Friday, February 28, 2014

A commodius vicus of recirculation

For me, Astral Weeks has no ending, no definitive conclusion. The album's spastic, startling terminus—the bleats from John Payne's soprano saxophone, the final, labored gasps from Richard Davis' bass, the thumping from Van Morrison thwacking the side of his acoustic guitar—heard during the final seconds of "Slim Slow Slider," only makes sense when it flows immediately into the opening of the introductory title track. The abrupt, alien-sounding finish to "Slim Slow Slider"—then the sudden, rich, melodious cacophony that kicks off "Astral Weeks" ... It's not unlike another complex work from another renowned Irishman: In James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, the fragments at the novel's opening and close link up to create one complete, visually arresting image. For Joyce, the end is the beginning is the end (or as he wrote in Finnegans Wake, "a commodius vicus of recirculation").

Astral Weeks is similarly cyclical. Its sounds and themes and styles go around and around and come back again. Life is presented in all its circular totality: joy and despair, sin and redemption, home and exile, love and heartache, birth and death. I can't summon up the first time I heard the album; meanwhile, its perpetual presence in my life means I often can’t recall my most recent listen either. Astral Weeks is absolute; Astral Weeks is infinite.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Busker's delight

Jishnu Guha doing Glen Hansard doing Van Morrison. Unless I missed it, not a single passerby forked over a coin or bill. Shameful. Also, Guha ends his performance with an epic harmonica fail.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Personal dispatch #12

I posted this remix of Van Morrison's "Slim Slow Slider" nine months ago. I have listened to it roughly two dozen times since then; it hasn't lost its luster one tad. Here's what I originally wrote about it:
It's constructed from simple parts: bleats of John Payne's soprano saxophone, snatches of Van Morrison's acoustic guitar—bits of vocals, such as Morrison's murmuring of the song's title, the line "tell it everywhere you go," and his purring of the word "morning" during the two occasions in which he sings "down by the Ladbroke Grove this morning." This remix is simply glorious—like an old, treasured plaything put in crisp, shiny wrapping paper and then tenderly presented as a new gift.
The remix's producer, Adam Hooczko, took a few moments to tell us about its creation.
I'm from the Chicagoland area and I am 26 years old. The "Slim Slow Slider" track was actually made a few years back when I was at Northern Illinois University. I wouldn't necessarily consider myself a musician due to respect for real musicians out there. I pretty much make sampled hip hop beats on a part-time basis. I make beats part-time, but I mostly focus on in-studio recording and engineering.

The track, like I said above, was arranged a couple of years ago in my home studio in Dekalb, Ill. I don't think it took me too long, as I just sampled the track into Logic Pro 8 and added some drums on it. I was just listening to the song when I decided to loop the main loop that I use in the beat. I was really digging it, so I decided to go forward with it. From there, I took some vocal chops and added some reverb/delay and filtered out a lot of the high end. For the hook, I was really digging that flute, so I just matched it up and looped it for a few bars with some more vocal chops. That's pretty much it.

I pretty much decided to make this beat because at the time I was on an Astral Weeks kick and thought those guitars were too smooth for me not to mess with them. And in my opinion, Van Morrison has one of the best singing voices ever, so I knew I wanted to throw some vocal chops in there. One of my homies actually did a song on this beat called "Casualty of Gravity." Maybe I'll dig it up and post it up.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Time spent in Jay Berliner's room

Like drummer Connie Kay, who we tackled here, Jay Berliner appeared on half of Astral Weeks' eight tracks. His guitar playing is remarkably diverse. On "Astral Weeks," he fills the gaps in Morrison's verses, the airiness of his notes complimenting Richard Davis' weighty bass lines. His classical guitar work on "Beside You" is sharp and immediate, the intricate, lightning-quick melodies magnifying the complex language of Morrison's lyrics. On "Ballerina," he is more subtle, adding just enough color to emphasize the exhilaration and torment in Morrison's vocals.

The song posted above is from Charles Mingus' landmark 1963 album The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady. Berliner's performance on "Group Dancers" is brief (just 25 seconds), but it's a game-changer—his blast of flamenco guitar signals a sudden and total shift in the song's mood. Berliner's playing is confident and sensual, like a woman turning her back and slowly sauntering away from a man and knowing he will follow. It's a lesson in how to do a lot with very little.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Time spent in Connie Kay's room

(Note: An explanation of what I'm hoping to accomplish with this post is here. Similar entries can be found here and here.)

Connie Kay played drums on four of Astral Weeks' eight tracks: "Sweet Thing," "The Way Young Lovers Do," "Madame George," and "Ballerina." Kay played with influential jazz saxophonists such as Charlie Parker, Lester Young, and Coleman Hawkins, but was most celebrated for his long tenure with the Modern Jazz Quartet.

The above track is the Modern Jazz Quartet's "I'll Remember April" (off 1955's Concorde). It's a song that's wholly nostalgic, that tugs at memory without being excessively sentimental. (I suppose it's like Astral Weeks in that regard.) Kay matches the blistering pace Milt Jackson sets on the vibraphone. They're like a pair of sprinters zipping toward an unseen finish line, arms and legs pumping, their velocity never ebbing.

Kay's performance is subtle but assertive; he takes the lead, he plays a support role—at particular moments it even feels like he's doing both at the same time. He brings balance to the song even while challenging Jackson's authority. If one likened the vibraphone soloing on "I'll Remember April" to the vibrant luminosity of sunshine, then Kay's drumming is grey, driving rain. Scratch that—grey, driving, Belfast rain.​

Friday, February 7, 2014

Honest Ulstermen

Paralyzed by influenza, I spent two days lying comatose in bed, Cameron-like murmurs about dying spilling forth from my lips. I had an unnecessary amount of time to think; my neurons danced to the sound of my ragged breath. At one point, I considered the Astral Weeks book that I envision myself writing, a book that won't be migrating from my damaged brain to my golden pen any time soon. I contemplated the slivers and scraps of poetry I would deposit on the manuscript's opening page, a bit of verse that would offer readers a hint of the dross to come. The candidates:

"At Pamukkale" by William Peskett
Now we fill the volumes of the day
with out loud lives.
Hastily we take a bit of time
and leave no trace.

Peskett was born in 1952 and moved to Belfast when he was a child. He was educated at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution.

"Homecoming" by Derek Mahon
Bus into town
and, sad to say,
no change from when
he went away
two years ago
Goes into bar,
affixes gaze
on evening star.
Skies change but not
souls change; behold
this is the way
the world grows old.

"Afterlives (for James Simmons)" by Derek Mahon
But the hills are still the same
Grey-blue above Belfast.
Perhaps if I'd stayed behind
And lived bomb by bomb
I might have grown up at last
And learnt what is meant by home.

Mahon was born in Belfast in 1971. His father and grandfather worked for the world famous shipbuilding company of Harland and Wolff.

"Belfast Confetti" by Ciaran Carson
I was trying to complete a sentence in my head, but it kept

Carson was born in Belfast in 1948. In 2003, he was appointed director of the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry at Queen's University.

"Whatever You Say Say Nothing" by Seamus Heaney
Northern reticence, the tight gag of place
And times: yes, yes. Of the 'wee six' I sing
Where to be saved you only must save face
And whatever you say, you say nothing.

Raised in County Derry, Heaney was a prominent contributor to Belfast's 1960s literary scene. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995.

Title-less poem from the last page of Michael Longley's A Hundred Doors
swaying along
the ditch
waiting to
cross over
at the end
of my days

Longley was born in Belfast in 1939. He worked for the Arts Council of Northern Ireland for 20 years.