Ether column, February 2007

Porgy & Bess continues its phenomenal run of recent concerts into February with two shows by the great American composer and improviser Anthony Braxton. Braxton is a towering figure in contemporary American music, incorporating elements of free jazz, improvisation and composition into his rich and complex musical structures. Principally a saxophonist onstage – his 1968 album For Alto was the first ever album for solo saxophone – he is also skilled on the flute and clarinet. His great innovation has been to take the essential rhythmic and textural elements of jazz and to combine them with experimental compositional techniques such as graphic and non-specific notation, serialism and multimedia.

Braxton’s work is theoretical and often mystical in nature. His scores and record covers are littered with cryptic numbers and diagrams, betraying the influence of Cage and Stockhausen. And yet he takes pains to stand apart from these masters of modern composition, often claiming not to know himself what the numbers and diagrams mean. One senses that Braxton is grappling with a search for a higher truth that will remain forever out of reach. It is the search itself, rather than the truth, that drives him. He will be appearing in Vienna with his Sextet, a group of young Braxton acolytes dedicated to realising their mentor’s dense yet rewarding music.

And now, as a special favour to those who would like a change from all the challenging experimental sounds I’ve been recommending in this column lately, some great pop music. From Portland, Oregon, The Decemberists have released four albums of indie rock with a folky, literate edge and a strong narrative element. Taking their cue directly from British singer-songwriter Al Stewart, the Decemberists produce finely crafted ballads that combine lyrical musings on soldiers, sea captains and chimney sweeps with a chiming, propulsive musical energy. Singer and lyricist Colin Meloy is a charming and charismatic live performer, as happy encouraging the audience in a dance contest or singalong as he is wandering to the edge of the stage and playing to the front rows. After three albums on the confrontational Kill Rock Stars label, the band released their latest, The Crane Wife, on a major label (Capitol); happily, however, this shift has not signalled any watering down of the Decemberists’ craft. On the contrary, the record contains some of Meloy’s strongest writing to date, particularly the 13-minute epic “The Island,” which sees the band move towards a highly attractive fusion of folk and progressive musics. Confident without being overbearing, the Decemberists are just the ticket if you need to banish those winter blues.

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