Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Scale of the Day: C Pythagorean Octotonic-1 - Lydian Mode

CPythagoreanOctotonic-1-LydianMode

The C Pythagorean Octotonic-1 - Lydian Mode - Scale. An all otonal take on tuning the Octotonic-1 scale that favors augmented seconds over minor thirds and augmented thirds over perfect fourths - giving the harmonic sound a harsh brightness.

Women's History Month: Red Shift & Oa Poa Polka

Over the course of Women's History Month at HurdAudio the music of Lois V. Vierk continues to draw me in deeper with each listen to each composition. I've also applied ears to a solo accordion work by Mary Ellen Childs. I will definitely be seeking out more works by these two composers in the months ahead.

"Red Shift" (1989) by Lois V. Vierk. Scored for cello, keyboard, percussion and electric guitar. Performed by the Bang on a Can All-stars on Cheating, Lying, Stealing (1996) on the Sony Classical label.

There's a calm intensity to "Red Shift" as the cello, guitar and keyboard play glissandos to the swells of cymbal rolls that fade in and out at roughly the same rate as the falling and rising of pitches. The texture builds outward from this basic material - adding thickness over time. A melodic theme begins to emerge as the tempo picks up and the pitches move upward in register. Over time the intensity is further enhanced by amplification as this sound continues to grow larger with each passing second. This is an otherworldly sonic landscape that creeps up and engulfs the listener. It is an incredible and beautiful sound.

The title refers to the astronomical phenomenon used to measure movement of distant objects as the wavelength of electromagnetic radiation shifts toward red hues. The allusion to vast distances and the physical properties of light is a poetic allusion to the formal shape and sound of this work.

"Oa Poa Polka" (1988) by Mary Ellen Childs. Scored for solo accordion. This was part of a collection of Polka from the Fringe - a set of 30 pieces commissioned by Guy Klucevsek - recorded on Manhattan Cascade (1992) on the CRI label.

The title is a play on the kind of additive process at work in this piece as it opens with a sparseness that is gradually filled in to reveal the oom-pah and whimsical melodic line of a polka. But this work doesn't stop once the melodic lines and accompaniment are revealed. This piece continues to build outward with added ornamentation and artfully arranged material that opens up a fully orchestrated realization for this lonely instrument.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Scale of the Day: C Sharp Octotonic-2

CSharpOctotonic-2-interval-analysis

The intervallic content of the C Sharp Octotonic-2 Scale.

Women's History Month: Cassandra Sings & Two Bits

Women's History Month at HurdAudio continues with a listen to a work for string quartet and a work for string quintet with percussion.

"Cassandra Sings" (1988) by Tina Davidson. Scored for string quartet. Performed by the Cassatt String Quartet on Cassatt released in 1994 on the CRI label.

This piece opens with an expressive cello solo accompanied at times by extremely quiet tones from the other three instruments that eventually crescendo into a rich harmonic texture. There's an interesting restlessness to this music. At times contrapuntal, at other times focused and melodic with brief flashes of ostinato that rarely settle into steady state patterns for long. The focal point moves easily from part to part and often submerges beneath waves of propulsive sonic lines.

This piece uses a sophisticated vocabulary for string quartet that builds upon the modern tradition for this chamber ensemble. The tension of the first half of this work is pulled extremely taut as the second half unwinds toward a sustained release. The material from the initial cello solo works its way into the violin and viola parts just before falling away toward a pianissimo coda that slowly dissolves the harmonic beauty of this work toward its natural conclusion. This is really some great writing for string quartet.

"Two Bits" (1991) by Allison Cameron. Scored for 4 percussionists, 2 violin, viola, cello and bass. Found on Bang on a Can Live volume 1 from 1992 on the CRI label.

This work is a microscopic focus on timbre as the percussion parts work the extremes of extended quiet passages with the abruptness of contrasting loud crashes over a backdrop of slowly rising string glissandi. A steady beat on metallic blocks and bowls persists through much of this texture as an eerie world of bowed cymbals, crescendoing rolls across unpitched membranes and pizzicato rolls on the bass puncture the sonic space at odd intervals. The strong attack followed by an echo-like series of fading away strikes in the percussion is a persistent presence.

The waves of percussion sound swirl as the string material slowly rises in pitch (and tension level) as the nasal sounds of sul ponticello and soft arpeggios slowly bring the string quintet material into the perceptual foreground. After a surge of activity the percussion settles toward an unsteady pulse as the strings continue to surge upward. The sound takes on the feel of wind chimes reacting to a long breeze in a vast, other worldly landscape. This piece is turbulent on a scale that allows for tranquility. The imaginative use of the bass to anchor the rising glissandi gives the overall sound of a spectral shift as the rising tones form the harmonic contour of an evolving timbre. At less than 14-minutes this feels like a mere glimpse of something much larger.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Scale of the Day: B Octotonic-2 (1+1)

BOctotonic-2-(1Plus1)

The B Octotonic-2 (1+1) Scale as one would find it on any conventionally tuned, equal tempered instrument.

Women's History Month: Trilling & Portrait of Malcolm

Women's History Month at HurdAudio takes a close listen to wind trio and a solo violin work.

"Trilling" (1989?) by Wendy Prezament. Scored for flute, clarinet and bassoon. Found on Masterpieces from the Music Gallery released in 1992. This particular performance was performed on April 22, 1989 (I was in the audience). This piece has stuck with me ever since and there is a frustrating lack of information about this composition and Wendy Prezament (no photos) online.

This 9-minute work opens with a lone bassoon note in a moderately high register pulsating irregularly at a moderate tempo. The flute then trills briefly in a low register and the clarinet comes in shortly with a sustained tone, then a trill from that same note before moving back toward a drone. What follows is an interplay between these three instruments as they weave inventive melodic lines.

The fluidity of this composition is striking. The musical ideas in this work seem to drift effortlessly between highly independent parts and rhythmic unisons that coalesce at various points along the way. The linear, melodic lines take on an organic quality - often hocketing freely between parts - as they unfold with enormous variation even as the work as a whole sustains a healthy degree of harmonic dissonance throughout. The overall balance is impressive as these three instruments contribute equally to the sonic image.

"Portrait of Malcolm" (1987) by Pauline Oliveros. Performed by Malcolm Goldstein on Sounding the New Violin from 1991 on the What Next? label. This is a solo violin realization of "Portrait of _______" - a graphic score for solo or ensemble.

"Portrait of _______" challenges the performer to look within to realize this improvisation based composition. The score poses questions like: "VII. Who am I? Express this question." or "III. Signature. Create your signature." This is an approach to composition that raises any number of potentially uncomfortable questions about how much of the sounding composition becomes the creation of the end performer (as opposed to an interpretation of the specific materials assembled by the composer) and runs the risk of crumbling at the hands of a performer who abuses such generosity or even attempts this idea either half-heartedly or cynically.

In the hands of Malcolm Goldstein this "self portrait" remains faithful to the instruction set of Pauline Oliveros. And the resulting sound is all Goldstein even as the audible intent and soul of this composition is clearly Oliveros. Malcolm Goldstein's approach to the violin is unique, and sadly not more widely documented on recordings such as this one. The range of tone, technique, extended technique and attitude is so broad the instrument is practically reborn as a larger-than-life version of the full gamut of sound emanating from the violin. The scrapes and scrabblings of a bow pressed "too hard" or "too soft" or bowed on either side of the bridge are treated as an element equal to any other means of producing sound and Goldstein has formed a wide vocabulary that defies any traditional approach toward notation. Given the kind of sound and soul that animates this "new violin" this "Portrait of ______" score makes perfect sense and finds an exquisite match with this performer.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Scale of the Day: C Chromatic

CChromatic

The C Chromatic Scale as one would find it on any convetionally tuned, equal tempered instrument.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Scale of the Day: E Flat Lydian no 5 mapped to the Triative

EFlatLydianNo5MappedToTheTriative

The E Flat Lydian no 5 mapped to the Triative Scale.

Women's History Month: Manhattan Cascade & The Manufacture of Tangled Ivory

Women's History Month at HurdAudio takes a spin at a pair of compositions by New Yorkers that work their way inside the unique timbres of two different keyboard instruments.

"Manhattan Cascade" (1986) by Lois V. Vierk. Scored for 4 accordions. Performed by Guy Klucevsek on Manhattan Cascade from 1992 on the CRI label.

This work is a rich, sonic painting of steady hues across a 20 minute frame. The texture breathes with a steady stream of held tones that crescendo as tremolo intervals bubble to the surface. The rate of change is gradual even as the material remains active from moment to moment. The timbral range of this reedy instrument is explored as the registral and dynamic extremes are revealed over time.

With more works of this intense beauty in the repertoire there may come a day when people quit making apologies for the maligned accordion. This is a larger-than-life, shimmering sound that rewards the open ears. The breathing sound that comes with the squeezing of air through this instrument gives this sound a haunting humanity as long tones take on a quality of fragile mortality as the shorter, staccato sounds take on a quality of laughter. The low register material that forms the logical coda exposes a rich, timbral world that makes for a satisfying conclusion .

"The Manufacture of Tangled Ivory" (1995) by Annie Gosfield. Scored for digital sampling keyboard, cello, double bass, percussion and electric guitar. Performed by the Bang on a Can All-Stars on Cheating, Lying, Stealing from 1996 on the Sony Classical label.

This piece is an exploration of manipulated piano sounds. The first movement is a solo for digital sampler. Various samples of manipulated piano sounds (de-tuned and often temporally shifted) are scattered across the keyboard in a manner that radically departs from the usual left-to-right/ high-to-low one associates with keyboard instruments. In a way, this is a digital re-interpretation of the prepared piano and the "performance" aspect of it gives this music an improvised spontaneity that is often missing in electronic works. The interpretive energy of the live performance gives this work an edge. This music also packs an aggressive energy that carries right into the second movement.

The second movement brings in a full ensemble that grooves hard with this material. The percussion makes the pulse of this material more explicit and also adds punctuation to phrases. The string timbres of the bass, cello and electric guitar add color to the manipulated piano samples and add sustained tones into the mix. The ugly slabs of dissonance are loud and exquisite. And these are made even more beautiful by an excellent sense of contrast by varying the overall thickness of the sound with some abrupt transitions. This is an appealing sound that finds a rare balance between the physicality of a hard groove and a cerebrally stimulating formal structure. The sonic qualities of the piano source material becomes the focal point from which everything explodes outward.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Scale of the Day: F Ionian no 5 mapped to the Square-root-of-2

FIonianNo5MappedToTheSquareRootOf2

The F Ionian no 5 mapped to the Square-root-of-2 Scale.

Women's History Month: The Vermeer Room & Airwaves (realities)

Women's History Month continues at HurdAudio with attentive ears tuned toward an east coast/left coast pair of compositions.

"The Vermeer Room" (1989) by Julia Wolfe. Scored for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone, piano, 2 percussionists, 2 violins, viola, cello, bass and harp. Performed by Le Nouvel Ensemble Moderne on the Bang on a Can Live: Volume 1 compilation from the CRI label in 1992.

I've experienced this work live on a couple of occasions and it effectively fueled my fascination with the music of Julia Wolfe. Wolfe makes aggressive strokes of color across the canvas of time with this large ensemble. Some of these sonic strokes are drawn out as dense textures collapse into a single held tone. Other strokes are allowed to splash with thick harmonic clusters. Linear, melodic lines are clipped short and often only grow as sequences that grow underneath the overall soundscape.

The use of dynamic contrast gives this work an added depth of color. Late in this 12-minute work a quiet takes hold that allows sparse drones to swell into the foreground as a pulse animates the sound as a whole. The comingling of dissonance with familiar triadic harmonies is particularly appealing in this wake behind the crashing wave of sound that came earlier. This work ends abruptly with a choked cymbal crash like the sharp edge of the canvas cutting off a dense fog of color. This is a remarkable piece of music.

"Airwaves (realities" (1987) by Maggi Payne. An electronic work made up of the "unprocessed" sound of cars passing by and airplanes flying overhead as well as a heavily manipulated sounds of television and radio broadcasts. This work is found on Another Coast (New Works From the West) compilation from 1988 on the Music and Arts label.

This work was composed as a commentary on the contrasting sense of realities between those who dwell in the deserts of Nevada and the urbanites of the San Francisco Bay Area. The broadcast source material is completely drained of any contextual content or audible traces of their original origin. Instead, they yield surprisingly harmonic, shimmering outlines that evoke an otherworldly texture of intense spaciousness found within a tightly microscopic soundscape.

"Airwaves (realities)" has an immediacy that I find rare in concrete works. By reducing the already loaded (and saturating) source of broadcast sound to verbiage-free materials Payne avoids the cliche of painting with clumsy textual artifacts and arrives at an inviting soundscape that lingers well after the initial 10-minute imprint.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Scale of the Day: F Ionian minor 2 no 5

FIonianMinor2No5

The F Ionian minor 2 no 5 Scale as one would find it on any conventionally tuned, equal tempered instrument.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Scale of the Day: A Mixolydian no 4

AMixolydianNo4

The A Mixolydian no 4 Scale as one would find it on any conventionally tuned, equal tempered instrument.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Scale of the Day: E 3-axis, Construct #1 - Lydian Mode - reflected into the first pool

E3AxisConstructNo1LydianModeReflectedIntoTheFirstPool

The E 3-axis, Construct #1 - Lydian Mode - reflected into the first pool Scale. Because the "reflection" operation introduces a prime factor larger than 3 I've dropped the convention of referring to the 3-axis as "Pythagorean." This scale happens to consist only of the notes of a just, 5-limit major triad - E Major in this example.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Scale of the Day: E Flat Dorian no 4 diminished 5

EFlatDorianNo4Diminished5

The E Flat Dorian no 4 diminished 5 Scale as one would find it on any conventionally tuned, equal tempered instrument.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Women's History Month: Little Venice & Quartet 1931

Women's History Month at HurdAudio continues with a deep listen to two standout compositions.

"Little Venice" (1985) by Linda Catlin Smith for clarinet, piano, vibraphone, violin, viola, cello and double bass. Performed by Arraymusic on Chroma from 1989.

There's a beautiful, liquid tranquility to this music. The tempo holds a steady, slow pace as harmonies are carefully revealed with slow, dynamic sustained tones (and the occasional short ostinato). Each gesture and melodic fragment seems carefully selected to minimize the ripples across this gentle texture. The opposing sensations of stasis and movement are ever present.

One of the most striking things about this piece is the sensation of size and proportion. The timbral richness of the sound seems much larger than the seven instruments used to produce it - partially from the languid presence of the recording hall's reverb adding a great deal of presence to this sound - and yet the overall soft dynamic range keeps the sense of scale almost microscopic. It has the meditative feel of watching the colors of the sky shifting over the course of a sunset.

"Quartet 1931" (1931) by Ruth Crawford-Seeger for string quartet. Performed by the Arditti String Quartet on Arditti from 1989.

This one is an outstanding "modernist" work with a wide, expressive range and thematic detail. The opening contrapuntal texture is fantastic. This piece deftly explores the registral extremes of these string instruments while sustaining a great deal of continuity throughout. Another striking element is the variety of sonic density as brush strokes of varying width are applied to this 10-minute canvas. The sustained harmonies that organically from the overall texture are especially satisfying.

Holding together all of the transitions, harmonic inventiveness and thematic austerity of this work is the striking linear quality of the melodic lines that emerge and twist throughout this music. The restless transitions in this work are intensely creative extensions of the melodic sensibilities found in a small set of thematic materials.

Scale of the Day: G Sharp Aeolian no 4

GSharpAeolianNo4

The G Sharp Aeolian no 4 Scale as one would find it on any conventionally tuned, equal tempered instrument.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Scale of the Day: D Sharp Phrygian no 4

DSharpPhrygianNo4

The D Sharp Phrygian no 4 Scale as one would find it on any conventionally tuned, equal tempered instrument.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

International Ornette Coleman Day!

Have a Harmolodic Day! International Ornette Coleman Day comes but once a year.

I never cease to be mesmerized whenever I put on one of the first two discs of the great Beauty is A Rare Thing box set. There was something so transcendent about that quartet of Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins playing those outstanding compositions with the exhilarating freedom of the harmolodic approach to harmony, rhythm and improvisation. This material is so good it nearly eclipses the consistently incredible music that Ornette has been playing and composing over his entire life thus far (he turns 79 today-- and I look forward to 79 more years from this giant).

The steady truth of Ornette's titles are striking. From the tautological This Is Our Music to the boldly prophetic The Shape of Jazz to Come to the sublime "Music Always" or "I Heard It Over The Radio" to the poignant "Beauty Is A Rare Thing" (even when beauty is free flowing from the tenor in hand it is never "common") to the simply stated Ornette! Even more striking are the qualities that emerge from these compositions in the hands of some great interpreters. Don Byron's take on "Check Up" to open A Fine Line is stunning. Or the deeply satisfying Paul Plimley Trio's take on "I Heard It Over the Radio" from Density of the Lovestruck Demons. The Ginger Baker Trio's take on "Ramblin'" (with Charlie Haden on bass) from Going Back Home is also a stunner. And his most famous composition -- "Lonely Woman" -- has endured numerous interpretations (the melodic line is an obvious attraction on that one). Though nothing I've heard has really equaled the quality of that initial 1959 recording.

The combination of Ornette Coleman's Harmolodic theory with the fruits of its application - now making up the magnum opus of the Ornette Songbook - pulls together one of the most compelling examples of theory and application of any era. Much of which will be expanded upon by generations of players and composers that pick up the harmolodic torch and apply their own bent.

The linear intervallic content of those melodic lines is a real ear grabber. The sequence of intervals Ornette uses suggests a cohesive approach that unhinges the melody from an underlying tonal scale by combining polytonality with the blues. And the intonation implications of this approach are compelling. Applying a harmolodically inspired freedom toward these melodic lines I am intrigued by the idea of tuning these successive intervals so that allows these pitch-classes to grow increasingly distant from the initial 1/1 "tonic" and spin a course through uncharted harmonic territories. Over time the intonation would drift as successive 7/4 sevenths multiply against 4/3 perfect fourths along side a co-mingling of 9/7 and 5/4 major thirds. An ensemble of players following along this harmonic "journey" could open up an incredibly nuanced texture that would add a new wrinkle to The Shape of Jazz To Come.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Scale of the Day: A Flat Lydian

AFlatLydian

The A Flat Lydian Scale as one would find it on any conventionally tuned, equal tempered instrument.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Scale of the Day: E Flat Ionian 2% narrow

EFlatIonian2PercentNarrow

The E Flat Ionian 2% narrow Scale.

Women's History Month: Lemniscates & Go Guitars

Women's History Month is in full bloom at HurdAudio. Tonight I have my ears and attention tuned to a pair of chamber pieces for strings that have made a substantial impression both sonically and conceptually.

"Lemniscates" is a severely soft, 18-minute work that occupies a dynamic range just at the edge of perceptibility. As a recording this one is easily lost to any number of ambient sounds in the environment as it is prone to being swallowed up by road noise, a running heater or even a breeze through the back yard. As a live work this one must cast an appealing spell as it invites the active listener to stretch one's perceptions to hear a microscopic world of incredible detail.

This composition calls for a figure-8 bowing technique that spans from the fingerboard to the bridge of the instruments as the left hand gently touches the natural harmonic nodal points of the strings - never actually pressing down for a standard "stopped" tone - as Hovda paints an otherworldly soundscape of overtones, harmonics and the timbral irregularities found between sul ponticello (on the bridge) and ordinario. This sonic image is enormously appealing and the conceptual territory is haunting. It's a work that's never far from my mind whenever I write for strings.

"Go Guitars" is completely different from "Lemniscates," and yet strangely similar as well. Dynamically, this one is loud - aided by the electricity and amplification (and post-production as this is an over-dubbed performance). This one also invites the active listener to hear a universe of detail within the physical properties of vibrating strings.

There is extensive use of score da tura as the open strings are radically re-tuned for a contained universe of custom harmonies that give this work its identifiable sound. With the insistent, sharp plucking of these strings there's also a great physicality to this sound as the pulse adds a serious degree of momentum. Another dominating element of this sonic image is the persistent use of glissando that keeps so much of the harmonic material in a constant state of flux. This one could be described as a turbulent yet intelligible wall of sound that somehow increases in intensity over the course of 12 delirious minutes.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Scale of the Day: E Flat Ionian diminished 5 1% narrow

EFlatIonianDiminished5-1PercentNarrow

The E Flat Ionian diminished 5 1% narrow Scale.

Women's History Month: Amaryllis

Women's History Month at HurdAudio finds ears tuned to Amaryllis, an understated masterpiece recorded in February of 2000 at the Avatar Studios of New York. As one of the most thrilling improvising pianists of this era, Marilyn Crispell exposes new territory for the piano trio format with some surprisingly restrained and slow tempo compositions with Gary Peacock on bass and Paul Motian on the drums. Crispell has enormous creative range as her ability to explode - as found on previous recordings - held me at the edge of my seat as she brings the same level of intensity to a more serene texture.

"Voice from the Past" is a Gary Peacock composition that opens this listening experience with some soft colors on the bass and drums before Crispell fills in the sonic space with some moody harmonies and a great melodic focus. It's clear right from the start that these players are in rare form for this session.

As the title track, "Amaryllis" is the first of four slow, freely improvised pieces that producer Manfred Eicher suggested recording. The sound is unbelievably beautiful as these three players listen deeply to one another and paint a vibrant soundscape with plenty of space for phrases and harmonic movements to shimmer.

"Requiem" opens with a melodic line running in parallel between the piano and bass before Peacock and Motian settle into a dialogue between the bass and drums. The acoustic bass sounds deftly melodic against a light tapestry of cymbals and soft snare. Crispell then joins in the conversation with echoes of the bass melodies over some nice comping in the left hand. The initial melodic line returns with the bass and drums supporting the piano part. This one is a Gary Peacock composition that deserves many more interpretations.

"Conception Vessel/Circle Dance" is a Paul Motian creation. Here Crispell begins with simple lines - often reinforced as octaves - that slowly expand to include more harmonic variation even as the melodic momentum persists. The energy in the drums matches the ebb and flow of this improvisation perfectly. There are occasional flashes of groove emerging from this texture. Most of the time, these performers allow grooves to be implied and are rarely explicit.

"Voices" is the second free improvisation. Again, the bass and drums shade the canvas for soft strokes from the ivories. It's amazing how energetic something so slow and quiet can sound. It takes a rare combination of talent and interaction to leave such a shimmering impression.

"December Greenwings" is a Gary Peacock composition that opens with some parallel lines in the piano part. Crispell then stays close to the high-mid to high register of the piano as the bass and drums converse lightly underneath. Peacock then wanders briefly into the thin, high registers of the bass as Crispell expands her own range of exploration.

"Silence (for P.)" is a short Crispell composition that gently lays out some harmonic changes on the piano and melodic phrasing that seems to nod toward Bill Evans just as Gary Peacock steps into the foreground with a great solo that submerges into wisps as Crispell closes this one out with a mere whisper.

"M. E. (for Manfred Eicher)" is the third free improvisation - named after the producer and cofounder of the ECM label that released this work. The brush work by Paul Motian is outstanding on this one. In the final minute this trio seems to surge toward a climax before settling back into the shimmering, resonate texture that dominates this sound.

"Rounds" is a Marilyn Crispell composition that builds around expanding melodic fragments as Peacock works counterpoint underneath. Motian works a fabric of free flowing cymbals and snare that roll silently at varying dynamics and density levels. There's a liquid quality to this piece as it leaves ripples in its wake.

"Avatar" is the fourth free improvisation - named after the studio it was recorded in. Here, the piano of Marilyn Crispell is the driving force as the bass and drums respond with supportive, spacious material.

"Morpion" (a Paul Motian composition) opens with a back-and-forth as Crispell and Motian trade solos of intense, creative energy that stops just short of bursting the meditative sheen found throughout this disc. The drum rolls crescendo just a bit faster on this track and the heat of the molten lava of Crispell's pianistic force can just about be felt even if the eruption never really materializes.

Things then conclude with "Prayer" by Mitchel Weiss. Closing with the meditative tone that has long been Crispell's inspiration and strength.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Scale of the Day: E Flat Pythagorean Ionian 1% wide

EFlatPythagoreanIonian1PercentWide

The E Flat Pythagorean Ionian 1% wide Scale.

Black History Month 2006

Black History Month at HurdAudio, 2006 - Summary

This year's entries celebrating the music of:

Matthew Shipp: Harmony and Abyss
Sun Ra & his Arkestra: A Quiet Place in Outer Space
William Hooker: Armageddon
Don Pullen/Sam Rivers: Capricorn Rising
Leroy Jenkins/Muhal Richard Abrams: Lifelong Ambitions
Charles Mingus/Eric Dolphy/Bud Powell: Live at Antibes, July 13, 1960
Henry Threadgill: Where's Your Cup?
Dollar Brand (Abdullah Ibrahim): Duke Ellington Presents the Dollar Brand Trio
George Lewis: Monads - Triple Slow Mix - Cycle - Shadowgraph, 5 (Sextet)
Wayne Shorter: Juju
Joe Henderson: Lush Life
Anthony Davis: X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X

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Black History Month at HurdAudio is an occasion to celebrate a particular angle on my twin obsessions of music (jazz in particular) and baseball (pitching in particular). This year, the life and tragic story of J.R. Richard has been on my mind.

Jackie Robinson officially broke the "color barrier" with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Prior to that point African-American athletes were admitted into the minor leagues so that ball players could "get used" to playing alongside non-white players. This is a notion that stikes me as absurd. Segregation seems undeniably wrong in every way and any delay in phasing it out is morally questionable. If anything, minor leaguers should be "getting used" to playing competitive baseball. Now we can only speculate what it would have been like if Satchel Paige had been allowed to pitch in the major leagues in his prime because 1947 came too late for one of the best pitchers of all time.

The Houston Astros' team history goes as far back as 1962, when they were the Colt .45's. But I have deep misgivings and suspicions about the role of race and the Houston Astro's organization. And the story of J.R. Richard is a prime example. There's an excellent, and detailed account here. But essentially, he was an outstanding power pitcher for the Astros from 1971 to 1980 who hit his prime in 1976. He won 107 games for that organization over his career and had 3 consecutive seasons with 18 wins. In '76 he won 20 games. He had a fastball that was pretty close to cracking triple digits and he routinely worked over 200 innings per year.

But his career was cut short in 1980 when doctors failed to detect, treat or even take J.R. Richard's health seriously enough to prevent a blood clot from leading to a major stroke that nearly killed him and rendered him unable to pitch. His persistent health complaints and efforts to preserve his arm by taking himself out of games early were met with accusations of "laziness" even though he never missed a start and was a substantial contributer to the team's sucess. Such accusations clearly had racial overtones.

This past year the Astro's were swept out of the World Series in 4 games. In looking at the 40-man rosters of the Chicago White Sox and the Houston Astros this past October the stark difference in diversity between those two clubs is hard to miss. Is it 1947 in Houston yet? They got into the World Series on the strength of great pitching. But clearly lacked the offense to take even a single win. But I think there's an element of karma that will continue to hold the Astros just short. This is an organization that needs to undo the mistakes of their spotty history. I mean, this is the team that plays in the stadium formerly known as Enron Field. And they could start by doing right by J.R. Richard and retiring his number. They'll need to resolve the lingering questions about how they choose to staff their organization. And they should get that ridiculous flag pole out center field (not to mention that stupid slope within the field of play).