2004 Top 10 List

Michael Tencer (The Ear Liberation Front)
    2004 was a disappointment for all citizens with brains, namely because our elections were won by dogfood, & our national hobbies of God & war were maintained. Nonetheless, some good things happened in art, or at least the weirdo art universe I inhabit. Here's the fifteen or so I could think of, in no particular order (but numbered to ease reading & confuse you):

    1. Conlon Nancarrow - Studies and Solos, played by the Bugallo-Williams Piano Duo. These two women transcribed music originally written for a machine (the player piano), worked out all the ridiculous complexities of execution, & played it. I saw them do it live too, & they're superhuman. Amazingly accurate, & they really bring out the blues.
    2. Brian Wilson - Smile. The finally officially released album of music that's been sitting in the sandbox for more than 30 years. I'm sure you know about it, it's got to be on every top ten list around, but it's really that good. Especially "Mrs O'Leary's Cow".
    3. John Cage/Lejaren Hiller - HPSCHD, realized by Joel Chadabe & Robert Conant. Cage created this piece in 1969 with Hiller's computer assistance over the course of two years. The first performance utilized 7 harpsichordists, 52 tape players, silkscreening, & slide & film projectors, in chance-determined configurations, over the course of four hours. This recording simplifies things quite a bit, overdubbing parts played by a single harpsichordist along with electronic recordings, for the length of a CD. Still, this is a richly textured, beautiful realization. & there's a spiffy full size poster from the original performance. Since Nonesuch has been sitting on the original recording for years, this is the best we got folks.
    4. J.B. Lenoir - The Parrot Sessions. This is one of the best blues singer/guitarists around & it's about time they released these sides on CD. I just wish they didn't add the producer's "I'm in Korea, Take 1" intro to "I'm in Korea". Why do I need to hear that? Why do you need to read this? Who are you, anyway?
    5. Ensemble Modern Plays Frank Zappa - Greggery Peccary & Other Persuasions. The greatest classical ensemble plays the greatest composer. 'Nuff said. Their execution of tracks originally written for the Synclavier computer or for severely overdubbed humans is phenomenal. But if you know Frank Zappa well enough to know his Synclavier music, you probably already own this CD.
    6. Wadada Leo Smith - Kabell Years: 1971-1979. Smith created a system of composition that requires improvisation in its realization. It has a background in jazz & some world music, particularly East Asian, but the acute sensitivity to silence & space is akin to modern classical work as well. Known primarily to free jazz fans as a member of Chicago's AACM, Smith deserves much greater attention for his work &
    these CDs should do it.
    7. Morton Feldman - Patterns in a Chromatic Field. This is one of Feldman's late works, with characteristic spare, richly textured large-scale patterns always on the edge of dying away. Much modern classical music tends to require the passing of a generation before there are performers with the skills to really bring it to life, & I'd say this music is no exception. This is a definitive performance, & I have no idea how they managed to get more than 80 minutes of music onto one CD.
    8. John Zorn - Magick. Zorn's interest in alchemy, mysticism, Aleister Crowley, & assorted ritual hocus pocus is really paying off these days, & nowhere more than in his modern classical compositions. In the same bag as his CDs "Love, Madness, and Mysticism" & "Chimeras", this CD, particularly the string quartet "Necronomicon," really takes the cake. Powerful, intelligent, mysterious & mature conjurations of the spirit that'll knock your socks off & won't give 'em back. & an additional congratulations to Zorn on the (literally) 260 new Masada compositions he wrote in less than three months. IAO!

    1. Nas featuring Olu Dara - "Bridging the Gap". It's about time someone came up with music that's satisfying in terms of both blues & hip-hop. Now if only hip-hop would pull doo wop out of the bargain bin.
    2. Eminem - "Mosh". It's about time the plastic celebrities who infest our senses from all directions start saying something meaningful instead of wasting the opportunity. If only it worked, instead of minorities voting against themselves.
    3. Outkast (Andre 3000) - "Hey Ya". I don't care what you say, it's a brilliant song all around. It's funny, it's beautiful, it rocks, & the time signature's 11/8. If only WNYU would let you hear it.

    1. Ben Watson - Derek Bailey and the Story of Free Improvisation. Watson puts Bailey & the whole post-free jazz world of Free Improv through the same ringer he put Frank Zappa in The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play. Thankfully there's less Marxist/Adorno "analysis" & more straight-ahead musical criticism & biography, with lots of direct quotes from the musicians themselves, though Watson knows how to turn a mindbending phrase with the best of them. It is satisfying just to see
    a discussion of this music in print, not to mention to see it done this well. There's also an extremely useful discography of Bailey & of his label Incus Records.
    2. Pablo Picasso - The Burial of the Count of Orgaz & Other Poems, translated by Pierre Joris & Jerome Rothenberg. Unless you can read French & Spanish, you probably had no idea Picasso wrote poetry. Well, he did, & it's fantastic. Written as almost diary entries, with practically no punctuation but characteristic passion, violence, beauty, & an earthy surrealism. He decribed his writing as sculptural, & the lack of punctuation allows you to appreciate how he used words like physical forms arising out of each other, each idea continuous with the others, ultimately balancing out the whole poem with its various weights. In addition, every book translated by Joris & Rothenberg is well worth a read, as well as almost everything published by Exact Change Press.
    3. Milton Babbitt - The Collected Essays of Milton Babbitt. This is the most erudite music theorist of the last century, a twelve-tone composer who writes & talks so intelligently about modern classical music that you'll want to try your hand at dodecaphony too. Why not? His dense, thorough arguments are daunting but deeply rewarding, & his consistent wit & intellect & appreciation for composers like Stravinsky & Schoenberg are a pleasure to read & mull over. If you want a good
    mulling over, look no further.
    4. Raymond Roussel - New Impressions of Africa, translated by Ian Monk. Roussel is the granddaddy of the Oulipo & all writers who use self-imposed limitations as creative impetus. This poem, which took him more than a decade to write, is his masterpiece. The poem is a series of humorous rhymed couplets which get overrun by parentheses & footnotes & illustrations, forcing the reader to jump across pages
    (uncut pages you can only peek inside) in order to read it. There's all kinds of limitations he placed on himself & details too numerous to go into here, but suffice it to say it's a brilliant work translated true-to-form. Yet another outstanding book from Atlas Press, perhaps the best they've put out yet.

    1. A Touch of Zen, dir. King Hu. King Hu is the greatest Hong Kong kung fu director, & this is considered his masterpiece. This directly inspired Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, along with many other films both in the kung fu genre & beyond it. Like Hitchcock, King Hu was the master of his genre, but his abilities transcend their subject & stand as monuments of cinematic perfection. It's over 3 hours long, but it's well worth a watch. Now if only they'd release "Raining in the Mountains" on DVD, people in this country might actually learn who King Hu is.
    2. Stan Brakhage - By Brakhage: An Anthology. Stan Brakhage created films completely outside the studio system, often working completely alone on every detail. He handpainted films, taped pieces of grass & moths' wings to the film, & made extremely personal live action films decades ahead of their time. Included here are a hearty helping of his animations, his live action work (including the notorious The Act of Seeing With One's Own Eyes, an intensely visceral film of autopsies, & Window Water Baby Moving, an intensely visceral film of his wife giving
    birth), & mixed live action & animation, like his epic Dog Star Man. These are pure visual music, & while you lose a little in watching them on the small screen, it is particularly gratifying to watch the films in slow motion & see all of the incredible detail that went into each one.

    Ok, that's it. You read all that? What were you thinking?

    One word to describe 2004: Why?

    A prediction for next year: There's only one way to go from here ...

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