Steve Smith on Headstrong Ideas and Sonic Gateway Drugs

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For Mixtapes, we ask today's leading musicians, authors, filmmakers and artists to curate an hour of new-music that they find particularly compelling or that exemplifies the shifting boundaries of today's musical climate. Today's mixtape comes courtesy of Steve Smith, former music editor for Time Out New York and classical music reviewer for the New York Times.

By Steve Smith

"Everyone pursues his or her own path to musical adventurousness; for me, it started by forgetting to mail a postcard. As a nascent appreciator of fine music growing up in a then-small town outside of Houston, Texas, I relied on the Columbia House record club and the U.S. Mail to provide a monthly fix of Debussy or Pavarotti. Having neglected to send in my “don’t ship” card one month, I became the owner of something called The Photographer, by a living, breathing classical-music composer: Philip Glass.

Naturally, my course to broadened ears wasn’t singly reliant on a fluke; there were gateway drugs like Laurie Anderson and Frank Zappa. But after that first Glass album – or cassette tape, actually – I needed more. By the time I got to Einstein on the Beach, particularly the free-jazz saxophone fury barely caged by pulsating rhythms in “Building” from Act IV, I was hooked.

Chasing Glass soon led to Nonesuch Records, where Scott Johnson was revealing a groundbreaking method of using spoken text to shape melodic lines. Then came John Zorn, who wedded precision, impudence and a short attention span in a way that spoke to me intensely. Other routes emerged: Robin Holcomb, whose record featured Zorn sidemen Wayne Horvitz and Bobby Previte, offered cool, serene contemplations; Lawrence D. “Butch” Morris, who blew cornet for Holcomb, organized the raw energies of improvisers into something he called “conductions.”

Change was in the air among jazz composers not content with free-energy blowing or retro-bop mannerisms, including Anthony Davis, James Newton and John Carter, the last a Los Angeles clarinetist and educator whose five-album cycle, “Roots and Folklore” – of which Castles of Ghana was the second part – still ranks among the most powerful statements in late 20th-century American music.

Other paths emerged from paring sound back to its basic elements and exploiting its germinal qualities. David Hykes and his Harmonic Choir – which I discovered by reading and rereading John Schaefer’s book, New Sounds – performed haunting vocal music that shimmered with overtones. Maryanne Amacher, featured on a significant Nonesuch electronic-music compilation, Imaginary Landscapes, amplified small, discrete sounds into throbbing sheets of micro-detailed energy.

Nowadays, headstrong ideas and flouted boundaries continue to inspire me, and the notion of what constitutes a “new-music composer” shifts constantly. Mario Diaz de León applies lessons learned from performing in noise and black-metal circles to his formal compositions, which crackle and howl with arcane energy. Meanwhile, Sean McCann, a Los Angeles home-recording auteur, can evoke the beauty of a placid lake by Monet or one of Turner’s surging ocean vistas, but with sounds that seem to emanate from beneath the water's surface. What these two creators (and countless others like them) have in common are boundless imaginations and an irrepressible drive to explore – qualities that can serve listeners as readily as artists."


Laurie Anderson - Difficult Listening Hour (excerpt)
Philip Glass - Einstein on the Beach: Act IV, Scene One: Building
Scott Johnson - John Somebody: Part 1
John Zorn - Tre Nel 5000
Robin Holcomb - Nightbirds
Lawrence D. “Butch” Morris - Othello A
John Carter - Castles of Ghana
David Hykes - Harmonic Relation
Maryanne Amacher - Excerpt from Stain – The Music Rooms
Mario Diaz de León - II.23
Sean McCann - Saints of the Capital