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22 August 2010

Sufjan Stevens’ All Delighted People

I had some ambivalence about the small venue tour Sufjan went on last fall — the music’s Liberace-like indulgence, the way his band consciously abandoned structure but then, perhaps, overshot that effort and abandoned good taste. Philosophically it was intriguing; the music that resulted felt a bit forced. It meandered where, before, it was compulsively engaging.

I’m only a few listens into his new release, an EP titled All Delighted People, but it excites me on a number of levels. I like way he released it: an intentionally desultory approach wherein it just kind of popped up on a wonky, semi-established internet site with a rough hewn but charming cover, the kind of image an ambitious teenage kid might cut & paste on the cover of a mix tape or CD. (Sidenote: Do people still make mixtapes?)

I like the weird heft of it — a 60 minute EP! — and the through-line it maintains from Sufjan’s recent public statements to the musical execution of the recording. In a long interview with Paste Magazine, he had expressed a lack of faith in established musical formats (via Pitchfork). i.e.

    “I’m wondering, why do people make albums anymore when we just download? Why are songs like three or four minutes, and why are records 40 minutes long? They’re based on the record, vinyl, the CD, and these forms are antiquated now. So can’t an album be eternity, or can’t it be five minutes? … I no longer really have faith in the album anymore. I no longer have faith in the song.”

Most importantly I like the music in and of itself. He’s tamped down the “too much jazz” of last year’s tour, but maintains the loose intensity of the music he played and an emotional register which is even more idiosyncratic than the songs he’s released in the past. On the website for his label Asthmatic Kitty he calls it “a dramatic homage to the Apocalypse, existential ennui, and Paul Simon’s ‘Sounds of Silence,’” though it feels as much like a jazz/classical/noise version of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks.

It’s loose, it’s messy, it’s redolent of the 1970s and it has soul. It sounds like a good way to spend a Sunday morning.

PS – The morning after writing this post, while actually listening to it on a Sunday morning, the influence of church music also came to the fore: the ecstasies and intimacies and oh-so-human breakdowns; the gender-neutral chorus wherein the vocal registers of the singers remains ambiguously castrati-like; the final resolution of the songs which sets a certain tone: one of hard-earned uplift and hard-won peace.

Posted by Alec Hanley Bemis  

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22 January 2010

Brian Eno has beef with Steve Reich, enjoys musical seduction

Few artists’ careers are as unimpeachable as Brian Eno’s. (Well, ok, there is that Paul Simon record.) Anyway, you can marvel at Eno’s recorded accomplishments elsewhere. As impressive as his long list of amazing, culture-impacting albums, though, is the way he talks about music:

    “I came out of this funny place where I was interested in the experimental ideas of Cornelius Cardew, John Cage and Gavin Bryars, but also in pop music. Pop was all about the results and the feedback. The experimental side was interested in process more than the actual result — the results just happened and there was often very little control over them, and very little feedback. Take Steve Reich. He was an important composer for me with his early tape pieces and his way of having musicians play a piece each at different speeds so that they slipped out of synch.

    “But then when he comes to record a piece of his like, say, Drumming, he uses orchestral drums stiffly played and badly recorded. He’s learnt nothing from the history of recorded music. Why not look at what the pop world is doing with recording, which is making incredible sounds with great musicians who really feel what they play. It’s because in Reich’s world there was no real feedback. What was interesting to them in that world was merely the diagram of the piece, the music merely existed as an indicator of a type of process. I can see the point of it in one way, that you just want to show the skeleton, you don’t want a lot of fluff around it, you just want to show how you did what you did. As a listener who grew up listening to pop music I am interested in results. Pop is totally results-oriented and there is a very strong feedback loop. Did it work? No. We’ll do it differently then. Did it sell? No. We’ll do it differently then. So I wanted to bring the two sides together. I liked the processes and systems in the experimental world and the attitude to effect that there was in the pop, I wanted the ideas to be seductive but also the results.”

This appeared a few days ago in an interview that Eno did with the Guardian. In this age of blogs & Twitter posts, Eno is well served by his genius at expressing big thoughts in relatively small bites. I’ve actually heard variations on his above-quoted sentiment from many people. But Eno’s platform, his ability to speak in full paragraphs that are one part aphorism, one part logical proof, it gives his words a particular power.

I’m not all praise: Eno’s dismissal of “Drumming” and elevation of Reich’s early tape pieces made me wince a bit. Later on, Reich also wrote one of the 20th century’s most sublime pieces, “Music for 18 Musicians”:


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