Microgroove: Forays into Other Music

John Corbett
Duke University Press

By Ken Waxman

Searching for the equivalent of a travel guide to the often uncharted territories of turn-of-the-century, so-called other music should lead to this volume. A collection of essays, interviews and reviews written between 1990 and 2014, Microgroove outlines the achievements of many of the progenitors and disseminators of non-mainstream music during that epoch. A Chicago-based music writer, concert promoter, art curator and record producer, John Corbett has been intimately involved with variants of what he describes as “music that demands a different mode of listening” for decades. Like an embedded anthropologist studying the culture of particular tribes Corbett is also able to place these sonic advances in a global context.

Within the book’s arbitrarily chosen seven sections, Corbett’s writing is inclusive enough to organically link the limited number of overtly academic studies with more populist fare. Inclusive enough to touch on currents existing in avant rock and conservatory-linked notated sounds, most of the volume deals with improvisation, with an admitted bias towards the Windy City and Europe.

Within these strictures however, Corbett, like the best kind of record store crate digger, pinpoints the association between acknowledged innovators and the achievements of lesser-known figures like pianist Georg Gräwe, clarinetist Guillermo Gregorio and the late saxophonists Joe Harriott and Bernie McGann. He even provides intelligent commentary on blues performers such as Koko Taylor and R.L. Burnside, whose emotion-laden story telling is often heard as the antithesis of more formal musicians’ work. Among other topics, the book discusses how Sun Ra’s costumes, aphorisms and compositions were influenced by mid-century Afro-Futurism. He also notes the significant divergence between the cut-up techniques of composer John Cage and those of sound poet Brion Gysin, noting that soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy used Gysin’s approach and words as the basis for improv-art-songs. The influence of music on the work of certain writers and painters is also dealt with in some chapters.

Although far from an academic thesis, Corbett’s scholarship is confirmed in the final chapter, “Experimental Oriental: New Music and Other Others”. Calculatingly and succinctly the essay analyses music by Cage, Henry Cowell, Lou Harrison, Steve Reich, John Zorn among others, to find compositions that use Oriental traditions not to create music with “the air of pastiche and world music kitsch about it”, but as compositions influenced by, not imitative of, non-Western music.

Besides this, the book’s key achievement is how Crobett’s psychiatrist-like probing questions elicit the most definitive and/or instructive statements about their art from certain musicians. For instance consider saxophonist Ornette Coleman’s assertion that the fundamental achievement of his music is “…very open ended. It doesn’t say I’m the leader. It doesn’t say I’m the sideman.” Or Dutch pianist Misha Mengelberg meaningful put-down of extended musical forms: “Things that are important to say… you can say them in a way that’s short. The length is something that belongs not to the domain of musical theory, but of psychology.” Plus there’s composer Anthony Braxton’s statement that “I used to say I was a jazz musician, and all the jazz musicians said ‘no you’re not’, [but] if I say I’m a classical musician then I can do whatever I want, includ [ing] play jazz ... An attempt to enshrine … jazz exoticism and contain it within one definition-space runs contrary to the total progression of the music.”

Microgroove’s accomplishment is that it gathers together statements like this and puts them in the proper context alongside Corbett’s more ruminative essays, to illuminate varied avenues of modern music.

—For MusicWorks #124 Spring 2016