Squonk Opera – Pneumatica (2014)

Squonk Opera is a performance art company from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (USA).  If you are not familiar with them, you might expect that they are named for the imaginary creature (also supposedly Pennsylvanian) portrayed in a Genesis song.  You would be disappointed, though, as the band claims the name derives from the jazz term “squonk fest,” used in reference to some saxophone performances.  Nevertheless, Squonk Opera’s music does display some prog influences and sensibilities, and they are worth checking out.

Squonk1Wikipedia refers to them aptly as “a group of interdisciplinary performing artists.”  They’ve been around since the early 1990’s, and among other distinctions have competed with some success on America’s Got Talent (though the judges ultimately did not seem to get what they were up to).  Their mix of audio and visual presentation could invite comparisons to the Blue Man Group, but I find them much more relaxed and refreshing in some ways.  The Blue Men are a bit more “McDonaldized” in the sense elaborated by sociologist George Ritzer, with an implicit aspiration to a total quality-control-hold on performer as provider and audience as consumer.  To be clear, I’m definitely not saying that I don’t like Blue Man Group.  They are good at worst, and irresistable and profound at best (and I do eat at McDonalds sometimes).  But Squonk Opera retains a combination of serious artistry and relaxed fun, a vulnerability and intimacy with the audience of which Blue Man’s ethos requires avoidance.

4PAN1TPneumatica (2014) is Squonk Opera’s latest CD release, with music from their latest stage production.  Why would one only listen to the music without the visual elements?  A good question.  I wouldn’t really want to listen to Blue Man’s version of “Baba O’Reilly” without the visual, for example.  And the visuals associated with Pneumatica go beyond the performance one can see in a video.  (Their 20 page “Workshop Learning Guide” is delightful!)  But considering the music itself is interesting and rewarding.  Their interplay of gravity and levity, both seen and heard in the Gesamtkunstwerk, is embodied just as clearly in the deft movement between and synthesis of prog, classic rock, classical, pop, Celtic, marching band, and other influences.  I sometimes detect a rather strong minimalist current (as in Glass and Reich), of the sort one hears in early XTC, and it works well (to my ears) with Squonk’s dramatistic approach.

storeMayhemI’m not convinced that Pneumatica as CD/album is something that I would return to for multiple listenings, though I think that there are proggish listeners who would disagree.  For my part, I find the earlier CD, Mayhem and Majesty (2010), more fascinating and “durable,” probably because the minimalist element is most prominent and effective there.  But remember that this judgment is rendered upon the music, artificially divorced from its performative context.  Squonk Opera’s work is best felt and seen, not just heard.

Squonk Opera’s Website:  http://www.squonkopera.org/

“Whirlwinding” from Pneumatica:

Keith Jarrett’s 70th Birthday Present (to Us) – Creation (2015)

Jarrett Creation

Keith Jarrett is 70 years old, and his best known album — The Köln Concert — is 40.  I still remember the first time I heard Köln.  It was about 1978, in a college radio studio on a good set of JBL monitors.  It was a religious experience for me.  That feels like a lame thing to write, but there are ultimately no words.  Yes, I even love the vocalizations, the grunts, the groans, the stomping.  I probably shouldn’t get started.  For some readers it may be off-putting enough that this is not “prog” in any standard sense.  But I can’t let pass the opportunity to tell Keith happy birthday when I have the platform from which to do it, or to call your attention to his latest solo piano disc.  I’m banking on (my prog guru) Brad Birzer’s championing of a broad tent in these matters.  Jarrett’s solo piano music seems to me genre-defying and epic enough, at any rate, for prog sensibilities.

kolnThe title of this latest entry, Creation, is not particularly a surprise from Jarrett, who is primarily known for the lack of distinction in his work between creation and performance.  But there is a surprise here, as Jarrett departs from his whole-concert-uncut approach.  Creation’s movements are selected from several different 2014 concerts, arranged after the fact into a whole.  Jarrett thus “had to become a producer,” as he explains in an interview on NPR.  But it’s still Jarrett as creator, as composer, performing as he produces.

As I listen to Creation, I’m reminded how consistently Jarrett’s work draws my listening beyond what I ordinarily think of as listening.  I hear the music, I drink it in as I do any good music.  But my listening is also pushed to hear itself, to hear in some sense what listening is.  Good listening is an interesting mix between impatience and patience.  Impatience because it needs to be eager, voraciously anticipatory, and open to mystery.  Patience because it wants to trust the artist, to wait for what takes careful preparation and painstaking development.  All of us who listen probably develop comfortable listening styles, familiar ways of moving along the border where impatience and patience meet.  Keith Jarrett has long struck me as one of those artists who play up that border, reminding us that it is a fault-line of a sort, that we can still be knocked over when the ground shifts violently enough.

jarrett playingIf you know Jarrett’s work, but have trouble with patience on his longer solo piano outings, I would especially urge you to give Creation a try.  The shorter-time format of his recent solo efforts tends to concentrate the development and give food to the impatient appetite, but (to my ears) without sacrificing any of the artisan’s craft and care.

Kudos to you, Keith, as you celebrate threescore and ten!  May our gift to you be (im)patient listening!

Ozric Tentacles, Technicians of the Sacred (2015)

Ozric TOTSThere are times (and listeners) that call for a musical edge, a sense of newness and unfamiliarity that is challenging and unsettling. “Avant garde.”  There are times (and listeners) that call for musical familiarity, for a secure homeland, a place to rest and to float in a heated pool of soothing sound.  “Accessible.”  There are uncanny surprises, and there are “old good jeans.”  For three decades now, Ozric Tentacles have been beating a path along the border between these two provinces of desire.  With the accomplished guitar and keyboard work of Ed Wynne providing the constant center amid changes in personnel, OT has consistently and recognizably drawn from a wide variety of musical sources, all the while sculpting distinctive aural textures, avoiding a merely “derivative” sound.

Their newest release, Technicians of the Sacred, continues this tradition of calm creativity.  Though it never really leaves the moorings built up by a half century of rock, electronica, and various styles that would often be grouped under the term “instrumental prog” (upon which I’ve commented before), it also never settles for the kind of familiarity that allows music to recline beneath the act of listening as if it were a stranger on a brief elevator ride.  There is a constant stylistic reverence for architects of psychedelic, “space,” ambient, prog, and other streams, but it always brings something new.

For some readers who are partial to the edge (as I am), this may come across as faint praise, but that is far from my intention.  When the exploration of a borderland appears effortless, we should suspect that both the skill and the effort of the explorer are quite considerable.

Brandi Wynne and Ed Wynne of Ozric Tentacles

As was noted in Progarchy’s earlier announcement of this release, Technicians of the Sacred draws thematically from Mayan astrology.  The story of the astrologer who pronounced the band “Galactic Activation Portals sent to channel messages of love to the world” lends a stereotypically “New Age” ambiance.  But OT does not simply fall back on a stereotype.  Here too they continue a tradition, which is that of embracing cultural as well as stylistic openness.  Here too they cultivate a balance that is difficult to resist, treating their theme with the right combination of seriousness and sense of humor.  (My favorite title here is “Rubbing Shoulders with the Absolute.”)  Scholars of religion define “the sacred” as that which is set apart, extraordinary, and in some sense forbidden.  It is that toward which the devotee must rightly comport him- or herself, that which gives meaning to the “profane” (here meaning ordinary or mundane).  If there is a musical sacred, then it has its prophets and priests.  Ozric Tentacles are consistent and effective priests who never lose sight of their roots in (and the fire of) the prophetic.

Those who have long followed OT will not be disappointed by Technicians of the Sacred, and will no doubt welcome their first double-album-length release in years.  Those unfamiliar with them will find it a warm welcome into their expansive oeuvre.

OT’s website:  http://www.ozrics.com/

20 Looks at The Lamb, 15: Give My Regards

Regards, these are.  And I give my regards to Broadway. Broadway is a street I’ve never seen.  New York is a city that I’ve never seen.

Oh, I’ve seen it on television, of course. But that opens a question about seeing.  As if the questions up to now have not been about seeing.  But regarding in the sense intended here is not just seeing, if by seeing you mean only some mysterious physiological alignment of rods, cones, and wavelengths.  Wavelengths are those things that we’re supposedly “on.”  Together, we are supposedly on them.  “On the same wavelength.”

NoRaelI’m thinking of how I see the things that I’ve never really seen.  I have regard, or a regard, for a thing that I’ve never regarded in person, “in the flesh” (“Pink isn’t well, he stayed back at the hotel”).  To listen in a way that makes the listening a gaze… doesn’t that mean seeing what one has never seen?  Isn’t it like going somewhere that you’ve never gone?

If I tell you to give my regards, it means that I won’t be there.  And it might be that my regards are just like that.  They might be the regards of someone who is never there.  I think that I’ve become Rael (become real?), waiting for the windshield, caught in the cage, slipping into the doktor’s waiting room, chasing the raven…  But I’ve never been there, and I have not seen any of those things.  My regard is from here, not from there.  I’m live, but not in person.

This is not just a spatial dislocation made metaphorical.  It’s more like a metaphysical mark of music.  No, scratch that; not music as thing.  It’s latent in any listening.  Let’s not forget that listening is a verb.  It seems like the doings of many verbs can be done, can be accomplished.  But a verb, just insofar as it is a verb, is a doing rather than a done/accomplished.  If it’s present tense, that is.  And the verb ‘listening’ can be present tense even though I am not present.  I have to be absent in order to send my regards.  So the regard is a present-tense non-presence.  And hopefully when I send it, it comes as a present (a gift).

Consider Rael’s story in this regard (ah, see what I did there?):  His “problem” is that he must get his own regard, and give his own regards (to Broadway, among other places).  He keeps finding himself in different places, different spaces, maybe even different worlds.  He wonders at that uncanny window in the bank above the gorge, where is “home,” as opposed to just another dream.  To have a regard toward home, to send one’s regards there, involves leaving home.  It’s a window, so it seems like he can go back, but can he go back?  Can we ever go back?  Is going back just the same, in the end, as stepping into another dream?

And a possible kicker:  Is finding the regard, sending the regards, ultimately seeing…  is it the same as no longer regarding “the problem” as a problem?

Suppose it really is only knock and knowall.

Suppose you’ve got to get out to get in.

Hop on that misty mountain.  (“And baby, baby, baby, do ya like it?”)

That we CAN like it.  That would be good news.  Take it, with my regards.


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20 Looks at The Lamb, 14: Windows, Screens, and Dust

“Walls that no man thought would fall,
The altars of the just… crushed…
Dust in the wind”

gabriel_4Oh, yes. “Dust in the Wind.”

It started out this time as two thoughts. They didn’t seem to have to anything to do with each other. Thought one was “Dust in the Wind,” apropos of I-don’t-know-what. Thought two was “concept,” in relation to The Lamb. (It’s supposed to be a concept album, right? And I really do need to start posting again, right?)

I think about associations a lot, because I’ve been reading Freud. That theme has come up here before. But it’s not just some technical psychological thing. I’ll bet you’ve experienced this a lot, if you think about it. Things that aren’t associated, that you’re sure are proximate only as a matter of coincidence, end up being associated after all. Your experience is not just a big container with a lot of things in it. It’s a web that gathers things together. For Freud, this is why your dreams are so weird, as well as why you used that specific word when you misspoke, or why you forgot that particular thing. But even if you don’t know Freud, you know that feeling you get sometimes when things in your field of concern keep “hooking up” with each other, and your mind feels kind of like a cheap motel.

ELP_-_Brain_Salad_SurgeryThinking about “Dust in the Wind” led me back to Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s “Karn Evil 9” (all three impressions) from Brain Salad Surgery (1973). It was when I actually began listening that I remembered how mysterious and scary the concept of the piece had seemed back then, and went “Oh yeah, concept.” Sure, it’s a bit dated now in some ways, as almost always happens with “futuristic” stuff, but it’s still easy to see why a lot of folks point to it as the pinnacle of ELP’s glory years, and why its dystopian vision might still resonate.

Kansas_-_Point_of_Know_Return“Dust in the Wind” was used as a song title the year before the release of Brain Salad Surgery by Todd Rundgren on Something/Anything?, and then most famously by Kansas on 1977’s Point of Know Return. But ELP was THE band during my high school years, and the lyrical transition marked by the phrase in the Third Impression is the one that continues to echo most frequently.

But here comes the surprise connection, back through the piece to the First Impression. What jumped out this time was “THERE BEHIND THE GLASS.” BANG!! I was back in The Lamb, where we find out near the end that Rael’s New York City is behind a “window.” Though there’s no specific reference to glass, “behind the glass” took me to that window, and to the disconcerting idea that a window has two sides. In the case of “Karn Evil 9,” what is behind the glass is “a real blade of grass.” The “behind” is what is on display, the content of the exhibit. That means, of course, that we (the spectators) are in front of the glass.

lamb_cover1In Rael’s case, what is “in front” and what is “behind” is precisely what is in question. This is foreshadowed, perhaps, even when the screen (the “wall of death”) bears down upon him, and the suggestion of glass lurks in the comparison to a windshield. What was real, in being absorbed, is now “on screen.” As the online Annotated LLDOB asks, “If what once was thought real is now a movie, is what was a movie now real?”

The window in “The Light Dies Down on Broadway” is one that Rael could presumably step through to return (again) to New York City. But think about where he stands at this point. New York is behind the glass, is it not? It’s on display, exhibited like the evils of “Karn Evil 9.” One might think that to put something on display is to glorify it, to recommend it. Many people seem to think this is what happens when something is put on the screen. We debate about the extent to which life imitates art. Are we more violent because of violence onscreen? But we might wonder also whether putting something on display might remove it from the realm of real options. How likely is it that Rael would choose to return to the world from which he has now twice departed, however strong the gravity of John’s failures as a brother?

I don’t mean to suggest that this is an “all or nothing” question, that we must decide yea or nay as if deciding on determinism or free will. I mean it, rather, as a suggestion that we reflect on the distance between screens and windows, when it comes to where “front” is. It’s a distance for which there’s not a scale or an instrument of measurement, but I hope that won’t stop us from considering it, from listening in light of it.

And it won’t gel, or congeal.  It won’t finalize.  It will keep the indeterminacy and ambiguity that first allowed the associations to pull me in its direction.  It’s still dust in the wind.  But let’s try to feel its sting on our skin a bit when it’s blowing past.

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20 Looks at The Lamb, 13.5: Interlude

A knock at the door.

Aren’t there too many stories that begin with a knock at the door?

I open it, and see exactly what I expect to see:  Me.

Now, it won’t do at all to have you confused all the way through, so let’s say that the “me” at the door is played by Gary Oldman.  No, I don’t have a particular reason for that.  I just like Gary Oldman.  Think of him as he appeared in The Book of Eli, but wearing jeans and a t-shirt.  The shirt is emblazoned with a reproduction of the front cover of The Lamb.

I (at least I’m pretty sure that I am “I” rather than “me,” but don’t think too hard about that) can be played by anyone you fancy.  Whatever you do, however, please don’t envision me as Rael from that album cover.

Me (Oldman) has been looking at me blankly.  I see that he’s holding five playing cards in his hand, arranged as a hand, as if he’s playing a card game.  I look back, just as blankly.

Finally, he speaks.  “So…  What’s up?”

I know what he means, but play dumb.  “Not much.  What’s up with you?”

“Where the hell have you been?”



“It’s November.”

I can’t think of a good response, so I just continue looking at him.

“You haven’t posted since July.”

This time a response seems appropriate.  “Yeah.”  I didn’t promise it would be a good one.

He holds the cards up, and extends them slightly toward me.  “You dealt, but you never finished the hand.”

“You know why.”

“Well, yeah, at first.  You got all busy and distracted.  But FOUR MONTHS?”

“Four months is not a long time.”

A slight smile.  “We’re talking web-time here.  You know damned well that you get impatient after ten minutes if no one has ‘liked’ your latest Facebook post.”

“I’ve been thinking about another post.  I’ll do it soon.”

“But YOU know that isn’t all.  Everyone is talking about The Lamb again!  The fortieth anniversary, it’s on everyone’s radar again, and nothing from you!”

I’m back to having no response.

He sighs.  “May I come in, please?”

“Sure.”  I move aside to let him in, and shut the door.  He drops the playing cards on the coffee table and sits heavily on the end of the sofa.  I sit in a nearby overstuffed chair that does not match the sofa, and wait for him to continue.  The cards are face-up, and my peripheral vision catches three Jacks.

“That’s the thing, isn’t it?  If everyone else is talking about it, you lose interest.”

I shrug, and remain silent for the moment.

His tone begins to lean toward mocking.  “You’re still that freaking seventies prog-hipster teen, who needs his music to be not-too-popular.”

My turn to sigh.  “Yeah, probably.  I’ve always had trouble with hype, even when something is very very good.”  I shift a bit, and try to look subtly defiant, probably failing at it.  “But that’s not all.”

He crosses his arms and tilts his head.  “What else, then?”

I close my eyes.  After about 15 seconds, I open them again.  “All of us talk about it, or we try to.  Does it amount to anything more than trying to find all sorts of fancy ways to say that we love it?”

He looks puzzled.  “Of course we love it.  Why not find as many ways as we can to say that?”

“But is it anything MORE than saying that in various ways?”

A pause.

“Are you asking whether the things we say — the things that you write — actually mean anything more than that?”

I nod.

Another pause.  Much longer this time.

“If they didn’t mean more than that, why would anyone keep reading them?”

I open my mouth to respond, and begin making a sound, but then I stop, and close my mouth again.  What was I going to say?  That readers are dull and sheep-like, reading when there’s no substance?  That readers think they find substance when there’s actually none?  I eventually find my voice again.  “I was thinking about my writing, as opposed to the readers’ reception of it.”  That’s lame, I think.

“That was lame.”  He smirks, knowing that he has voiced my thought.  “Do you also suspect that The Lamb itself might have no substance?”

A feeling just a half a notch below horror.  “Of course not!  The problem is that it has SO MUCH substance.  Inexhaustible substance!”

He uncrosses his arms, smiling now, and nods.  I expect him to say something, but he just looks at me expectantly.

Okay, so I’m supposed to think about this.  I do.  He seems content to wait.

Inexhaustible substance, I said.

Time goes by.  No one measures it, so I don’t have a clue how much.

At some point, I suddenly look over at him again, and lean forward in my chair.  He is looking at something above my head, still smiling.  I look up, and see a cartoon light bulb floating there.  Very cheesy.

He gathers the playing cards, and stands up.  “Don’t bother getting up.  I’ll let myself out.”

I can’t think of anything to say, so I just watch him move toward the door.  With his hand on the nob, he turns back briefly.  “We can expect the next post within a few days, then?”

I nod.

He leaves.

I look up, and the light bulb is still there.

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20 Looks at The Lamb, 13: Shuffle

Now, here’s a thing I normally would NOT do.  (That “not” is as emphatic as you can make it.)  But I’m going to do it, and I’m inviting you to do it with me.  I’m doing this as my 13th look (regard) at The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway.

Yes, I’m superstitious, and that might be part of what has presented me with a sort of “block” for a while.  That plus all the other personal-life stuff that you don’t care about.  If I do this as number 13, and nothing comes of it, then we can just go on.  But “nothing” coming of it might be just the ticket, after all.  Without nothing, there might not be anything.  (I’m thinking Heidegger, if you sort of know about that; if you don’t then never mind.)

shuffleBut I am going to do it.  I expect it might hurt, but I’m going to do it anyway.  You can do it with me, but (as always) only if you want to.

I’m going to listen to it on “shuffle.”

One shuffles the cards so that the next deal will be fun.  It’s not truly random, but it might as well be from our point of view (if it’s done thoroughly).  If it’s not fun, feel free to call “misdeal.”

Are you in?

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