Authored by: Dale Nickey
Jandek – “The Song Of Morgan” (2013)
Corwood Industries – 0811
“Nocturne (noun) (French: “Nocturnal”), in music, a composition inspired by, or evocative of, the night, and cultivated in the 19th century primarily as a character piece for piano.” From Encyclopedia Britannica
I committed to reviewing Jandek’s latest album. “The Song Of Morgan”, a nine CD box set. Corwood Industries confirms that this is an entirely new work. “The Song of Morgan” is an album of piano nocturnes;, nine of them, one continuous hour-long piece per CD. I don’t know how you go about reviewing something like this. It took two hours just to transfer the damn thing into my IPOD.
The artwork on the box set “The Song of Morgan” is as sparse and minimal as the music is expansive and plentiful. The cover photo is clearly the artist we have seen on previous albums. However, this year’s Jandek looks like a school boy no older than 9 or 10. The box houses simple cardboard sleeves for each of the nine CD’s with the simple track designations – “Nocturne 1” and so forth. You didn’t really think a booklet would be included did you? Is the cover photo some oblique reference to Dorian Gray? Has Jandek recaptured some childlike innocence lost? Was he taking piano lessons at this age? Is the pre-pubescent Jandek we see on the photo the link to the classically influenced noodling we find on “The Song of Morgan”? Or is it just a ringer to throw us off the scent? All questions we love to ask but don’t really want answered. At $32.00 the collection feels like value for the money. And, for those invested in Jandek futures, it’s collectability seems assured.
I know of no other artist who has issued a new work of this length. Without liner notes or one-sheet, I get to turn my imagination loose. However, two main questions about Jandek continue to hang in the air and should be restated and addressed. Because in the genre of Outsider Music, context and preamble mean everything.
First, let’s discuss the secrecy surrounding Jandek. The party line of Jandek scholarship holds that the person that is Jandek is a stubborn, hermetic, iconoclast who is cultivating anonymity purposely. The intent of this policy is unclear. It could be a pathological thirst for privacy. Or the representative is maybe offering a clever variation of the “hot chick theory” which states the more you ignore your admirers, the more desirable you become. Or was he sage enough to realize that when you make music this un-commercial, mystique is the best trump card you’ve got in the deck?
As Jandek’s music has evolved so has his celebrity. I think journalists are more obsessed with preserving Jandek’s anonymity than Jandek is. The last decade finds Jandek playing live. YouTube footage finds the artist walking, talking, sitting in radio studios jamming. I think the artist we presume to be Jandek has bid adieu to the menace and mystique and has moved on, finding the role of enigma more comfortable and sustainable.
Second question. Why so many albums? Particularly when so many are so similar to one another. Add together all the official titles in the Corwood Catalog and we’re talking 70 releases. Why? The answer to this question might be relatively simple. Jandek probably just likes making records. I do. It’s fun. And, if you like to do something that much and can afford to it, then, why not? It’s probably as simple as that.
So where is Jandek the artist now? What does “The Song of Morgan” tell us? In 1978, Jandek started off as a guitar snapping primitive from another dimension. His earliest recordings are cave drawings by an artist who seemed intent on remaining inside the cave. It’s almost as if the artist decided that his journey in music needed documentation at every stage; novice, intermediate and advanced. While most musicians remain cloistered in the bedroom, practicing for the day they feel ready to present their muse to the world, perhaps Jandek decided that even his embryonic stages needed to be memorialized with an official record release. Regardless of intent, Jandek’s discography is a fascinatingly long and winding road. And, what a long strange trip it’s been.
Also we are dealing with an entirely new and separate period in the Jandek saga. When the documentary film “Jandek On Corwood” was released in 2003, all those interviewed in the film seemed to agree that Jandek’s discography could be codified into three (more or less) distinct periods. First was his guitar/vocal, delta blues from the twilight zone period. Then came his extroverted electric period where he collaborated with other musicians. Third was his partial regression into the isolated and menacing early template, best expressed in his harrowing and uncomfortable masterpiece “Blue Corpse”.
Jandek’s fourth act seems to have coincided with the release of the 2003 documentary film “Jandek On Corwood”. After the film’s release, Jandek confounded the world by making his first live appearance. Not only that, he began a campaign of concert appearances all over the globe whilst documenting them on video. The DVD’s and live audio CD’s were released by Corwood Industries with traditional regularity; thus giving us the first moving images of the man. At the start, Jandek’s live work seemed to represent the brackish work of his second period. Basic electric guitar, bass and drums squalling in a power trio format. He started mutating quickly and began expressing himself in various configurations. Now it seems he’s a keyboard man. And, recent live DVD’s find him sitting behind an electronic synthesizer leading ad-hoc ensembles whose repertoire is the free-form ambient music found on Jandek’s 2012 release “Maze Of The Phantom”. His concerts draw SRO audiences wherever he appears.
I needed to do some homework to properly calibrate my perception of “The Song of Morgan”. So I went back to 1999 and studied Jandek’s first foray into piano music. A fifteen minute piece called “The Beginning”.
“The Beginning” is a difficult cup of tea leaves to read. The temptation is to say that Jandek hit the record button the very second he decided to sit down and play a piano for the first time. The piano is woefully out of tune. And much of the piece sees Jandek flooring the sustain pedal and letting the room ambiance do most of the sound sculpting. Other places I can almost see Jandek’s gears turning and calculating the percussive potential of the instrument as he repeatedly hammers on the upper register keys until the room echo and colliding harmonics threaten to create a new tonality. There are times it seems that Jandek might have taken a few lessons on the instrument, and other times he sounds like your pedantic four year-old toddler banging on the keys in the throes of a sugar rush. The piece is an exploration. Much of “The Beginning” is self-indulgent. However, there’s one thing we can say with certainty, “The Beginning” is 100% pharmaceutical grade Jandek.
Now Jandek fancies himself a classical pianist. Gone is the segregation-unit ambiance of his early work. The piano on this new collection is in tune and apparently of good quality. Likewise the recording is as clear and full as you could want. The bass rumbles and the upper registers plink as God and Deutsche Grammophon intended. At first listen I have a strange affinity for the music I am hearing. Probably because Jandek’s pianistic skills are roughly comparable to mine at my peak proficiency. However, where I avoid memorializing my limitations on record, Jandek embraces the challenge and ups the ante by issuing an instrumental album almost nine hours in length. Going back to 1978 musical currency, we’re talking 15-18 vinyl LP’s! Jandek has balls of titanium to go with his (apparently) bottomless war chest. But, what could he be planning as a follow up? A Christmas Album? A collection of children music? I’d better shut my yap, lest I give the ‘gang’ at Corwood Industries any ideas.
So here’s my pledge. I’m going to listen to every note on all nine volumes of this new work multiple times. I will be living, driving, working, sleeping, eating and excreting Jandek’s “The Song of Morgan” for as long as it takes. Do I have a life? At this point, I think the answer should be obvious…..
CD 1 (Nocturne One)
Nocturne 1 establishes a template that will become very familiar on each nocturne. A slow bass ostinato in the left hand paired with cautious improvisation in the right hand. Minor keys predominate. At about 18 minutes in, things start becoming a little more active with some higher register arpeggios as the left hand becomes a little more stabbing and percussive and Jandek rolls out some well-placed glissandi. This is the first point at which things sound properly classical. Around the twenty minute mark, Jandek starts exploring the bass notes a little more aggressively and actually demonstrates some facility in the left hand. The glissando action is now migrating to the bass notes of the keyboard. This middle section seems the dramatic apex of the piece with random cascading note clusters and some hyperactive dissonance. Jandek then moves back into the high register with some staccato plinking that evokes the image of a farm hand stabbing a haystack with his pitchfork looking for a bothersome rodent. Jandek seems to be in a holding pattern whilst trying to keep the vehicle from going off the shoulder of the road. At 22 minutes we get some descending piano runs sounding very much like Pink Floyd’s Richard Wright on an ambitious day. We are now going into a section of free playing. Just throwing random technique at the wall to see what sticks. Up till now Jandek was trying to stay in his modal comfort zone. At certain points you suspect the artist is just ‘pissing around’ on the piano. But it is a performance. A marathon. No punches or pro-tools trickery is in evidence. At the twenty-four minute mark, the storm has subsided and we are very much back to the walking bass lines and meditative counterpoint, which is pretty much the same territory Jandek staked out earlier in the piece with the exception of some marginally adventurous interval movement in the bass.
Originally my intent was to studiously dissect each piano piece as one would a frog in biology class. However, as I pursued this policy, I realized that this was as unfair to the artist as it was to the reviewer. For example, the most rewarding moments occurred during half-sleep. On one occasion I awoke to one of Jandek’s more hyperactive interludes and momentarily thought that Jandek employed overdubs on one of the pieces. Closer listening revealed the passage to be real time improvisation. However, it did remind me that “virtuosity’ is subjective and totally in the ear of the beholder. Also some of his more percussive improvisations in the higher registers resulted in timbers that sounded more synthetic than pianistic. Listening to Jandek in half-sleep has it’s rewards.
More than once I fell asleep listening to “The Song of Morgan” only to awake at daybreak with the album still playing without repeat, a somewhat unsettling experience.
CD-2 (Nocturne Two) – In my research I found one reviewer who compared the music on this album to Erik Satie. The beginning of Nocturne Two definitely mines Satie territory. Whereas Nocturne One started off with rudimentary counterpoint. …..Two seems to me more interested in establishing chords as a mission statement. Pleasant if somewhat tentative. Jandek finally introduces some thirds in the bass……About seven minutes in we have a break in the action which either suggests a new movement or an edit or both. Action resumes with some delicate upper register notes much like those my cat composes when she makes an unsanctioned walk across my piano keyboard. Not that this is a bad thing. My cat is fairly musical. I’m thinking the break at seven minutes was an edit because Jandek now seems refreshed and more assured in this playing.
The more I live with the record the more I become familiar with Jandek’s “parlor tricks’ on piano. In the main, the pieces share a common architecture in that they begin slow and meditative. Slow walks with the left hand predominate. Variety will often be found in the form of a double time of the walking bass. Each nocturne sports a hyperactive “free form” section where Jandek is just playing what he feels with blatant disregard for harmonic or rhythmic cogency. Sometimes the stars (notes) align and sometimes they don’t. Non-figurative would be the only scholarly description of these abstract and atonal flights of fancy.
CD-5 (Nocturne Five) – This selection starts out morose and contemplative. After driving around a minor key cul de sac for a couple of minutes, Jandek tries to open up the piece several times with some more energetic right hand work in the upper registers. At about six minutes in Jandek double times the left hand bass figures. This finally gets things moving and Jandek starts getting a little more adventurous melodically. At 10 minutes in Jandek seems to have painted himself into a corner with his static left and figure. However, his improvisations with his right hand becomes more adventurous and sure-footed. At twelve minutes in there are some nice, delicate upper register filigree. Jandek remains in a meditative and repetitive mode until minute 38 when Jandek starts hitting the keys a little more aggressively and starts throwing in a few glissandi and some more animated bass. This commences a somewhat abstract cadenza where the listener might be surprised by some rather athletic, rolling bass arpeggios against some deftly executed right hand soloing. This goes on for a while with intermittent episodes of inspired improvisation blended with atonal tomfoolery. Jandek hits the breaks at minute 44:00 and returns to his beloved 5 note bass ostinato that he seems so very attached to.
Listening to the album, some recurring patterns become self-evident. Jandek’s technique is mainly a walking left hand ostinato. He has developed an athletic knack for throwing in glissandi at regular intervals in both the bass and treble keys just to keep things moving and to suggest virtuosity. I was able to spot only one key modulation and that was met with the grinding of gears. Sometimes Jandek seems to get caught in the moment and threatens to go off the shoulder of the road. He usually soldiers on turning mistakes and happy accidents into new motifs. Of course Jandek’s intent is only educated guessing on my part. My wife hears it out of the corner of her ear and it sounds pleasant and relaxing. And, if you listen to this music in the manner most people would, it is. “The Song of Morgan” is an album I fall asleep to quite often. You cannot say that about any other Jandek album. This is a good thing. And, the ability to relax and think during nine hours of Jandek is an entirely new experience to the Jandekophile.
CD-6 (Nocturne Six) – Jandek finally finds his voice on this work. The piece opens with meaty, ominous single bass notes, with pedal to the metal sustain. Right hand bass notes are eventually introduced and the next few minutes find Jandek giving us pure sound in lieu of any discernible time signature or harmonic structure. It works. Think Cecile Taylor on angel dust composing music for a Japanese monster movie. The concussive rumbling finally give way to Jandek’s now familiar device of the slow walk in the base with close to the bone counterpoint in the right. This music is abstract. It’s pure sound and is a welcome respite from the piano recital ambiance that defines much of “The Song of Morgan”.
CD-9 (Nocturne Nine)
This last leg seems a restatement of all that’s gone on before. The quieter moments of this nocturne (and others) remind me of Bartok and his masterpiece collection of studies for piano, ‘Microcosmos”. Delicate, mildly dissonant, oddly accented and calm. Like any marathon runner there is stumbling and weaving at the end of the race. But, I still cheer him to the finish line despite the salt stains and the contorted features.
Really, I can’t do Jandek any more justice than this. And, if my review is meandering and (at times) unfocused, perhaps it’s my life imitating Jandek’s art. At first, I felt impelled to give a note-by-note commentary of every movement in this album. Then I realized its title is “The Song of Morgan”….Song, singular. So, I’ll take the clues I’m given and view it as a singular statement. I have probably listened to this work more times than any other person on the planet. I have listened to “The Song of Morgan” in my car, during walks, before bed, during sleep, at work and while cleaning the cat box. I have listened with a critic’s ear and an acolyte’s heart. I have listened both passively and actively. After this review, I may never listen to it again. Or it might be the first music I turn to on a cold rainy day with a book in hand. “The Song of Morgan” is like the public library. You may never visit, but it’s comforting to know it’s there.
Nobody could have predicted the longevity and/or artistic evolution of Jandek. Listen to “Ready For The House’ or “Six And Six”. Could you have possibly imagined that Jandek would be soldiering on 35 years later as anything, let alone a classical pianist? Bravo to the artist who invents his own reality and hands his life over to the solitary sojourn of intuitive artistry. When quantum physics and Jandek’s persistence collide in musical expression, it’s a thing to behold. Even if only for a few seconds.
Towards the end of my research I decided to do some final market testing. I played “The Song of Morgan” uninterrupted on my portable stereo at The Office where I work. Where I work has a customer service lobby where people have to wait in line. Captive audience. Near closing time, the line was long (as usual). However, one of my associates told me he noticed the customers were uncharacteristically calm and quiet if not happy. Usually, close of business lines are hyperactive, impatient and noisy. Not today. Nobody complained about the music. Indeed, Jandek’s work seemed to have a relaxing effect. Well, no, I think ‘medicinal’ would be a more accurate description. But Jandek clearly controlled the room and left an impression , which is all any artist has the right to expect or hope. And, I’m sure an entire eight-hour shift performed to the backdrop of Jandek has never been experienced by any other government office.
Plug into “The Song of Morgan”and you may hear the soul of the man. He’s left it there for all to hear. Nine hours of streaming consciousness channeled through ten fingers and eighty-eight piano keys. It may not solve the Jandek riddle, or tell you what he eats for breakfast, but it might tell you how he feels. If the mystery and menace of Jandek has been diluted by time and Youtube, he still plays the enigmatic card expertly. However, this new work does add another question to the thirty-five year conundrum of Jandek……
….Who on earth is Morgan?
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