Alternate Routes: James Joyce, Baseball, and ’90s Film Inspire Wildly Ambitious Musical Experiments


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.

Aside from the independent distribution system they provide for albums and singles, Bandcamp, Soundcloud, and infinite other platforms offer musicians tools to create projects bigger than albums or singles. Though they’re often hard to process or commit to as a listener due to their length, that’s exactly the point: the possibilities of digital music distribution has enabled and unleashed a new wave of big dreamers, scaling upwards into the still-unfathomable new space in hopes of finding new forms and new audiences. As musicians, they are restoring primacy to the power of the niche, a reminder that niches are also universes unto themselves.

One project squarely in this columnist’s universe is Sam Kulik‘s 20-part, almost-three-hour The Broadcast, which is digital, but also not digital at all. Coming wrapped in vintage-looking wax-packs, The Broadcast arrives to the listener in the form of baseball cards, with no visible means of reproducing music. But with each card comes a download code and with each download code comes one half-inning of Kulik’s slow-burn baseball jazz opera, which (in real time) sets to music the entirety of a 2015 match-up between the New York Mets and their division rival the Florida Marlins — a Bartolo Colon start! — while Kulik offers an ultra-dry play-by-play. With only seven cards per pack, it would require a minimum of three $5 packs to get the whole shebang, but odds suggest that more packs or trading on Kulilk’s forums seem a more likely solution.

No matter how many cards one accumulates, though, any given half-inning drops the listener instantly into the long, mellow march of summer baseball. The musical strategies range, all built around trombonist/multi-instrumentalist Kulik and a range of New York improv irregulars, including a swinging octet that melts into fusion (“Top of the 1st”), cool quasi-ambiance (“Bottom of the 3rd”), refreshing Yo La Tengo-like organ grooves (“Bottom of the 8th”), and more. Between innings are the only winks to the listener, in the form of cartoon-world commercials. As a sportscaster, Kulik plays it so straight and low-key that he barely musters a home run call, but solves the eternal (for some) problem of how to listen to baseball and music at the same time. Enjoyed mid-winter, The Broadcast is proof that baseball magic doesn’t require baseball players at all. The cards, depicting the musicians with appropriate stats and discographical info, are gorgeous, too.

Another project too big for any physical medium is the mega-ambitious, 15-plus-artist James Joyce-inspired Waywords & Meansigns: Recreating Finnegans Wake . More than a book on tape, more than an album, tracks turn into multi-hour excursions as musicians/readers reckon with Joyce’s jeweled and layered text, chapters becoming multipart albums themselves. What results is something that exceeds the medium of books on tape, and probably even the mediums of books or tapes themselves. Musicians find many ways to turn Joyce’s musical text into actual music. During a three-hour take on Chapter I.6, experimental NYC musician Maharadja Sweets tries his hand at straight reading amid ambience (sounding a bit like Lambchop‘s Kurt Wagner), tracing out easy melodies, but also turns the text into an aural ransom note with words clipped from individual sources, and — in another section — offers the words as an almost religious incantation over fluttering drone-pipes. Los Angeles English teacher-turned-cabaret psychedelicist Mr. Smolin sing-songs the text while, behind him, art-surfers Double Naught Spy Car dive for hallucinogenic passageways and unexpected jazz corners. Neil Campbell, the fully haunted electrician who records as Astral Social Club does the (relatively) expected, offering a shifting, buzzing, unfolding soundscape and a (relatively) straight reading. By the time the project is done, there’ll be contributions from Mike Watt, Raymond Pettibon, and many more. As a book on tape, it might require multiple listens to absorb the Joyce, but surely no fewer than if they were reading in print.

The Japanese musicians Takako Minekawa and Dustin Wong have been using Soundcloud as a sketchpad, together and separately. Wong, the guitarist in the now-disbanded Ponytail, moved back to Japan and struck up a collaboration with onetime Shibuya-kei hero Minekawa. Their output lately has included both new material, such as “Uchubu,” where a bed of lush loops (undulating like neon coral creatures, etc.) provides a home for a gorgeous single-line guitar melody, like a lost Beach Boys/Beatles instrumental. Other tracks include the familiar-sounding (but not inaccurately titled) “Star Warm” and their own project that exceeds the normal boundaries of CD/LP, a (so far) three-part “In Between Series” of semi-ambient recordings filled with gurgling water and burbling tones, appropriate for day-naps, serving tea, or whenever that extra little soothing glow is needed around the ol’ homestead. On his own Soundcloud page, Wong — who last released the surrealistic loop-book Meditation of Ecstatic Energy in 2013 — continues his own jottings, putting out nearly an album’s worth of new material in the past month or so, like the crystal-colored tone poem, “Tuning Fork.”

For those who are neither mostly nor even partly Mozart people, there’s Noah Wall‘s An Early Death , which remains traditionally CD-sized in length if atypically digital in execution, setting a coronation mass, a string quartet, and a piano concerto into a sparkling and remarkable new landscape. While synthesizers such as the Synclavier have provided digital renderings of classical scores for nearly 40 years, MIDI — the standard-bearer digital platform, popularized in the ’80s and ’90s — is often invoked in the 21st century for irony or (at the very least) nostalgia. While calling on the now-(re)familiar tones of 8-bit production, Wall paints something far richer, using a full color palette to bring a sensitive, 21st-century sensibility to the 18th-century Austrian composer. Wall relies on the articulated note-soundings of his virtual ensemble, often recalling the plucked precision of a banjo (refitted with a warmer timbre) instead of the somber persona of most traditional instruments. Lines entwine and dance magically as if the composer were some kind of world-renowned genius or something. If he makes more volumes, or someone else picks up on the idea, Wall has cracked open a whole new genre, and a public domain one at that.

Working with electronics at the other end of the high/low divide is the Glasgow musician Sega Bodega, going beatless to create “SS 2015,” in which he creates new scores for the trailers for a group of late-20th-century cult favorite films. The result is a ten-part suite that moves through spaces and subgenres and moods in a way that makes the concept seem irrelevant. Bursting into action sequences and heavenly bell-outs, one quickly loses track of whether it’s the section for Akira or Kids or Boyz in the Hood. Posted on Soundcloud to accompany his own recent Sportswear EP, the recording — implied to be a highlights reel that might land film-work — also suggests myriad exciting new paths for the beat-making Bodega, with or without the accompanying picture shows.

Deep in the annals of Soundcloud are tracks that are sample-based and in some kinda legal gray area, not actually being for sale or anything, and almost completely transformative to their sources. One such mystery account that occasionally dispatches collaged beats that (sometimes) achieve a nicely animated dance is facesvases. Though some tracks seem taped together with primitive and somehow humanly sloppy rhythms, “Hands on My Baseline,” a co-production with 33Ghosts, turns familiar-ish samples (#boardsofcanada, #taylorswift, #pinkfloyd, #kingcrimson) into its own swinging concoction.