The Tugboat Symphony
I am always surprised by unexpected sounds. Maybe it’s the charm of the unexpected that makes what you hear so special. Happening upon the Choin-in Monks in Kyoto recently was such a moment; and Max Neuhaus‘ piece in Times Square is always a delight. But the most significant unexpected sounds in recent memory are what I’ve taken to calling the Tugboat Symphony. Nora and I live on the Hudson River in West New York, and on a Sunday afternoon in the fall of several years ago 30 to 40 tugboats came down the river, in formation, blowing their horns in synchronized patterns that scaled the walls of the Palisades and pulled us from the house and onto the porch to listen. I’ve since come to learn that the New York Sanitation Department had (and may still have) a composer in residence on staff. And while I never found out who created this particular piece, it created a moment we will never forget.
Although I’d seen the Whirling Dervishes, and once saw a man go into a trance at a Messiaen organ concert at Alice Tully Hall, I never believed it could happen to me. That is, until I heard the Qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan perform live at Town Hall. Four of us went together, and all four of us came away almost deaf to any other sounds—a condition that stayed with us for more than a day. I still don’t know what, exactly went on, or why; it didn’t happen the next time we heard him sing.
Billy Bragg and Wilco/Woody Guthrie: Mermaid Avenue (Elektra 62204-2)
One of the things that has always interested me about American music is how two cultural strands will come together to form a third. It’s how most of the music I consider truly American was created. In this regard, the recent work I’ve been listening to the most is Billy Bragg and Wilco‘s reworking of Woody Guthrie‘s unset lyrics to create a sound that’s both old and new, traditional and contemporary, and somewhere in between what I expect and what I hope to hear.
The most recent work to catch my attention is The Grey Album, DJ Danger Mouse‘s mash-up of the raps from Jay-Z‘s Black Album with the drum hits, chords, and melodic fragments from The Beatles’ White Album of 1968. It’s a clever combining of material that may not appear at first compatible. It’s also a good barometer of the state of online music’s battle with file sharing and downloading. EMI’s efforts to halt the spread of the album, after all, resulted in Grey Tuesday in February 2004—the first worldwide coordinated act of civil disobedience to take place in cyberspace. Stay tuned!
Black Lodge Singers: Kids’ Pow-Wow Songs (Canyon Records CR 6274)
The first time I heard the Black Lodge Singers was when Warren Burt sampled it during a Cathedral performance in Australia. They were performing children’s songs and cartoon music in a traditional style, and Warren used parts of their version of Mighty Mouse. The recording, which I quickly acquired, also includes unique versions of the Flintstones, Monster Mash, and Looney Toons. These songs were created by one of North America’s leading pow-wow drum groups for children to dance to, and they speak to the continuing power of ‘cover’ versions of well-known material.