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Wednesday, Oct 28 1998
Bang on a Can All-Stars
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
Wednesday, Oct. 21

When Brian Eno spoke at the Imagination Conference here in 1996, he credited two San Francisco-related incidents as influencing his music in general, and Music for Airports -- which Bang on a Can All-Stars performed last week -- in particular. The first was spending entire days at the Exploratorium when he lived here briefly in the 1970s -- an unsurprising pastime, given that the man always treated record production as a hands-on science fair project. The second inspiration was a song: Steve Reich's "It's Gonna Rain," a 1965 tape-loop piece based on a recording of a Pentecostal preacher who was working Union Square. Making tape loops of three words from the antediluvian rant, Reich played them simultaneously and listened as they fell in and out of phase. The result was a harrowing, transfixing wash of ever-changing textures that obscured the actual words. What today's DJs achieve by busily slaving over turntables and samplers, Reich got simply by hitting "play" and kicking back.

The magic of "It's Gonna Rain" was its transformation of the human voice into a pure instrument, a mechanism of tone and pitch that had nothing to do with the preacher's original intentions. Always a chilly sort when it came to songwriting, Eno himself got off on Reich's human-turned-inhuman approach; in one of his rare interviews, he enthused over Reich's presentation of "variety ... generated by very simple systems." Music for Airports, released in 1978, was his attempt to codify those ideas -- "Ambient Music," he called it in the liner notes, arguably the first to do so -- and make them more complex.

Airports is a busy record, layer upon layer of glacial voices and notes undulating softly. But while the record goes about its melodic business humbly -- piano tinkle here, disembodied vocal there -- its randomness is jarring. As an "ambient" record, it's a failure; you're forced to confront its sound, inhuman and mild as it is. In other words, it's crappy background music, which probably explains why when the Pittsburgh International Airport tried playing the record in its (theoretically) proper context in 1982, angry patrons called to demand the damned thing be turned off.

So it wasn't such a radical idea for Bang on a Can All-Stars to not only score a well-nigh unscorable album, but also to figure it'd play live in a concert hall. By making Airports into a performance, the musicians -- Steve Gilewski, bass; Dorothy Lawson, cello; Lisa Moore, piano and keyboards; Steven Schick, percussion; Mark Stewart, guitar; and Evan Ziporyn, clarinet and saxophones -- humanized Eno's work. Sometimes imperceptibly, but often quite clearly, they took a science fair project and transformed it vividly into song.

Like the Bang on a Can album released on Philip Glass' Point Music label earlier this year, the live performance -- the Bay Area premiere, and the opening of the "Other Minds" series of new music concerts -- took some liberties with the original work. Ziporyn's arrangement of the closing "2/2" doubled the song length to over 12 minutes. It's hard to blame him: It's the album's loveliest, most flowing melody, which Lawson's cello and Stewart's guitar figures underscore. It's probably the part that brought Eno himself to tears when he heard the new version, as he wrote in a letter to the group.

Inevitably, the live performance wasn't quite as lively or full-sounding as the album, which has the benefit of additional musicians, particularly the ghostlike female voices on "2/1" and "1/2," which were instead synth-generated onstage. And Schick's metal-brushing-metal rattles on "2/1" were more emphasized than either of the recorded versions suggest, nearly to the point of being intrusive. But the differences only prove how surprisingly flexible Airports actually is; like any cover of a good song ("interpretation," if you prefer), you can mess with it without doing too much harm, because the melodic heart of the song remains intact. Thing is, nobody thought of Music for Airports as a collection of good songs until Bang on a Can got their mitts on it.

And that's what their performance was about: celebrating the role of the human composer above the animatronic composition, a point the group emphasized by playing an instrumental cover of Eno's lush "Everything Merges With the Night" for their encore. It repositions Eno as a more emotional and romantic musician than he's been given credit for. Bang on a Can exalt in messing around, experimenting, making mistakes, and capturing pure feeling. All the things that make music -- heck, human beings -- interesting.

-- Mark Athitakis

Of Montreal
The Bedside Drama: A Petite Tragedy

There are three stages that can be used to track all romantic relationships. In Stage 1, the "we were made for each other" stage, lust and possibility cause a run on rose-tinted glasses. In Stage 2, couples see only differences. Only successful pairings move on to Stage 3: compromise.

The pop music canon can be divided by the same arc. Almost every pop song's core message is either "You're the greatest thing ever" (Stage 1) or "You're no longer my baby" (Stage 2). The statistically insignificant segment of songs unaccounted for by the first or second stages falls into Stage 3.

The entire stages theory made perfect sense until Athens, Ga.'s Of Montreal loused everything up. The boys went and put out an album of love songs, the bulk of which reside on an invisible edge between Stages 1 and 2.

Their record, The Bedside Drama: A Petite Tragedy, is a concept album, following one couple as they meet, fall in love, and slowly grow apart. The story unfolds in two acts, each eight songs long. Imagine the Beach Boys writing a psychedelic musical, and you'll have a good idea of the record's sound: lushly recorded garage pop -- heavy on the vocal harmonies, guitar, piano, bells, and whistles -- equally nimble in its evocation of love and sadness.

The curtain opens on Track 1, "One of a Very Few of a Kind," where the protagonist offers his admiring but realistic assessment of a new friend. Cautious optimism, though, soon spills into Stage 1 idolatry. By Track 4 the beloved has become "a little viola hidden in the orchestra," and the protagonist, accompanied by a chorus of singing seashells, decides that to win her heart he must hide his fears and reservations.

His plan succeeds, and one song later it's "The Couple's First Kiss," an instrumental reverie of distant bells and calliope. The dreaminess of it all, however, is undercut by the tiny occasional pulse of an alarm clock buried deep within the mix. It's a subtle sign of things to come; over the next 10 songs a growing ambivalence eventually sends the new love into Stage 2. By Track 16 ("It's easy to sleep when you're dead"), their love has petered out entirely.

The tale may not be an original one, but Of Montreal's telling is transcendent. Simultaneously playful and penetrating, the band uses a host of intrasong devices -- like a 15-second drama within "Little Viola" -- to bring listeners more fully into the story. That a pop band could so creatively and accurately convey the tiny changes in perception that either doom or strengthen a relationship is remarkable.

The most amazing thing about the album, though, is the way it so presciently nails a stage of relationships usually too intricate to be touched by pop songs: The space where bliss begins its imperceptible journey toward dissolution.

-- Chris Baty

Tommy Flanagan
Sunset and the Mockingbird:
The Birthday Concert
(Blue Note)

Tommy Flanagan is the premier bebop pianist of our time. He begins Sunset and the Mockingbird, a live date recorded at the Village Vanguard on his 67th birthday, with an introduction stolen from Miles Davis and then continues with Thad Jones' tribute to Charlie Parker, "Birdsong." If he wasn't so unpretentious -- modest to a fault -- you might think Flanagan was stressing his connection to Parker, the source of bebop, and to his own rightful place in its tradition.

Flanagan began his musical life listening to '30s jazz, including stride pianist Fats Waller. But he came of age after the war, and he was influenced by Nat Cole's gently sophisticated piano style, so suave it never seemed as forward-looking as it was. Flanagan heard Bud Powell with the Cootie Williams big band and was impressed by Powell's force, as well as his way of extending chords and phrasing. Flanagan became entranced with bebop, and he ended up adapting something of Cole's touch to Powell's more radical harmonics and note choice. He played with Coleman Hawkins, but he was of a younger generation, and he also found himself recording with Davis and Wes Montgomery. He recorded Giant Steps with Coltrane. Flanagan proved that he could play modally, but he seemed to think chords.

He's been with a trio ever since leaving Ella Fitzgerald at the end of the '70s. Flanagan has recorded many of the tunes on this new disc before, including "The Balanced Scales," "The Cupbearers," and "With Malice Toward None," by Tom McIntosh, a composer he's supported for years. He plays some Dizzy Gillespie, and a lesser-known Ellington tune from The Queen's Suite, "Sunset and the Mockingbird."

To my mind, the set takes off on its third number, Jones' "Let's," a funny, jumping bebop number with several stop-time sections that Flanagan plays over the alertly chattering drumming of Lewis Nash. Flanagan simply erupts from this theme statement, generating chorus after chorus of melodically interesting, hard-swinging bop, playing wild single-note runs over a spare accompaniment, punching two-handed chords, and flinging climactic riffs to bring on Peter Washington's bass solo. Here too Flanagan reveals his unassuming tact, with unobtrusive lines and delicate chords that manage to orient the bass player without removing the spotlight from where it belongs. His second piano solo on the tune is equally fiery, but it doesn't prevent Flanagan from immediately entering into the mood of the following ballad, "I Waited for You." Suddenly, he's a ruminative player as he gently limns out an introduction, whose graceful lines seem to wander casually to just the right spot. It feels like chance -- it might even sound like you could do it at home -- but it's the work of a gentle giant.

-- Michael Ullman


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