Saturday, September 12, 2020

Writing About Art



Photos and Artwork by Joseph Havel


My email to Joseph Havel: "This is something I was inspired to create after seeing the two photos you posted in Facebook of the Window Gallery in Ménerbes Provence, which includes the drawing you made on-site in response to "Spine." I wanted to do something relatively quick, which is generally what I do anyway with these online musical sketches: 



Joseph Havel's response to Nocturne #3 (Sketch):



“Here is the “book” for Nocturne. I guess it’s the libretto.

 

“It’s paper I found here that looks handmade with a very hi fiber content. I sewed the paper together with blue thread on the “spine” and cut holes as well as made a mark. From the center page it goes six pages with black towards the left and 6 with white to the right. It’s hung from the middle page so the sewing thread is seen and the needle is still attached to the thread. 

 

“I guess it’s really the place where day greets the night which is what your music reminded me of; just a little past sunset when the sky turns midnight blue before it goes black.”


//

Exercise #1: Describe each music sample as it if were something you could see, like a painting. 


//

Exercise #2: Describe each painting as it if were something you could hear, like a piece of music or any other type of sonic event. 

Visual sample #1: 



Visual sample #2: 



Visual sample #3: 









Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Oceans of Slumber

On Friday, September 4, 2020, Houston-based prog-metal ambassadors Oceans of Slumber will release a new, self-titled album on New Century Records. It’s the band’s fourth album with vocalist Cammie Gilbert and the first to include new members Mat V. Aleman (keyboard), Semir Ozerkan (bass, vocals), Jessi Santos (guitar), and Alexander Lucian (guitar). While Gilbert and drummer Dobber Beverly are certainly the band’s “creative core,” in interview after interview, they are quick to give full credit to their new bandmates for facilitating the evolution of the group’s sound, and not surprisingly, the album and all the players involved are already receiving tons of well-deserved praise on blogs and other digital platforms dedicated to metal in all of its many guises. What follows comes from my vantage point as a composer, a writer, and a longtime fan of the band who is still relatively new to metal. There’s so much history to this music, and innumerable bands I have yet to listen to. That said, I sincerely hope the metalheads out there will appreciate the spirit with which this was written. 


"People think that a sense of tragedy is a kind of . . . embroidery, something irrelevant, that you can take or leave. But, in fact, it is a necessity. That's what the Blues and Spirituals are all about. It is the ability to look on things as they are and survive your losses, or even not to survive them - to know that your losses are coming. To know they are coming is the only possible insurance you have, a faint insurance, that you will survive them." - James Baldwin [1]  

Oceans of Slumber appeared on my radar in the summer of 2016 when I was trolling the Internet searching for Houston bands to write about for the first issue of an upscale lifestyle magazine called Houston CityBook. I had recently self-published a book-length collection of in-depth interviews with 37 female jazz musicians titled Freedom of Expression: Interviews With Women in Jazz, and when I came across a brief article about Oceans of Slumber and their lead vocalist, Cammie Gilbert, I welcomed the opportunity to write about a supremely talented Black woman in what is stereotypically perceived as a very white, very male genre of music. You might think it incongruous to pitch a prog-metal band to a magazine filled with ads for plastic surgeons and luxury real estate agents, but the editor genuinely wanted to cover the breadth of Houston’s culture, which is way more diverse and forward-thinking than many folks outside of Texas may realize. 

I checked out the band’s video for the title track of their 2016 album, Winter, and immediately knew I was hearing something special. But while that particular song is a great “way in” for anyone new to and unfamiliar with the varied and often extreme subgenres of metal, Oceans of Slumber’s musical vision, like many other prog-metal bands, is expansive, and completely uncompromising. Gilbert has said of Oceans of Slumber’s music: “We blend things people aren’t used to hearing blended in such an authentic way.” [2] That word “authentic” is key for me; it’s the opposite of contrivance and synonymous with soul. Speaking of soul, Dobber Beverly, the band’s founder, drummer, composer, and producer, has acknowledged the influence of 1970s American soul and “Finnish melodic metal” on the band’s songwriting, and Gilbert is the bridge between these two musical sources, conveying both vulnerability and strength, a deceptively calm eye within the band’s musical maelstrom. 

I remember trying to explain what prog-metal was to my editors and struggling for points of reference while trying hard not to resort to clichés. (In that first article I wrote, “So-called ‘prog-metal’ is heavier than heavy metal: complex, visceral, and really, really loud.” [3]) The late great music writer and critic Robert Palmer was wary of what he called “hyphenated rock,” believing that rock and roll at its most compelling was when it walked the proverbial tightrope “between musical conservatism and innovation.” [4]  But he also sang the praises of Led Zeppelin, whose bold blend of blues, psychedelia, British and Celtic folk music, Indian and North African tunings and instrumentation, and James Brown-inspired funk certainly foreshadows the exploratory spirit of prog-metal. (Oceans of Slumber’s first album with Gilbert, Blue, includes a cover of Zeppelin’s “Kashmir.”)

So how to describe prog-metal? I would begin with its instrumentation, seven-string guitars and basses drop-tuned [5]  to expand the range of low and high notes available to the player and provide the music’s orchestral voicings. Blast-beats, 16th or 32nd note patterns, divided between some combination of the kick, snare, and cymbals played at blisteringly fast tempos are another essential musical component in metal, [6] and are used to great effect in some of the band’s slower songs. (Check out the ballad “No Color, No Light” from The Banished Heart, Gilbert’s heartbreaking duet with Evergrey’s Tom S. Englund.) And then there are guttural vocals, a sort of hellish style of expressionist sprechstimme [7]  that provides a dramatic counterpoint to Gilbert’s singing. [8] (The forementioned song “Winter” includes this style of singing.)

Extended, through-composed, and otherwise hybrid song forms are also used frequently in prog-metal. As in classical music, several songs on Oceans of Slumber eschew traditional pop song verse, bridge, chorus, repeat structure and instead consist of several contrasting movements, with surprising shifts in mood, tempos, meters, key, and Gilbert’s vocal delivery. The album’s jaw-dropping second track, “Pray for Fire,” its title evoking James Baldwin’s 1963 essay collection The Fire Next Time, his famous indictment of segregation and the oppressive nature of Christianity, is a great example of a through-composed song form created for compositional effect, as opposed to an empty display of technique. And the entire album’s sequence is similarly balanced, with two keyboard-based instrumentals, “Imperfect Divinity” and “Momentaria (September),” each a pool of calm and repose, preparing the listener for the next chapter in their sonic journey.   

***

Rock without its transgressive nature is like art without imagination, but we live in a fearful culture where the ecstatic and cathartic experience metal offers its listeners is mistaken for malevolence. It should be noted that the metal community is beginning to address the undercurrents of sexism, homophobia, and anti-Semitism that have plagued the music. [9] 

Last spring, in the wake of what seemed to be an unending series of senseless, unjustifiable killings of people of color at the hands of police and self-appointed militia, Oceans of Slumber threw down the gauntlet with a video of their searing cover of the anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit.” Composed in 1937 by Abel Meeropol, a white, Jewish, politically progressive schoolteacher, [10]  and made famous by the jazz singer Billie Holiday, the song’s lyrics describe, in graphic, metaphorical detail, the lynching of Black people in the South:  

“Southern trees bearing strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the roots,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees . . .”

Holiday debuted the song in 1939 at Café Society in New York’s Greenwich Village, the first racially integrated club in the city, [11]  and would continue to sing it throughout her career. 

Originally scheduled to drop in February, a.k.a. Black History Month, Oceans of Slumber’s version was released on May 8, 2020. It was a rare, though not unheard of moment of explicit, political protest in metal, a genre that continues to be demonized by America’s hypocritical, infantile, and anti-intellectual religious right. Sadly, later that month, as a result of bystander video, the world witnessed the murder of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man and former Houstonian, by a white, Minneapolis police officer with 18 internal affairs complaints against him.

At the time of this writing, in the wake of a six-month-long pandemic likely to continue until who knows when, it’s clear we are all in mourning, for the deaths of friends, family, and colleagues as well as good people we never met. We are mourning the loss of civility, of intelligent discourse, of a respect for intellect and creativity. We are mourning the murder of innocent people of color at the hands of police and self-anointed militia. To paraphrase a musician friend of mine, this is some Weimar-era shit we’re living now, and nobody really knows how it’s going to play out. 

The lyrics to the album’s sixth track, “To the Sea (A Tolling of the Bells),” describes the strong pull mourning has upon the living:

“The ground, it holds you in
An ocean of slumber,
Forever you’ll sleep,
But I’m there too, dreading
The longing of those days gone by . . .”

But it’s the song’s closing refrain that resonates, as Gilbert sings over Beverly’s smooth, shuffle groove, “Let me go . . . Let me go into the sea . . .” Meaning, let me somehow get past this grief and move on. Let me try once again to live. 

So, this may sound naïve as hell, but I actually believe music can pull you out of that 3 a.m. tunnel of despair, heal the mind, body and spirit, and provide the strength necessary to move forward, and to live. This is actually a recurring theme in Oceans of Slumber’s repertoire, from Winter to 2018’s The Banished Heart to their new, self-titled masterpiece. The band’s commitment to dealing head-on with life’s most difficult questions, in a musical language so sophisticated, dynamic, and visceral, is a major reason why the band connects so strongly with its fans, both metalheads and people like myself who are relatively new to metal, and why the new album is, to my ears, both timely and timeless. 


Oceans of Slumber cover art by Giannis Nakos 

This essay is dedicated to the memory of 
James C. Murdock, b. September 9, 1941, d. September 11, 2020

_________________________________________

[1] James Baldwin, The Last Interview and Other Conversations, Melville House Publishing, 2014.
[2] “Loud and Proud,” by Chris Becker, Houston CityBook, Fall 2016.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Blues & Chaos: The Music Writing of Robert Palmer, Robert Palmer, Scribner, 2009.
[5] For you guitarists out there, Beverly tells me the tuning on the new album is “(7-string) drop A, B standard, and (6-string) C sharp standard. Bass is the same.”
[6] In an online chat, Beverly told me the blast beat “kind of originated with jazz players, Philly Joe Jones, Billy Cobham, etc. but was catapulted to fame by Naplam Death.”
[7] Sprechstimme is an expressive, theatrical vocal technique that lies somewhere between singing and speaking.
[8] Guttural vocalization is sometimes humorously described as “Cookie Monster vocals.”
[9] This is a complex topic, worthy of its own essay, but the curious reader might want to start with “Breaking Barriers With LGTB Metalheads,” by Dr. Mike Friedman, August 13, 2018, https://pleasekillme.com/gaymetal.
[10] Meeropol composed under the name Lewis Allan and wrote the lyrics for “The House I Live In,” a plea for racial and religious tolerance sung by Frank Sinatra in the Oscar-winning short film of the same name.
[11] Harlem Nocturne, Farah Jasmine Griffin, BasicCivitas Books, 2013.

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

The Aftermath


Created May 29-31, 2020 in the wake of demonstrations across the U.S. and the world 
demanding an end to police brutality and systemic racism.

Photo of George Floyd protest in Uptown Charlotte, NC by Clay Banks. unsplash.com/@claybanks

Released May 31, 2020
Becker - Soft Synths, Valhalla Delay

Monday, January 27, 2020

Postlude: Film by Jil Guyon, Score by Chris Becker


Postlude
Created and performed by Jil Guyon
Original Score: Chris Becker
Guitar: Dan Sumner
Mastered by Doug Henderson Cinematography: Valerie Barnes

Friday, January 10, 2020

New Digital EP from Chris Becker and Misha Penton: Mallarmé

Chris Becker and Misha Penton (Photo by Dave Nickerson)

I have to thank soprano and multi-disciplinary artist Misha Penton for introducing me to the experimental writing of the 19th century French poet Stéphane Mallarmé. After hearing an ominous, ambient track I created out of a recording I made of toads and insects croaking and chattering away after a Houston rainstorm, Misha offered to record herself improvising over the piece, and chose for the text an excerpt from Mallarmé’s “Le Phénomène futur.” Not only did Misha record two wildly different and dramatic vocal performances, she also recited Mallarmé’s verse in French. We continued our collaration with two more poems by Mallarmé, "Summer Sadness" and "Renewal," and I invited a few musician friends from across the U.S. to contribute instrumental performances to complement our readings. 

This album was conceived of as a suite, so ideally, the listener will take time to listen to each track in order, just as if she or he were reading a story or poem, or watching a short film.

Listen to and download Mallarmé on Bandcamp

Music recorded by Chris Becker except:
Misha’s Vocals (Summer Sadness, The Future Phenomenon, Renewal) recorded by Misha Penton
Electric Guitar (Summer Sadness) recorded by Lynn Wright
Classical Guitar (Renewal) recorded by Dan Sumner
Percussion (Renewal) recorded by Breeze Smith and Tony Green

Edited, Mixed, and Produced by Chris Becker 

Mastered by Doug Henderson

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Widow's Walk and Vigil screenings in 2020.

Two videos I scored for multidisciplinary artist Jil Guyon will screen next year. Our most recent collaboration, Widow's Walk has been selected for the Rome Prisma Film Awards and will be screened next month, January 2020, in Italy. And an earlier collaboration of ours titled Vigil will screen at Traverse Video in Toulouse, France in March 2020.

Widow's Walk, 2019
Created and performed by Jil Guyon
Original Score: Chris Becker
Cinematography: Valerie Barnes
Voiceovers: Chris Becker and Lainie Diamond
Singer: Lainie Diamond
Audio master: Douglas Henderson

Shot in southern Iceland, Widow’s Walk portrays the Widow character as fated with the Sisyphean task of walking up and down a desolate hill in an effort to conquer her grief. Her existential dilemma is further destabilized by troubling memories and a precarious future.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Ambient Avenues Concert Series at the Silos on Sawyer, November 16, 2019


Sculpture Month Houston at the Silos on Sawyer is up through November 30, 2019, featuring some of the most innovative multi-dimensional site specific work out there. I will be performing a 30-minute set of orignal music on Saturday, Novemver 16th at 3 p.m. I'm imagining the music as a soundtrack for a walk through the Silos. My understanding is I'll be set up somewhere inside, hopefully pushing the air a bit. Live programming curated by artists Felipe and Meghan Lopez continues throughout the month, you can check out the full schedule here >> http://sculpturemonthhouston.org/events-2019

I wrote about Felipe and Meghan for the magazine Houston CityBook. That article is online here.