink away

😤 Their loss: MPR fires Trilloquy host Garrett McQueen

👹 Not at all creepy: Alma Mahler replica doll

🌵 Rest in Peace, Ennio Morricone

💎 This Alice Coltrane short film is an absolute treasure (via Sasha)

🌡️ Mapping the spread of COVID at live shows

🙈 Making a living as a professional fake violinist (via Carl)

Dark thoughts

  • I’m making my way through back episodes of Will Robin’s new pod, Sound Expertise. The guest list is great. Fave so far is Micaela Baranello talking about operetta in Vienna, something I didn’t expect to be so excited about.

  • Not ready to give myself over to Pitchfork’s Enya reclamation project. It feels like a troll? Even though it is decidedly the opposite. Guide me.

  • Nice to be back writing a little. Childcare is a blessing.