I’m not sure how to explain my fascination with Ellen Taaffe Zwilich.
It’s not fandom. I’ve reviewed her work before, but I don’t follow her the way I do Steve Reich or John Adams. Nor have I internalized any of her pieces the way I have Lou Harrison or Meredith Monk.
But in the last six months, every time I run into a Zwilich album, I end up buying it. Tonight, it was a CRI vinyl album of her Chamber Symphony, String Quartet and Sonatina for violin and piano. During the winter, it was a New World CD of Symphony No. 1, and at the Austin Record Convention back in October 2013, I bought a sealed vinyl album of a vocal work, Passages, and a String Trio.
I first learned about Zwilich back in high school. My piano teacher introduced me to modern classical music, hoping to capitalize on my 10-key finger span. I also began relying on the rock music press than pop music radio to find new artists.
On my way to campus one morning, I tuned the car radio to the local public station. A piece was playing that was vaguely melodic but not entirely atonal. It ended, and the announcers piped up to talk about the piece. I couldn’t really stop the car to jot down the name of the composer, but I made sure to note the composer was a woman.
A few weeks later, I ran across a magazine article about Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, and I realized she created that piece I heard on that drive.
Today, I can point my phone at some music playing in the air and have it tell me what it is. If streaming services were available in my high school days, I would have looked up Zwilich’s music and given it a go.
But as the final decade of the 20th Century began to unfold, my resources were thin. I had a name. I had a text description of some music. And I had a fleeting encounter with said music in the terrestrial air. But I had little to no cash, and shops in Honolulu weren’t clamoring to stock modern classical music.
Zwilich’s name would pop up now and again as time passed, but my priorities always seemed to be stationed elsewhere.
So it’s a quarter of a century later, and I find myself chasing Ellen Taaffe Zwilich. But what am I really pursuing?
A resolution to a thwarted discovery, that’s what. I heard something I wanted to pursue, but circumstances stood in the way. Time eventually blunted the urgency.
I wonder now what would have happened had I delved into Zwilich’s work when my tastes were most malleable.
Would her Chamber Symphony occupy my listening memory the way Lou Harrison’s gamelan works do? Would I have sought the score for her String Quartet the way I did with George Crumb’s Black Angels?
It’s a far different experience listening to a piece of music as an adult than as a teenager. I wouldn’t have known how to listen to her music, and I would have used my instinct to make a judgment.
Conversely, I may have ended up missing something I could have only caught with a better grasp of the Western music canon.
In a way, Zwilich remains elusive. Search for her music on the streaming services, and a you get those same recordings I pursued two decades ago. Not much has been recorded since.
Around 2002, I got rid of my cassette collection. I had moved into a smaller apartment, and the cassettes hadn’t been played in years. In fact, I donated the boombox with a cassette deck to Goodwill to make room.
So now I had no convenient means to play these cassettes, and most of them had made the upgrade to CD anyway. The ones that hadn’t were on their way to the cutout bin, if they weren’t already there.
I brought the cassettes to Half-Priced Books down on South Lamar and Manchaca in Austin, Texas and bid all but five farewell.
Why five? Well, I wanted to upgrade those select titles to CD eventually, but I didn’t want to relinquish ownership of them. So I kept them on cassette as a reminder to one day make that transition.
A self-titled compilation from Yano Akiko was one of them.
At the time I bought the Yano cassette, I fell down a rabbit hole of anime pop music. Megazone 23, Macross: Do You Remember Love? and Bubblegum Crisis sent me on a spending spree that introduced me to Hamada Mari, Nakamori Akina and Nagai Mariko.
Japanese imports weren’t cheap, so I gave any US-released Japanese artist a shot.
Akiko Yano, the compilation, had the unique distinction of intersecting two of my teen-aged interests — Japanese pop and downtown New York improvisation.
John Zorn and Nonesuch Records president Robert Hurwitz put together the compilation, and Yano went on to release two additional albums on the label.
My 18-year-old ears could recognize a maturity and depth to Yano’s music that maybe those anime soundtracks didn’t quite possess, but at that age, I wanted ear candy. So I listened to the cassette a few times, then headed back to Miyasato Kumi and Iijima Mari.
The cassette ended up in box, which ended up in the closet. Out of sight, out of mind. But somehow it survived two interstate moves.
Another cassette that survived the purge was Oranges and Lemons by XTC. Finding it on vinyl spurred me to seek out the remaining survivors. I fished out a 4-track recorder I bought in the early ’90s — my first piece of recording gear — and transferred them to digital files.
It had been nearly 25 years since I first listened to Akiko Yano, and now I had a decade worth of listening to Shiina Ringo, NUMBER GIRL, Cocco and Utada Hikaru under my belt.
Yano was the proto-Ringo, perhaps even the proto-UA. She took the J-pop template and embellished it with traditional Japanese music, Latin music and even some classical.
She doesn’t have the powerhouse vocals of Shiina or UA, but she predated their inventiveness. For all I know, she could have influenced them.
And being a child of the ’80s, I find something reassuring about all the analog synths that wind their way through Yano’s more conventional tracks.
I’m glad I possessed enough of my wits back in 2002 to spare Akiko Yano from the cassette purge, and it’s luck that allowed me to make that upgrade many, many years later. The CD version is out of print, and it’s not even available through the digital services. Thank you, Silver Platters, for having a used copy on hand.
Truth be told, I don’t actually hate Billy Joel. I just recognize I’m not the target audience for his music.
Nor am I the target audience for Bruce Springsteen or Bob Dylan. My music experience pretty much started with Duran Duran, although ABBA did lay a bit of ground work. So I don’t see much point for dumping on music that’s not intended for me.
At the same time, I understand why my peer group would despise Billy Joel.
If I had any disdain for Joel during the years I was exploring Duran Duran and all those invading British bands, it was rooted in sibling rivaly. My brother liked Billy Joel, and if one of us four siblings claimed an artist, we weren’t going to share.
So I kept my mitts off his Billy Joel, so long as he stayed away from my ABC and Tears for Fears.
That sibling Cold War started to defrost in the late ’80s. I encroached on my brother’s monopoly on Sting, while he warmed up to U2 and Sinéad O’Connor.
By the time Storm Front came around, neither of us really gave much thought to Billy Joel. He was so ubiquitous during the first half of the decade that he induced a No Jacket Required-level of fatigue.
The minimal album cover — a red flag against a dark gray sky, the title in a stark sans-serif typeface — caught my attention. The darker hue of the songs also seemed to line up nicely with the weirder music to which I was starting to gravitate.
Also, a guy I had a crush on liked the album, and I wanted to figure why he liked it.
“Downeaster Alexa” probably cinched the album for me. It’s one of those songs I can find myself humming without any prompt. “And So It Goes” appeals to the incompetent pianist in me.
Mick Jones’ big production gave Storm Front an edge that made me momentarily forget about “Uptown Girl” or “Tell Her About It”.
I liked Storm Front depsite myself.
But that wouldn’t suit well with my peer group.
I was playing the album one night at work ca. 1998, and my co-worker asked why I was listening to Garth Brooks. I hadn’t realized Brooks turned the song into a country music hit. Her question dripped with disdain.
When the Dot-Com Bubble burst, I had to cull my music collection for cash. Remembering that exchange, Storm Front went on the chopping block. I did back it up on CD-ROM, though — just in case.
At another job ca. 2008, a different co-worker professed his love for Billy Joel, and I kept my poker face on. I could no better understand his love for Billy Joel any more than he could understand mine for Alfred Schnittke.
Slate explained what makes Billy Joel ripe for ridicule, and yeah, I see it. If Joel were an actor, he’d be the kind who tears the scenery. He can’t come across as anything other than a blowhard.
And yes, Storm Front is not immune to those moments where you just have to roll your eyes at Joel’s earnestness. See “Leningrad”. See “We Didn’t Start the Fire”.
I found that CD-ROM with a rip of Storm Frontand gave the album a listen. And I remembered “Downeaster Alexa”, and I remembered “And So It Goes”.
If I can make peace with the inner homophobia that prevented me from re-embracing ABBA, I can certainly get over the judgmental comment of a co-worker from the distant past.
There was a time in my life when it was absolutely not OK to admit to liking ABBA, and that time just happen to coincide with junior high school.
Well, it extended throughout high school as well, but a very specific incident in junior high school schooled me in what was then conventional wisdom. I had drawn the ABBA logo with the backward “B” on my copy of the Webster dictionary, and it opened me up for ridicule.
This being junior high, such ridicule had a lasting effect.
It became acceptable to like ABBA again in my sophomore year of college (ca. 1993) when a column in the Village Voice signaled the all-clear. The column tied ABBA’s resurgence with the gay community, and I was another two years away from being in the psychological mindset to come out.
So I clung to my internalized homophobia and maintained my ABBAmnesia.
Muriel’s Wedding hit theaters in 1994. Mamma Mia opened in London in 1999. In 2000, the members of ABBA turned down 1 billion dollars to reunite.
It’s been OK to like ABBA for a very long time now, but up until last summer, I couldn’t do it.
And I had long run out of excuses.
The biggest obstacle was my rockism. Straight guys with guitars — that is the bulk of my listening, and a lot of those straight guys instilled in me the idea that “disco sucks”. ABBA, even today, has not shaken off the perception of being a disco band, even when close examination of their output demonstrates otherwise.
Tied to rockism is internalized homophobia. Yes, even after nearly 20 years out of the closet, there are acceptable conventions of gay male culture to which I just say no. I don’t get drag. And I didn’t get ABBA.
It wasn’t always the case.
I drew that ABBA logo on my dictionary because I really did like them when I was 8 years old. I was in mall record store when the clerks put a LaserDisc of ABBA’s music videos on the TV. After that, I was hooked.
Pac-Man later derailed my attention from ABBA, but by then the group had broken up. And then came Duran Duran.
A recent holiday conversation with my sister in Chicago revealed that her own 7-year-old daughter was absolutely addicted to Mamma Mia.
Maybe that was it.
ABBA’s melodic sense is so basic and tuneful, it’s children’s music. I was a child when at the height of my ABBA fandom. I didn’t understand the words — and there were no lyric sheets on my albums — so all I had to go one was melody. Have I really been looking down on that instinctive appreciation all this time?
Today, I recognize that Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus wrote some sophisticated pop music. And while “Dancing Queen” put a lot of cash in their coffers, “Intermezzo No. 1” showed the band could do a lot more.
I’ve culled my music collection numerous times over the years, but the four vinyl albums by ABBA survived each purge. I put those albums on my turntable after purchasing some decent stereo speakers in May 2013, and I realized I was just way too freaking old to hold onto a slight from more than 30 years ago.
I’ve since added Super Trouper, The Visitors, Arrival and The Album to my collection. I’m passing on Voulez-Vous, and the jury is still out on Waterloo and Ring Ring.
I was right to draw that logo on my dictionary. Too bad I was too young to recognize it.
It’s a simple enough album cover: Morrissey in profile, holding a microphone in one hand, a taunting, silly expression on his face. His shirt is open, the lights of the stage casting strategic shadows across his bare chest.
Morrissey doesn’t have an Adonis physique, not like that show-off Sting on the back cover of the “Love is the Seventh Wave” 7-inch. Rather, he is lanky in a way that defies conventional appeal. He’s someone’s type, and it just so happens to be me.
But I wouldn’t have said as much in 1992, when Your Arsenal was first released.
For two semesters from fall 1992 to spring 1993, I lived in New York City. Tower Records was at its height, and the location on Broadway and W. 4th St. in the East Village was a regular destination for me on pretty much any day of the week.
Entire rows of endcaps in Tower brimmed with longboxes of Your Arsenal. I couldn’t take my eyes off of it.
Which sucked because I was deep in the closet, nursing a broken heart.
Morrissey’s physique reminded me of a high school friend, on whom I developed the harshest of crushes. The disapproval of my family would have been withering had I revealed my attraction to either Morrissey or my friend.
So I would gaze at those endcaps, “browsing” as it were, but also compelled by the sight of Morrissey’s revealing shirt. His pose was both seductive and stand-offish.
A few months later, New York City would be bombarded by large billboards of Mark Wahlberg, a burgeoning actor transitioning from a failed rap career. His modeling of Calvin Klein underwear marked the turning point. Many young gay men ensconced with those bus stop posters to put Mr. Wahlberg on their walls.
And still at the time I didn’t have the bravery to be one of them.
But Morrissey, Mark Wahlberg, the diversity of New York City … they started to chip away at the Catholic upbringing against which I only started to rebel.
My turning point happened three years later when I met a guy who I thought was cute. He turned out to be gay, and while dating was never in the cards, I found comfort in the thought a guy for whom I felt attraction could very well feel it as well.
It was not the paradigm I encountered when I fell for my high school friend.
Morrissey was a distant memory by that point. My attention had turned to avant-garde and international music, minimalist composers and jazz improvisers inspired by John Cage. Oh, and Duran Duran was having a pretty good resurgence at that point as well.
I would go on to explore more music and not think about Morrissey or Your Arsenal unless I just happened to encounter the album while seeking something else.
And it never fails to draw my eyes. And it never fails to transport me back to New York City, 1992.
I didn’t get on board with Morrissey in earnest till the mid-2000s. I finally sated my curiosity about the Smiths and understood. I even checked out Morrissey’s latter-day solo work, but Your Arsenal still wasn’t a priority.
I knew I would only want to get it for the cover.
Streaming services have been a great boon for making informed purchasing decisions, and when the “Definitive Master” of Your Arsenal was announced, I did my research. Yes, it is indeed a good album, and yes, I determined I would indeed own it.
I launched this blog right around the end of the 20th Century because I thought I could fill an under-served niche, and I wanted to learn how to build sites with dynamic content. I managed to do both and reached a point where I had to grow or change directions.
I opted for change.
My site visits took a hit, but the editorial shift suited me. Or so I thought.
Back then, I was chasing everything new, hoping to scoop the next blog over in a tireless pursuit to become a tastemaker.
After a while, shelf space and disk drive space got cluttered with more noise than signal. It got to a point where I started to predict how soon I would tire of bands while in the midst of discovering them. I got good at those predictions too.
Those are a lot of hours I’m never getting back.
In the past year, I’ve pretty much stopped seeking out new bands. That’s a pursuit for the young, and I’m reaching an age where I’m screaming at those kids to get off my metaphorical lawn.
Also, I suck at tastemaking. I listen to what speaks to me, which usually doesn’t speak to anyone else. I should see a therapist about that.
The previous design of Musicwhore.org was tailored for that sense of discovery. It was a review-driven site because review-writing was how I got into journalism.
But a review format isn’t particularly keen for writing about music that’s already been well-vetted. The bona-fides of, say, Fugazi or Neutral Milk Hotel are well-established, so another review is just 500+ words of “me too”.
No, I want to try something different, something personal. Maybe even a bit narrative.
Actually, I have no fucking clue what I’m going to do with this site.
But I hope starting from scratch gives me the room to figure it out.