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The best pieces of art have a three-dimensional feel to them. Whether you’re looking at it ten years after inception, as a companion piece to a film, or simply an album’s artwork, the total picture of the music is essential. Such is the case with the seminal bossa/samba album, 1965’s Getz/Gilberto. Now, not much can be said of this record that hasn’t been said already. However, it’s the ideal example of three-dimensional art. Just looking at the original artwork on the cover, an expressionist painting by Olga Albizu, you’re thrown into the world of the impeccable tunes that introduced Brazilian music to an entire continent.

Such are elements that composer/singer/pianist Clarice Assad understands well. Although her talents are numerous enough to stretch an album length, she has turned her focus to workshops emphasizing education and the utilization of multiple art forms to bring a piece together. “The whole concept is that there’s not a concept, because you never know who you’re going to be working with”, says Assad of the workshops, aptly titled Voxploration: An Outreach Program for Spontaneous Music Creation. Though Assad’s main form of expression is her voice, she doesn’t limit herself or her students to one particular art form. Whether collaborating with percussionist Keita Ogawa or choreographer Andrea Santiago, the workshops pull together elements of musical theater, dance, jazz improvisation, and a litany of other styles.

Whether young or old, the people involved in Assad’s workshops go through a transition. They begin having no idea where their form of expression is going, and end with owning the unique sounds they’ve created through collaboration. It can be seen on their faces. I asked Assad what it was like to work with the shyer participants in the bunch: “You have to be so sensitive to that! I have a gift of being sensitive, but I’m so happy when they come out of their shell!” In working with youth, the stakes are even higher. But Assad has a patience and grace with the teenage participants she’s worked with. “It’s personal work that we have to do. It’s easy to get caught up with bullying in school… even if a person is not able to sing, we find what that person is good at.”

Brazilian-born and raised by musical parents, Assad stretches her talents beyond her main instrument. Her piano compositions are so dense, it becomes easy to forget that she’s primarily a singer. Despite the success of ballad ”The Last Song,” she remains humble: “I wouldn’t say I’m a fantastic piano player. I really struggled with it for many years.” We talk on about how some instruments remain complex to the performer while others come more naturally. We agree that the guitar is something so mathematical and complex, it’s hard to wrap your head around it while playing. She says the same of the piano: “I feel like [the piano] is not organic at all!”

This is strange to consider while listening to “The Last Song.” It’s been covered by many other musicians, and played the encore spotlight for her 2012 performance with Symphony Parnassus. There’s even an arrangement for big band. She jokes about how far the piece went after its simple beginnings: “I wrote that in 2010 and recorded it in one clear take!” In a way, it’s not up to the composer how their music is going to be received. Composers must let go of their ego, and let the music speak for itself. Indeed, few artists understand this balance as well as Assad, who translates this idea to Voxploration, where the express plan is to let improvisation lead the way. “We don’t always have an end goal,” she says. The proof of her words is in her work, so it’s easy to take whatever she has to say to heart.

Still, you don’t have to take it from her. In 2015, Assad brought her workshop to new heights with the Boston Landmarks Orchestra for “Cirandadas.” An effort to introduce broader audiences to classical music, people aged 9 to 40 fused a litany of talents and backgrounds together to create a symphonic piece. “What she’s doing is listening closely to what people are doing and organizing it… how do we assemble the pieces?” says the orchestra’s director Christopher Wilkins. I asked Assad if that was an accurate depiction: “He got it. He nailed it. It’s about listening and seeing what everyone has to offer. I want everybody to shine, and to find their moments of shining.” Her selflessness translates not only to the success of her own music, but also to the success of others. Even those with a hip hop background made connections with the music, claiming that the rhythmic backbone of “Cirandadas” was ubiquitous enough to break dance to.

Though a backseat to Voxploration, Assad’s studio work is equally impeccable. 2012’s Home was recorded in a mere two days, but has a laundry list of compositional ideas. She sings in multiple languages, performs on piano, and draws on different traditions over the course of eleven tracks. “The Last Song” is track five, and it’s a well-deserved instrumental break for Assad. “[Home] was like this horse that just went wild,” she says. That said, only a well-trained horse could pace itself as well as this record. Even straight jazz is covered on last year’s Live at the Deer Head Inn. “The performing part is where I get to play – like a kid.” On this record, her voice is on full effect, and it’s boggling to remember just how many other endeavors she’s got her hands on. Many of the songs on Deer Head are representative of her Brazilian roots, and it’s exciting to hear Assad’s vocals spread out in a flashier way than the unselfish version we see in the Voxploration videos.

After having lived in New York for a few years, Assad is happy to be back in Chicago where her parents live. Her mother the singer and her father the guitarist: it’s no wonder her range of musical skill is so diverse. “I had an apartment in New York, which was great, but it was getting too small for my things. I love to collect instruments, and I just remember thinking, ‘Where am I going to sleep?’ It made sense to come back to Chicago.” Indeed, creation requires space as well as inspiration. If switching cities is what it takes for Assad to continue composing and performing, so be it. Chicago just may be the visual component of the art she’s yet to release into the world. Though Assad is a musical person, the visual may just compose the last few degrees before we reach 360.

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King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard fandom goes like this:

• Pride – listener feels as if they’ve heard this music already from bands like Thee Oh Sees and Roky Erikson, and shrugs them off.
• Respect – as they start to realize how frequently they have a record in the new release pile, listener begins to appreciate how much material the band puts out.
• Breaking Point – listener has an experience, either at a KG&TLW concert or shuffling their seemingly endless catalogue at a party, where they realize that there are few songs that aren’t a blast to listen to.

After that, it’s easy to consider the septet as one of the coolest bands in the psychedelic sphere alongside other Aussie mainstays like Tame Impala, The Drones, and even Nick Cave. Flying Microtonal Banana is the first of five records the band plans to put out in 2017. But, it’s useful to try and ignore these items when listening to the record. There’s a lot of nuance in these songs that, no matter how hard it may be, deserves to be considered as more than a cog in the King Gizzard factory.

At first glance, FMB is a conservative release – shorter length, plenty of the krautrock propulsion the band are known for, lots of nods to sixties and seventies psych and metal. Follow the voice that repeats the chorus of “Rattlesnake”, and you’ll find yourself back at track one. This and “Open Water” go on longer than necessary, but it’s clear that this was intentional. Instead, think of the devil face that sings along in the “Rattlesnake” video. Think of the feeling drummers Eric Moore and Michael Cavanagh get while jamming at such lengths. Think of King Gizzard as the positive homage they are, not as the quantity-over-quality rip-offs they aren’t.

Besides, there are plenty of tracks with a more digestible length. “Nuclear Fusion” is the shit, playing staccato guitar grooves off lyrics that connect the human race via quantum mechanics. “Sleep Drifting” is the romantic counterpart to many of the apocalyptic themes: “I can feel you touch me/and I can hear you breathing/please no one wake me/when I’m sleep drifting.” Like this, many of the lyrics are mostly about rhythm and style than the words themselves. On “Doom City”, the chorus is bolstered by an erratic Turkish horn, blaring microtones all over Stu Mackenzie’s tale about the city air ripping him apart from the inside. A guitar the band fashioned to mimic these same tones piles more middle-eastern imagery on top of more than half of the tracks.

Like last year’s Nonagon Infinity, King Gizzard’s performances are muscular and relentless. Though the songs still fade into one another, FMB is far more compact. Even after a few listens, it’s very difficult not to reconsider just how much the band have out, and how much they have yet to this year alone. Is this the best snapshot of a band with so much to give? You’ll be battling these demons as you listen. That said, almost every idea sticks on Flying Microtonal Banana. Their homemade studio occasionally shows its flaws, but this is simultaneously heartening. King Gizzard are easy to forgive and fun to like, showing that it’s more than a record about reliving psychedelic music’s prototypes.

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The announcement of The Painters EP held a lot of promise. From the freak folk warbling of Prospect Hummer to the bassline pop on Fall Be Kind’s ‘What Would I Want? Sky’, Animal Collective’s EP history is spotless. What sets The Painters apart is its concision, clocking in at just 13 minutes. Usually, Avey, Panda, (Deak,) and Geo are unafraid to let their songs extend into infinity. Here, hooks are paramount.

The band have been covering Martha Reeves & the Vandellas’ ‘Jimmy Mack’ on tour, and have included a recorded version as the final track here. Originally a 2 and a half minute pop song, AnCo turn it into a 4-minute synth-bass dance piece. Dave Portner howls harder than he’s done since Strawberry Jam (or the overlooked Water Curses EP). Half humorous joyride, half doo-wop homage, this cover showcases a vocally unhinged Portner, proving that a seminal band is always capable of new tricks.

Though the previous three songs don’t contain nearly as much pomp, they’re still worthy of the AnCo EP crown. ‘Kinda Bonkers’ is a blast, playing with more hushed vocal ideas than the direct lyricism of last year’s Painting With. The opening line is “life is so French toast to me/ if you wait too long/ it gets black and weak,” which dangerously approaches banality. Then, you remember some of the oddball lyricism of the Feels era. If you could find yourself nodding your head to lyrics like “someone in my dictionary’s up to no good,” then you could certainly follow the French toast metaphor a little further down the rabbit hole.

And here’s an important element in listening to Animal Collective eight years after Merriweather Post Pavilion. Though most of us didn’t enjoy Painting With, there aren’t any signifiers suggesting the band have stopped challenging themselves. They’re merely in a new stage of their career. Don’t consider what they were thinking when they wrote stinkers like ‘Bagels in Kiev’. Think about what could have brought them to the conclusion of recording that kind of song. It was likely a string of events just as inspired as the freaked out AnCo we fell for years ago.

Anyway, ‘Peacemaker’ sounds more like Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper. Underneath the whirling dervish vocals is an equally disorienting synth that sounds like Sung Tongs¬ put through a lens of the higher-fi sounds that AnCo have utilized on the last couple of records. ‘Goalkeeper’, though obnoxious at first, is a fine snapshot of Animal Collective’s current idiom. It’s capped at a generous 2:48, leaving subsequent listens a shade brighter with knowledge that the band are equally capable of writing epics as they are short bursts of energy. After you turn down the volume a bit and focus on its details, you realize it’s not as bad as its first few loud bars.

’Jimmy Mack’ and ‘Kinda Bonkers’ are so damn good, it’s got yours truly twirling in anticipation for another release (for about the fifth time since becoming a listener). The most recent interim took four years of waiting, and had a payoff that was puzzling to say the least. Though Animal Collective EPs are usually an expansion on previous records, here’s hoping that The Painters is more of a positive portent of a band about to hit its fourth quality stride.

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I’m such a lucky guy. Just after 2005’s The Woods, when my teenage self was starting to pay real attention to rock criticism, Sleater-Kinney came to a stop. I saw the record on some year-end lists, but foolishly overlooked it. When Portlandia and Wild Flag happened, I knew there was something I was supposed to know about these artists, but it still felt like an era that I had missed. By the time the band reunited in late 2014, I felt like a shipwreck rescue. I dug fast into their discography and bought a reissue of The Woods. Luckily and at the last minute, I secured a ticket for their show on the following Valentine’s Day; and haven’t stopped listening since.

Not having experienced the depth of Sleater-Kinney’s cultural significance in its prime, I clung to the pure talent of the band: Janet Weiss’ drum fills on [Live in Paris’ opener] ‘Price Tag’, the forcefulness of Carrie Brownstein’s screams on One Beat staple ‘Oh’, or the canvas of percussion laid around the back of ‘A New Wave.’ That said, I’m continually most floored by Corin Tucker, who always sings as if the world is ending, most notably on the live version of ‘What’s Mine Is Yours’. The composition is amazing here, revealing a third verse after a messy bridge that has no preoccupations with melody, volume control, or anything not resembling ecstasy.

None of this information is new. Anyone who’s seen and heard the band knows the power of Sleater-Kinney’s moving parts and melodies. Although the performances on Live in Paris are spot on, they don’t fulfil the promise of the concert. It can’t convey the feeling of the floor moving during the chorus of ‘Bury Our Friends’. It lacks the visual component of Tucker and Brownstein kicking and howling while playing the serpentine licks of ‘One Beat’. When I saw them play I felt the power of the show from the back of the club, not once wanting to push through to the front. When listening to Live in Paris, I have the opposite experience. I turn it up louder and louder, reaching toward something that’s not translatable.

Still, this record puts the hunger in the listener like the studio albums. The more you pull it apart, the more you want to see the songs live. It’s lovely to hear the crowd response to older songs like ‘I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone’ and ‘Dig Me Out’, though this pales in comparison to exchanging glances with fellow fans at the concert. ‘Modern Girl’ is the final track on Live in Paris. My spine tingles as I think of how it felt to wait for the drums to come in. I get the feeling on record, too, but it remains impossible to compare any album, live or otherwise, to a live experience that’s as perfect as a Sleater-Kinney one.

I don’t think Live in Paris will be the main way for me to connect with the memory of that concert on Valentine’s Day. I’ll continue to talk to friends who were there with me, with colleagues who get a glow in their eyes when Sleater-Kinney is mentioned, and I’ll turn the records up as high as my ears can stand. But, Live in Paris will be pretty far down the ladder in these instances. There is no finer rock and roll show in the last twenty years, and I’m just happy to have been along for the ride. Take Live in Paris as a hint, not an excuse to miss another Sleater-Kinney tour.

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[Note – I’m happy to announce that I’ll be writing for the American Composer’s Forum. I’ll be making contributions to their monthly newsletter, which can be found here. This is my inaugural piece for the ACF.]

“I’m still learning to write music, actually,” says National Composition Contest awardee Steven Snowden. I’m speaking to him over the phone: I’m in Minneapolis, he’s at the prestigious MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire, and both of us are surrounded by snow. His area code suggests Missouri, but his current address is in Boston. During our talk, he speaks of teaching in Hong Kong, growing up in Texas, and hardly a moment goes by where he’s not namedropping a different university where he has studied or been commissioned. Knowing all this, it’s uncanny that he would consider himself, 35, as still learning his craft.

He may feel this humility because of MacDowell itself. The walls of his studio are lined with signed plaques of all the artists who have stayed there before him. Amy Beach’s name is up there. Other studios have housed Aaron Copland, Willa Cather, Michael Chabon, and countless others. Snowden is here working on a litany of commissions from faculty pieces for the universities of Arizona and Missouri to a collaboration with a hip-hop choreographer at Berklee College of Music in Boston.

The stakes are high, but Snowden takes his good fortune in stride. He puts his own heart into the compositions, but still knows that he has to rely on others to make them happen. Even if it’s just him in the studio at first, his works are a collaborative process: “I don’t want it to sound exactly the way I expect. It should be a mix of my work and the work of the performers. I intentionally leave a little room for interpretation in my notation.” Leaving words like “menacing” and “sinister” in his compositional maps, there’s much room for interpretive creativity. Perhaps it’s his knowledge of this element that keeps his own ego in check. In their performance of “Bird Catching From Above”, the Lydian Quartet share this shedding of ego. You can see the animation in their faces as their bodies move towards the climax of the piece, as if their very beings are shaken by the movement of the arpeggios.

This is a joyful moment, but the sounds created aren’t particularly bright or even in a major key. It’s an element I was excited to discuss with Snowden: what makes a piece that he considers menacing turn into something overwhelmingly positive in effect? “I think it has to do with constructing a wide range of music. If I want to write something that expresses joy, a lot of that is juxtaposing it with something that sounds dark. It’s all context.” Indeed, the essence of pieces like “The Taos Hum” are only concerned with melody as an afterthought. I ask Snowden if his is a mathematical mind that composes without sound. “I wouldn’t use the word mathematics… I make sketches, then add descriptive words. I’ll put little markers in for section lengths. I can see the form all at once.”

We talk on about how minimalist and repetitive sounds can represent both joy and sadness. It’s felt in Snowden’s 2013 piece “Devil’s Nine Questions,” the second movement of which reveals a single piano note repeated until no longer bound by measure count. The quartet follows in a slow building pattern that fuses itself with the busy sound of the other two movements, shedding a peaceful light on what’s largely a foreboding piece akin to a Jonny Greenwood film score.

It isn’t just dark and light that Snowden seeks to juxtapose. His is a keen eye that can connect images to sounds, or even a lack thereof. The only thing he’s hearing apart from my questions is the light noises the snow makes as it piles up on branches before falling to the earth. He recalls Morton Feldman’s use of silence in between sounds. He puts this combination of image and sound together in “Appalachian Polaroids:” “It’s pretty straightforward. It’s one that I feel best represents who I am, as a person or where I come from musically.” Beginning with a field recording of a traditional Appalachian folk song, “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair,” the Aeolus Quartet begins playing along with the crackling vocal melody, and subsequently rises and falls with a beautiful silence that’s likely similar to the one Snowden can see in the falling snow.

Though it’s clear from his pieces that his composition chops are well intact, it’s hardly the most noticeable element of Snowden’s philosophy. “I realize how little it matters that I impress anyone… Ultimately it’s getting to the audience and making that connection with them.” His project “Voices of the Dust Bowl” combines dated images, his own music, and field recordings of migrant workers talking about how there was no work to be found in 1941. Eerie auxiliary percussion and sustained notes join men and women discussing their families’ unfortunate move into labor camps. The piece is one of the most concretely human of Snowden’s, and the music itself is merely the vehicle through which a genuine reaction can be had.

And Snowden is happy to be this vehicle himself. The trials of the Dust Bowl were certainly not his to bear, but he’s happy to help educate and interact with his listeners about it. He’s currently working on a piece to accompany images of the Silent Sentinels, a 1910s women’s suffrage group that went as far as hunger strikes to further their cause. “If I can help someone promote a voice that has something to say, that’s important to me.” Few classical artists achieve such a worthy status as a mouthpiece for social issues.

Snowden and I agree that the word “classical” doesn’t really get to the core of his particular genre. I ask him how he explains it. He laughs as he thinks of talking about his work to his relatives. “I usually use the word ‘experimental.’ I say ‘I make experimental musical for classically trained musicians.’” Indeed, words don’t seem to capture it either, much like how I don’t think our conversation can quite capture what it’s like to make art at MacDowell. “I don’t want to use the word humbling, but it’s pretty astounding to be surrounded by so many artists.” It’s through his surroundings that he still considers his music as a work in progress. It’s weird to hear someone so skilled say such things, but it could prove that he’s got a lot more in his bag of tricks. We’ll have to let his new commissions speak for themselves.

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