May 6, 2016
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Geoff Dyer is a master at illuminating both the personal and the universal, and that has never been more evident than in his new essay collection White Sands.
Kirkus wrote of the book:
"With philosophical incisiveness, Dyer extols the virtue of landscape to conjure in himself the tangible and the mirage, the real and the illusion, the possessed object and the desired object. There is an undeniable joy throughout Dyer's writing, an affirmation that travel and the experience of place—not merely being someplace, but being present in it—is a gateway to the humanity of past, present, and future. A mesmerizing compendium that reflects on time, place, and just what, exactly, we are doing here."
Most of the music in White Sands is heard on journeys, on car stereos. Often it's heard in the little inter-chapters or whatever they should be called, mini-essays providing a link between what's gone and what's about to come. Musically, there's quite a tight roster of performers – the first generation of free jazz musicians – but there are a number of tracks from outside this loose grouping too.
1. Old and New Dreams: "Mopti"
In the chapter about Gauguin there's a little discussion of Luigi Ghirri's alluringly simple photograph of a soccer goal post – the same picture that's used on the cover of Playing by the Charlie Haden, Ed Blackwell, Don Cherry and Dewey Redman outfit known as Old and New Dreams. "Mopti" is my favourite track, set up by Cherry who sings and plays piano.
2. Stars of the Lid : "I Will Surround You"
Although it's not mentioned in the chapter about The Lightning Field I spent part of my time there wandering around listening to "I Will Surround You" by Stars of the Lid from their album Avec Laudenum. It was perfect because I really was, like, surrounded – not just by the poles but by the landscape, the sky, the totality of the experience.
3. The Doors: "Riders on the Storm"
The Doors' rainy classic makes a brief but devastatingly timely appearance in the title chapter of the book.
4. Beethoven: "32nd piano sonata opus 112"
There's a chapter about a visit to the house where Adorno used to live in Los Angeles so naturally there's some discussion about how he helped out Thomas Mann with the musical stuff in Doctor Faustus. The lecture in that novel – about why there's no third movement in Beethoven's last piano sonata – is apparently a pretty straightforward transcript of a recital and talk Adorno delivered to Mann. This is the version by Wilhelm Kempff which happens to be the one I mainly listen to.
5. Don Cherry: "Chenrezig"
The photo of Cherry on the cover of Brown Rice was my first sight of the Watts Towers which I visit towards the end of the book. It's an intriguing album in that it offers a glimpse of a phase in Cherry's career that seems not to have extended far beyond this glimpse. (Though Modern Art, a recording of a concert from Stockholm in 1977, features some of the material on the record.) The highpoint is this track which once again features Cherry singing and playing (electric) piano before his trumpet cuts a gorgeous silvery swathe through the brooding and increasingly turbulent darkness.
6. Charles Mingus: "Folk Forms No. 1"
Impossible to write about the Watts Towers without mentioning Mingus who, in his autobiography, remembers them being built. This is a wild, loose performance (from Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus) complete with Mingus's instructions to the audience to keep quiet while the band is performing – a joke since it was actually recorded in a studio in 1960. I especially love the crazy bass-drum duet with Dannie Richmond.
7. Pharoah Sanders: "Upper Egypt & Lower Egypt"
This is the very long track we play on the way to Watts and it also paves the way for the final pages of the book about a statue in Luxor. Recorded in 1966, it remains one of the highpoints of Pharoah's stellar career. As a postscript I should add that after I'd finished the book I played this track while travelling from Enchanted Rock to Austin, Texas, with four friends. It had been a wonderful day but we were under intense time pressure and my friend who was driving said that the eventual entrance of the sax completely shredded what was left of her already frayed nerves. Strange: to me it's always come as a relief after the (seemingly interminable) rhythmic build-up.
8. Charlie Haden: "Taney County"
Haden gets a mini-chapter to himself. This is a bass solo from the first Quartet West album, quoting from his solo on "Ramblin'" (on the Ornette Coleman album Change of the Century) and therefore from Ian Dury (who borrowed the melody from the "Ramblin'" solo for "Sex and Drugs and Rock'n'Roll").
9. Lester Bowie: "Ghosts"
Albert Ayler appears as a ghostly presence near the end of the book. This version of his greatest composition is played by Lester Bowie, from the album All the Magic. It's more joyous, less tormented than the original but captures the magic and exuberance that is always there – albeit often in tatters – somewhere within Ayer's inextinguishable cry.
10. The Necks: "Abillera"
Finally, although their music doesn't feature in the book, this playlist would feel incomplete without some mention of the band that I've listened to more than any other in recent years, especially while driving in Los Angeles: the Necks, obviously, the greatest band in the world, equally obviously. From their catalogue of endlessly inventive excellence I'm opting here for "Abillera" from Chemist which clocks in at a mere 20 minutes, a third of the length of most of their tracks. I'm sure I'm not alone in finding it reminiscent of NEU! It's a reminder that, when they get round to it, the Necks can rock out.
Geoff Dyer and White Sands links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays
100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
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weekly music release lists
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