We are in the process of putting together the next edition of the FFFoxy Podcast, which will be a feature on the Kendra Steiner Editions micro-press out of San Antonio, Texas, run by the inimitable writer and poet, Bill Shute. In preparation for that feature, Bill has graciously allowed us to re-publish his recent review of the massive 9-CD box set of solo piano performances by Jandek entitled "The Song of Morgan". Like all Corwood Industries releases, this can be purchased directly at a reasonable price ($32 U.S./$33 outside of U.S.) from the most reliable mail order service around:
P.O. Box 15375
Houston, TX 77220
Now that I’ve had a chance to listen to all nine discs of the new Jandek solo piano box set, THE SONG OF MORGAN, I wanted to get a brief review up. This release has generated a lot of interest and discussion, and while someone should (and surely will) do a more in-depth and analytical discussion of the set disc-by-disc, I can provide a general commentary on the topography of the set now that I’ve flown over the entire territory.
Jandek has been moving more into instrumental music with some of his recent studio releases; however, since we do not know if these albums come out in recording order, and we do not know what unreleased sessions may have been recorded between what’s released, I’m hesitant to see any trend here, except that the Representative From Corwood is finding enjoyment in exploring the possibilities of the music half of the Jandek project. After all, he’s entitled to do that. His collected lyrics (and I’m not even counting the live shows) would probably fill a 500-page poetry book, so there’s a huge body of diverse work there to explore.
I’ve spent a lot of time with the Helsinki Saturday album (Corwood 796, and still available), recorded live in Finland and featuring Jandek’s piano with harp accompaniment, and that beautiful album brings to mind the work of Erik Satie for many, a minimal yet playful piano music that stays within well-defined parameters but is quite expressive within those self-imposed boundaries. There is some of that on the nine discs of The Song of Morgan, particularly on Disc One, but as we move through the collection, there is a much broader dynamic range here.
Chopin would seem to be the main touchstone (and I did not even make the “Nocturne” connection until I googled Chopin to brush up on his work before writing this), and I’m also reminded during some passages of 19th Century American parlor music, but this is not music constructed in the manner of a Chopin…or even in the manner of a John Cage or a Morton Feldman. As always, I have the feeling that, like his guitar-based music, Jandek’s is a pure creation, NOT an imitation or composite of “influences.”
As I listen to these nine pieces, each one clocking in at around an hour, I am hearing a series of “piano explorations”….it’s as if the performer sits down at the piano, begins developing a phrase, plays around with it while gradually making his way up or down the keyboard, and evolves into a related passage, taking that in a new direction and seeing where it goes, etc. The method reminds me of a pianistic “walk in the woods,” stopping to explore some areas in more detail, slowing down the pace here, speeding up the pace there, observing a gentle stream, pulling back and taking a view of a massive vista. But not winding up where he began…not working in a THEME–DEVELOPMENT AND VARIATIONS ON THEME AND MOTIFS–THEME format. What I’m reminded of most, actually, is the way Gertrude Stein will develop one of her texts such as “If I Told Him,” where she’ll repeat a phrase with some slight changes, then introduce a new word or two, and then follow the possibilities of that new combination, then add some new elements into the mix, and keep doing that and seeing where the textual journey takes her. If you can imagine a musical journey similar to that, played by someone who respects the classical piano traditions of the 1800′s and early 1900′s, but who comes to the piano with an outsider’s fresh eye, then maybe you have some idea of what you’ll be getting here.
Just imagine The Representative From Corwood in some dimly-lit practice room in some dimly-lit back hall on a Sunday morning in the recesses of the music department of a university, no one else around, and we hear his unhurried “explorations” spilling out into the hall, the performer performing only for himself, not aware of any listeners, just exploring for his own sense of discovery.
Not all of the nine albums consist of one uninterrupted piece. At least two of them (4 and 8 and 9?) have more than one section separated by a pause, and I’m not sure if these consist of separate pieces presented together or are simply pauses during the session as The Representative From Corwood decides to start anew in different territory.
There is a good amount of stylistic variety within the parameters of the Jandek piano method—for instance, Disc 8 contains a dissonant section about 2/3 of the way through that could come from a Cecil Taylor album–and parts of Disc 9, from a distance at least, have the “sound” of Chopin-style elegant piano music. Disc 9 is also presented in separate–and thematically quite distinct–sections…and it ends in a dramatic fashion, as you’d expect such a piece to end. You could probably slip Disc 9 on at a party, and anyone who wasn’t a music student would not notice anything odd about the music being played.
So my description of this album would be to call it “improvised non-traditional piano explorations on a VERY large canvas.” It is beautiful to listen to, intellectually interesting, and contains/evokes a rich set of emotions. Should you buy this? Hey, if you’ve read this far, clearly you are enough of a Jandek person to want to explore the set on your own. And at less than $4 a disc, how can you go wrong? Take a date out to a movie on a Friday night and SPLIT a drink and a box of popcorn, and you’ve spent more than what this massive set will cost you.
This album was a dramatic move for Corwood, and I’d have to call it an unqualified success. It’s Jandek’s version of Keith Jarrett’s THE SUN BEAR CONCERTS. It’s an album that people will be talking about in 20 years. It’s epic…and it’s great listening. In fact, this and MAZE OF THE PHANTOM would be excellent entryways into Jandek’s art for the novice.
I may add more to this review after further listening and study, but really, you should come to your own conclusion. I just hope that you’ll take the plunge and get your own copy…
Oh, one final comment. Jandek performed a very well received solo piano concert in Oporto, Portugal on January 10, 2009. As a fan of the Helsinki album, I asked Corwood if the Oporto show had been recorded. Yes it had, Corwood replied. So when we reach January 2009 in the gradual release schedule of Jandek live shows, perhaps we’ll be treated to ANOTHER solo piano recital…