Saturday, June 13, 2009

Keep the desert island - a long road trip will do

I dearly hope I am never stranded on a desert island. Should that sad fate befall me, however, and I get as little time to pack for the trip as I devoted to my past ten days on the road in the American Southeast, I could do much worse than this handful of records that have been keeping me company.

In packing, hurriedly, after a punishing newspaper deadline, I thought first of the one solo leg of the journey, when I would leave the family behind in Fayetteville, North Carolina, to see friends and cherished sights in Asheville.

For those ten hours round-trip, alone on the road, I knew I could use a low-key, impenetrable mind-expander like Automatic Writing by Robert Ashley, the sort of record you could play again the moment you are finished hearing it and hear new things the next time through. It is a collection of three experimental pieces with the single most elegant liner notes I can ever remember reading on a record, penned by Ashley himself.

Fortunately, my sleep-deprived mind did remember that this fly-and-drive family sojourn included an even longer round trip (Atlanta-Fayetteville) when my wife would be co-pilot. Karley is not one for conceptual records about the relationship between the structures of automatic speech and musical composition, so I packed some easy-on-the-ears comfort music: none easier on our collective ears than Let's Get Out of This Country by Camera Obscura.

Unfortunately for me, I also elected to spin this one on my solo excursion, which served only to deepen my pointless, painful, futile fanboy crush on Camera Obscura frontwoman and songstress Tracyanne Campbell. Sigh. Hit "play" on the first track on the record again. Dream.
The Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra's recording of Messiaen's Turangalila-symphonie is another of those I keep handy when I need to pack light and can expect repeat listenings. (The attentive reader will have gleaned by now that I do not yet own an iPod. Can't justify why not, just don't.)

This piece needs to be heard to be believed. Sounds to me like a gamelan orchestra more than a symphony orchestra, though rounded out by a horn section instructed to play like Russian soliders contemplating suicide, and fronted by a pianist who could be playing transcriptions of Thelonious Monk scoring, live, a silent film about ice storms on Mars.

Thinking up junk like that is what I do when I am driving five hours across North Carolina - quite a nice state to traverse, by the way, speaking as an Illinois native. Remember that in Travels with Charley, John Steinbeck made it across my home state in one sentence.

(The Carnegie Hall site has the ever-brilliant Paul Schiavo explicating the Turangalila with musical examples - check it out.)

Also had to have on hand some comfort music that I could turn up really, really loud and feel twenty-five years-old again. When I was twenty-five, the boys in Band of Horses were probably in middle school, but their debut record Everything All the Time gets me in the indie rock G-spot. No idea what, if anything, any of it is all about - never want to know. Just need to turn it up really loud and feel really young and rootless and confused every so often.

I also tend to always travel with a new discovery that bears additional, perhaps obsessive, listens, and this is the case with Jack Endino's most recent solo effort, Permanent Fatal Error.

Endino is best-known as a producer (Nirvana, other grunge bands, loads of recent heavy metal) and a guitar player (Skinyard), but on this record he proves to be a very talented songwriter, band leader and singer.

I am proud to have received my copy of this inspired rock record as a gift from Endino himself. As I have carried on about, no doubt boastfully, I visited with him at his studio in Seattle earlier this year, having done my very best to stay in touch with him after putting up Skinyard in St. Louis in the early 1990s.

I packed another newer acquisition that has not yet been burned in its entirety onto the grooves of my brain, though we are getting there: Prokofiev: Works for Violin and Piano by the brother-sister dynamo team of Gil Shaham and Orli Shaham.

I have been recommending this record to friends of mine with a thirst for intense, inventive music who have not yet developed an ear for classical music, perhaps because they associate classical music (as I did, for a long time) with the pompous, Romantic fare that tends to dominate mediocre classical music radio.
These Prokofiev piano-violin duets, on the other hand, are hair-raising musical excursions, far more punk rock than most punk rock, edgy and alarming. I couldn't find a decent image of their album cover, so that is my sketch of Orli in performace with the SLSO.
She is married to our symphony's musical direction, David Robertson, by the way, though I give them equal star billing - very bright, very high stars, though not distant. Watch out for their kids.

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