Sunday, January 16, 2011

THE L.A. RELAY: Culver City Minimalism → Downtown Stinkified Blues

The Beast does not just traverse the streets but also the mindset of musical L.A., if only to remedy the following questions: "Why do great musical events always happen on the same night in this town, and why are they always across town from each other?"

The answers seem pretty apparent: L.A. is a big messy multi-level Chinese puzzle and The Beast's omnivorous musical tastes preclude many difficult decisions. Take last night: a string quartet performing a minimalist etude in Culver City; a Captain Beefheart celebration in Echo Park; and a stripped-down whiteboy blues guitarist near Bunker Hill. Figuring in gas pumping and ATM visiting, traffic, block-circling, parking, and the Great Unplanned L.A. Obstacle (flashing police lights or honking fire trucks, street shut down for carnival, overturned truck of lemons stinking up three out of four lanes of traffic, etc.), we managed to make it to two of these with rather dizzying results. The first time we tried this was on the Beast’s birthday seven years ago: Leimert Park, Hollywood, Eagle Rock, Van Nuys. It was utterly exhausting and we slept like 19 hours, but it gave us the idea to do The L.A. Relay whenever we felt the urge to merge our musical experiences and couldn't decide. Call it our own musical version of The Amazing Race but with more crying.

The first stop was the Royal/T Cafe in Culver City to catch the muses of the Eclipse String Quartet dueting with CalArts prepared-piano guru Dr. Vicki Ray on Piano and String Quartet (1985), an epic watching-paint-dry piece by the New York composer Morton Feldman [pictured above]. I started out Zen calm in preparation for a transformative experience. Can you guess what happened next? That's right: stuck right behind a stalled car in the middle lane near the Hill St. exit on the I-10. With traffic all around rushing mercilessly past, it took me 10 minutes to get into a moving lane. Then the bottleneck downtown. Then the bottleneck getting onto the I-10. Then inching along Washington Boulevard past cop cars shutting down La Cienega. Made it on time but alas in no state to listen to fussyboots string music -- I found that turning the radio away from faceless Modern Rock or repetitive Classic Rock to Rap (DJ Kool’s boisterous and pummeling “Let Me Clear My Throat”) aided my deep-focus driving but left me feeling aggressive and more ready for one of Nels Cline's cathartic facemelts or a good ol' Inland Empire punk show.

Ah well. I was handed a program sheet, which explained “for the last several years of his life Feldman started making his pieces longer and longer and restraining their contents more and more. Piano and String Quartet, which clocks in at around 90 minutes, was one of Feldman’s “super-long last works.” Ah shit. The music was a sustained breathing exercise between the piano and the strings, an exacting call-and response where the musicians' frozen positions betrayed grueling concentration, like a boxing match slowed down to 250 frames per second. “This is music without a tune,” the program whispered. “This is music without a traditional sense of harmonic motion…without wild dynamic shifts or pacing shifts or orchestrational shifts that allow you to chart your progress through…giving you a tremendous sense of variety without actual movement. This is music that is intensely repetitive but completely unpredictable.”

As someone trying to acclimate, it was a continued internal fight. All my organs felt like they’d slammed full force into a brick wall and jellified. How to stop a racing-busy mind, whose thoughts sound much louder in a performance space preparing for a 90-minute continual series of musical ellipses? The first 15 minutes were spent attempting to shuff off hypersensitivity to the quiet of the hall: the tiny sniffs and shuffles, the clink of glasses, the bleat of leather seats under shifted weight, the rattling of air vents, clatters from the kitchen. Unfortunately, some poor soul had a massive coughing attack and could be heard even in the bathroom down the hall, triggering a sort of group-cringe involving pity, humor, annoyance and finally shame at that annoyance. This is why minimalist pieces sometimes feel like auditory fascism. (What fascist ever turned his back on repetition?) It’s music that demands a sort of control over you and holds you hostage, as Feldman by all reports has never met a conversation he doesn’t want to dominate. You begin to question the validity of the thoughts that pop into your head while listening to such “serious” music. In our case: Am I pouring this ale too loud? or suppressing an urge to laugh at a remembered line from Zack and Miri Make A Porno (“I was in a movie called Shut Your Mouth or I’ll Fuck It.”).

But then the fight begins to dissipate. I remember Alex Ross’ great quote that Feldman, while based on the East Coast and associated with the same New York School as John Cage, had a “feeling for the positioning of music in space” that made him a closet West Coaster. Feldman, like Harry Partch or Terry Riley, seemed to be articulating something about the American West, particularly California, where the isolation of the desert and an unbroken sky creates a different mindset. In the absence of familiar signposts, one is forced to put up one’s own. It's not unlike frontier settlers riding west across a giant plate of Jurassic alkaline toward a focal point in the distance that remained the same while the land around them changed. Are we really getting anywhere? This the exact same experience of driving the lonely California highways or gridlock traffic in Los Angeles, a process of endless repositioning that stretches out time and space and does strange new things to your perceptions. I can’t explain why but this realization calmed me and helped me recline in the musical beds that followed. When the piece ended it, was like coming out of a cloud.

Next, it was a stop at the Redwood Bar downtown to catch the blues singer Jake La Botz and man, what a violent change of mindset. It was a greasy, smelly, leathery, sweaty crowd, hard-drinking and burger-wolfing and proud o’ it: A Greek chorus of young svelte things in flapperwear who were there for a bachelorette party; a fleet of leather-jacketed Chrissie Hynde types blasting by the bar on their motorcycles, pit-faced hipsters catching a smoke in the dark front patio; someone who I swear was the bearlike character actor Mark Boone, Jr. (30 Days of Night, Trees Lounge) shuffling about. Needless to say, it was so disorienting that I had a hard time even ordering a beer or having a coherent conversation. This ended abruptly when my old officemate from the Glue magazine days – the unsinkable spitfire Miss Toastacia Boyd, late of The Garage and Al’s Bar – and I stumbled out on the dance floor for a drunken version of that old Steve Martin-Gilda Radner “Dancing in the Dark” routine. Afterwards, I started listening to La Botz’s original music (he does a lot of obscure covers), which had the repetitive pulses and phrasings of Chicago blues but eschewed the 12-bar format in favor of longer, oddly timed, more surreal moebius strips, like Furry Lewis or John Lee Hooker or Junior Kimbrough. La Botz stretched out the chord shifts like Feldman’s musical spaces between notes, with attending lyrics that held the present tense and the crowd’s expectations in a similar grasp:

Getting closer. Getting closer. Getting closer…to the ground. To the ground.
Downstairs. With long black hairs. Change them clothes…for you come in here.
Walk in the door. The old woman’s store. Darkest light…ever seen before.
Getting closer. Getting closer. Getting closer…to the ground. To the ground.

Ah, there it was. I still had the flyer from the Royal/T: “In music we listen forward and backward at the same time – preparing ourselves for what we guess is coming, based on what we remember about where we have been. Without memory we have to listen to the moment; there is only the present.” Thus are the lessons of tonight's L.A. Relay and this can be a comfort with dealing with the unique pressures of the digital city. Needless to say, I never made it to the Beefheart show. What on earth would I have learned there?

Costs of this evening:
ATM fee: $3.00
Cover Charges: $15.00
Food: $3.81
Libations (plus tips): $37.00
Parking: $5.00
Grand Total: $63.81

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