Time canvas

Morton Feldman.

There’s no time like the present to purchase your tickets for Morton Feldman’s landmark Patterns in a Chromatic Field (1981), which Stephen Marotto (cello) and Marilyn Nonken (piano) will perform as the last concert of this year’s Great Music at St. Bart’s series on Sunday, May 13.

Morton Feldman, the Queens-born son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, is on anybody’s short list of the great American composers of the 20th century, and I’d rank him way above even John Cage; Tom Service has a pretty good “guide to Morton Feldman’s music” at the Guardian. “My compositions are not really ‘compositions’ at all,” Feldman said. “One might call them time canvases in which I more or less prime the canvas with an overall hue of music.” The 80-minute Patterns is one of his late-period, long-duration compositions; it was immediately followed by Triadic Memories of similar length (and which Marilyn recorded for Mode Records some years ago). In a 2006 essay for the New Yorker, Alex Ross shared an anecdote that I do hope is not apocryphal; comparing Feldman’s burly, loud girth with the not-so-simple elegance of his music, Ross wrote:

The often noted paradox is that this immense, verbose man wrote music that seldom rose above a whisper. In the noisiest century in history, Feldman chose to be glacially slow and snowily soft. Chords arrive one after another, in seemingly haphazard sequence, interspersed with silences. Harmonies hover in a no man’s land between consonance and dissonance, paradise and oblivion. Rhythms are irregular and overlapping, so that the music floats above the beat. Simple figures repeat for a long time, then disappear. There is no exposition or development of themes, no clear formal structure. Certain later works unfold over extraordinarily lengthy spans of time, straining the capabilities of performers to play them and audiences to hear them. … In its ritual stillness, this body of work abandons the syntax of Western music, and performers must set aside their training to do it justice. Legend has it that after one group of players had crept their way as quietly as possible through a score of his Feldman barked, “It’s too fuckin’ loud, and it’s too fuckin’ fast.”

I told you he was from Queens.

The May 13 concert begins at 3.00pm; more information and tickets here.  A few years ago, Arne Deforce collected several of Feldman’s own comments on Patterns into a convenient anthology of sorts; that can be found here.

“One Dime Blues”

Etta Baker.

Etta Baker (1913-2006) was one of the great practitioners of the Piedmont Blues guitar style; Bob Dylan and Taj Mahal sought her out at her North Carolina home for tips and advice about her thumb-and-forefinger technique. Below, she performs her signature “One Dime Blues” in a recording from 1991, when she was 78 years old. Her New York Times/ Associated Press obituary can be found here.

Roundup

Leon Redbone.

This week I typed up a review of the fine Temple University Press publication Philadelphia: Finding the Hidden City; a few vagrant reflections on my recent visit to the Museum of the American Revolution; and an anticipation of the upcoming baseball season.

I leave you with Leon Redbone‘s 1975 performance of Irving Berlin’s 1938 song “My Walking Stick.” A few years ago Redbone retired from recording and performing due to health reasons, but until then he was among the most popular performers of the songs of early 20th-century music, stretching back to Blind Blake. Redbone cultivated an air of mystery. According to his Wikipedia entry, he may have been born in Cyprus under the unlikely name Dickran Gobalian, but it’s more than possible that he was a Philadelphia boy:

According to a Toronto Star report in the 1980s, he was once known as Dickran Gobalian, and he came to Canada from Cyprus in the mid-1960s and changed his name via the Ontario Change of Name Act. However, an article about producer John H. Hammond in a 1973 issue of the Canadian jazz magazine Coda states that he was a native of Philadelphia who moved to Toronto: “Sitting next to Hammond was a young white musician named Leon Redbone from Philadelphia, but currently residing in Toronto.”

Wherever he’s from, he’s missed, by me anyway. “My Walking Stick” appears on his first album, On the Track. See you at Cafe Katja this afternoon.

Matchbox Blues

R. Crumb’s portrait of Blind Lemon Jefferson.

These days I’ve been enjoying Samuel Charters’ groundbreaking 1959 study The Country Blues (reissued by Da Capo Press in 1975 with a new introduction by Charters); at the same time the companion LP of the same name, released by Folkways Records, has been getting some play around the house as I make my own efforts towards cultural appropriation by learning country blues guitar. The first cut on the LP is Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “Matchbox Blues,” released by Paramount Records in 1927. The single is important for American popular music in a variety of ways. According to the Wikipedia page for Jefferson, it’s been selected as “one of the 500 songs that shaped rock and roll” by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and Carl Perkins, the Beatles, and Jerry Lee Lewis also covered it.

Stephen Calt wrote the text on the back of Jefferson’s entry in R. Crumb’s “Heroes of the Blues Trading Cards.” It reads:

A native of Wortham, Texas, the legendary Blind Lemon Jefferson worked as a street singer and visited several states in the course of his travels. His successful recording debut in 1926 launched the vogue for country blues. Before his mysterious death in 1929, Jefferson recorded 85 sides and established himself as the most popular blues guitarist of his era. An off-beat guitarist known for his free phrasing patterns, he was one of the most inspired singers found in blues.

Below, Jefferson’s “Matchbox Blues,” courtesy YouTube. You can find the lyrics here. It’s also the first cut on Yazoo’s 2007 compilation The Best of Blind Lemon Jefferson.