In part four of my review of the rather epic Marc Ribot residency at the Stone, we’ll be covering two of his three solo performances – Saturday night’s early set, “Standards;” and Sunday night’s performance of John Zorn’s Book of Heads and John Cage’s Some of ‘The Harmony of Maine’. It was quite an eclectic set of performances, to say the least. Here’s a gratuitous photo of him playing the John Cage piece since everyone’s always telling me that people on the internet like pictures:
Saturday night’s “Standards” set was one of the most in-demand sets of the whole week. Saturday is easier for most people to get out of the house, I suppose, and maybe people thought standards would make for a relatively easy and fun night of music compared to some of the other sets. At any rate, it was a tough show to get into and there was a long line outside before the doors opened. I was, once again, extremely lucky and grateful to get two seats in the front row for my friend and I who wanted to get some video footage. (I was starting to think of us less as fans and more as documentarians at this point since we’d managed to capture so much of the residency for posterity – though I suppose in this case “posterity” is defined mainly as “our Youtube subscribers.”)
The set of standards was (if I remember correctly) played entirely on his old acoustic Gibson, and was a lot like other solo sets I’ve seen him do in the last few years, except he didn’t do any of his own compositions. The one almost-exception to that was that he did a version of “Sous le Ciel de Paris” very much like the one he did on his most recent solo album, Silent Movies. That was my favorite piece of the set, and you can watch it here:
(If you want to see more, you can check out this Youtube playlist).
His solo sets tend to be very intense (I don’t think he can play solo any other way) and filled with covers and references both standard and obscure – his encyclopedic knowledge of so many genres of music is on display in these shows, always far surpassing my knowledge to the point that I feel like I must be missing half the show, no matter how hard I listen. But the thing about great music is that you don’t always have to “get it” to get it, if you know what I mean.
The next night – which was Superbowl Sunday, and therefore not quite as packed as the rest of the residency – he did another solo set which was about as different as you could get from standards. The first half of the show was John Zorn’s Book of Heads, coincidentally the first John Zorn album I ever bought in a store, all those years ago – foolishly thinking “well, I like this Marc Ribot guy, and someone told me to check out his work with John Zorn… and he’s the only musician on the album, so how could that go wrong?” (Anyone who’s ever heard the Book of Heads album is laughing at me right now. 😉 )
The music is very experimental, or avant garde, or whatever you want to call it, being made up almost entirely of extended techniques, most of which I’ve never seen used anywhere else. I find it really fun in concert, but listening to it on headphones just leaves me feeling perplexed. I was really happy to be able to catch some of it on video since it makes so much more sense when you can actually see what’s happening. Noises like stamping on balloons, rubbing a violin bow against a block of styrofoam, looping a pipe cleaner around the guitar strings, firmly wedging a nail file between the strings and plucking at it… stuff like that. A few of the compositions feel very slapstick to me sometimes, and in a live setting it can be awkward because it is often quite funny, but it’s only ever played in super-serious avant garde venues where everyone is afraid to laugh in case it’s not supposed to be funny. I don’t know, maybe they should try billing it as “avant-slapstick” and see what happens – maybe it’ll be a big hit.
At any rate, I’ve got a couple of videos for you to watch since it’s really one of those things you have to see for yourself. I’m posting a very short one as well as a longer one you can watch if you find the first one interesting and want to see some more variety in technique. (I’m looking at you, guitarists who are desperately trying to come up with new ways to make noise.)
The final music he performed in the residency, on Sunday night, was his interpretation of John Cage’s Some of ‘The Harmony of Maine.’ This music has followed quite a convoluted path from its beginnings in the late 1700s to the 21st century. It started out in 1794, when a man with the somewhat unfortunate name of Supply Belcher published a songbook called “The Harmony of Maine.” According to various sites I scrounged up on the internet, the full title is “The Harmony of Maine: being An Original Composition of Psalm and Hymn Tunes, Of various Metres, suitable for Divine Worship. With a Number of Fuging Pieces and Anthems. Together with a Concise Introduction to the Grounds of Musick, and Rules for Learners. For the Use of Singing Schools and Musical Societies.” So… a book of hymns, written to be sung in church.
Then, nearly two centuries later, John Cage decided that he was going to use these harmonies of Maine to create a piece called Some of ‘The Harmony of Maine.’ He scored it for pipe organ with six assistants – the assistants being called upon to pull and push the organ stops at various times (presumably with six of them it is a fairly complex operation). Finally, thirty-odd years after that, Marc Ribot decided that he could do an electric guitar rendition of this pipe organ piece (with no assistants, even though I think it could be fun to have six people operating an unbelievably vast array of guitar effects pedals… I suppose experimental musicians haven’t got the budget for that these days).
It all sounds very complicated… but in practice, the piece is one of the simpler and more straightforward things we heard all week. It felt a bit like he was putting his residency (or his audience) to bed, playing something that calmed everyone down a bit (which we needed, especially after the insanity of the previous night’s late set and the mind-boggling performance of Book of Heads that we’d just seen). It has a kind of slow majesty to it. If you were conceptualizing his entire residency as a film, this could be the slow panning-out landscape/sunset shot right after all the loose plot threads are tied up and the credits start to roll…
And… I’ve clearly gotten this all out of order because I’ve still got one more blog post coming about the residency: “Songs” and the improv night with John Zorn and a few other great musicians (Sylvie Courvoisier, Ikue Mori, Ned Rothenberg, George Spanos, and James Ilgenfritz). Come back in a couple of days for that one!