Alternate Routes: Brooklyn Stays Weird, Kenya Goes Country, and… LSD: The Opera!


Alternate Routes is a column from Flavorwire contributor and WFMU DJ Jesse Jarnow, in which he explores music solely distributed outside the Big 3 of Spotify, iTunes, and Amazon.

Rents in Brooklyn are up, chain stores and blandness are spreading like viruses, and some beloved DIY arts space is surely about to close somewhere, but Brooklyn manages to stay weird despite itself, emitting music well off Spotify/Amazon/iTunes grid.

The latest sonic evidence of Brooklyn’s enduring idiosyncrasy is a four-track set by David Goren that documents two-and-a-half hour’s worth of pirate radio stations in Flatbush on the Fourth of July this summer. Like a cross between Harry Smith’s ethnographic Independence Day recordings and Sublime Frequencies’ series of ear-opening third-world dial-scans, Goren documents the hidden cultural byways of a world media capital. Reintroducing the cleansing sound of radio static to Soundcloud, the field recordings fold in Caribbean grooves, reggae, church services, lo-fi production, people speaking in Creole, people speaking in Hebrew, people speaking in tongues, local advertisements, and more. With FCC enforcement at a 10-year low, and more budget cuts planned, the pirates have run amok over the Brooklyn dial. While plenty of stations (including many of the pirates) have robust web presences, the FM band remains a solid means of communication in New York, bursting from cars and bodegas, and rapidly transforming into a folk medium as Brooklynites reclaim frequencies from radio behemoths and independent stations alike.

Great underground music publication the New York Times recently reported on a country music scene brewing in Kenya. Country songs have long found an unlikely but beautiful home in Africa, where local traditions transform imported tropes into new regional sounds and sensibilities. And while the main attraction of the Times‘ piece, Sir Elvis, is most spotted doing covers, there is also the matter of Esther Konkara, who has a series of originals posted on YouTube. Some are in English, some are not. As with much modern music out of Nashville, there is AutoTune and Jesus, but mostly there is a sweet Kenyan lilt and genuinely modern sounds in country and western music, especially on “I Was Waiting.”

From the burbling west coast microtonal composition world comes the supremely ambitious LSD: The Opera, a collection of Anne LeBaron‘s music composed for the set of specially tuned instruments invented by Harry Partch in the mid-20th century. With a libretto by LeBaron and pioneering USCO multimedia artist Gerd Stern, the final product will be (presumably) grandiose. For now, though, the company has only staged sections of the work-in-progress. A nearly hour-long chunk from their June performances in Los Angeles includes scenes focusing on Albert Hofmann’s 1943 invention of the drug, as well the early ’60s relationship between Timothy Leary and Mary Meyer, a special friend of John F. Kennedy who just may’ve fed LSD to JFK. It is high drama, but–alongside a trio of falsetto female voices singing the part of LSD itself–the most alluring part is LeBaron’s music for Partch’s systems. Though Partch himself was hardly psychedelic, his notes-between-notes instruments like the Cloud Chamber Bowls and the Diamond Marimba provide expressly mysterious colorations for the ever-rich history of psychedelics. With a total of five scenes, LeBaron is an estimated one-third done. There is surely much more story to tell, but hopefully the instruments will get some more room to play, too.

As one-third of New Zealand’s The Dead C, Michael Morley has been responsible for bleak and impenetrable improv since the mid-’80s. His new solo release, The Burning House, is no less stark and inward, but it is far more accessible. Playing solo, acoustic, and instrumental, Morley’s vocabulary is stunning, as if he’d maintained a parallel career playing in gloomy coffee houses for the past three decades. The six pieces are moody and spacious, still jagged in places, but Morley chases patterns and connects thoughts in a way that even borders on pleasant to listen to. By the time he proceeds from “The House” to “The Road,” etc., over “The Hills” to the album’s 11-minute finale, “The Bay,” Morley’s permanent autumn seems like a nice place to spend some more time.

The folkways remain alive, most recently in the work of the Sayat Nova Project, preserving music in nearly a dozen different languages in the Caucasus region at the border of Europe and Asia between the Black and Caspian Seas. First compiled onto a single LP, 2013’s Mountain of Tongues, their recordings from 2012-2014 received a more complete release with a four-cassette companion set, and–now sold out–are available via the Project’s Bandcamp. Sorted by musical type (one tape each of vocal, wind, strings, songs), it is the first now-virtual cassette in the series that provides the glowing doorway to the rest. Documenting 12 different vocal ensembles, from family singers to choirs, the a cappella Vocal collection is a portal to hyperlocal harmonies and arrangements, sounding perfectly ancient but bafflingly complex. The nearly 40 minutes of singing is filled with surprises, from individual voices that leap out of the ensembles to small melodic clusters that sound familiar for a second before they fall back into some breathtaking or sad harmony. The Wind disc achieves liftoff as well, beginning as a Caucasusian frog chorus yields to double-pipes, accordions, and more. The other virtual tapes are almost as transcendent, but sound largely as one expects ethnographic recordings to sound, filled with creaking instruments and the sounds of passing children and/or animals, transformed by their companions on the other tapes. The lack of track breaks is only sort of a bummer, each “tape” broken into two long cuts, enforcing the extended mood of the individual sides, like going someplace else for a little bit.