FROM PROG TO CAGE, ZAPPA, AND BEYOND
William Harrington MySpace Page
William C. Harrington & The Fortunes of Chance
by Mark S. Tucker
INTRO & HISTORY: THE MILIEU & ITS ILLS
Like many modern units, especially those rooted amongst Boomers, Urban Electronic Music (UEM) is something of a radicalized brand of the evolution of the progrock birthed in the '60's and '70's. Ironically, in some ways, it's actually a step backwards into what helped make that genre, returning to the more alien surrealities of Conrad Schnitzler, Ron Geesin, and others. As mediocre as those historied efforts may have turned out to be, overruled by some of the early Cluster/Kraftwerk catalog (not to mention other lesser known units with vastly superior fare), those musicians - or "realizicians," as the peculiar electronica parlance might have it - were fascinated by the congeries of far more radical electronicists over in the neoclassical realm: Subotnick, Crumb, Wuorinen, Erickson, etc..
Some '80's indie electronicists, perhaps most notably PBK, carried on experimentation in a most extreme fashion by descending into the very nature of what constitutes sound iself, its effects and affects- inquiries often less impressively conducted by the more celebrated elsewhere (Niblock, Montgomery, etc.). But it was soon evident that the most appealing results of this work would occur in musics deconstructing both signal and melody. Thus, the lukewarm productions of Rodelius and confreres found greater acceptance than the more abstract constructions of distant cousins. The jam ensemble Can discovered this as well, while others, Faust and Throbbing Gristle for instance, toiled at strange labors that landed nowhere near better integrities.
A number of labels arose over time, presenting a goodly degree of coherence: Soleilmoon, RRRecords, Elektroshock, Accretions, Ground Fault, and what's actually been a whole underground movement still productive to an admirable degree. These collectives and a vast array of idiosyncratic individualists account for the latter-day manifestation of precisely what Subotnick and ilk kicked off: ceaseless inquest into what tone, pitch, melody, and the compendium of musical whatnots can be stretched into.
The labor will never end. That's a good thing.
Question: How does the music collector go about acquainting himslf with such a wilderness of independent music-making, occupying a billion widely disparate splinters, especially the more esoteric? Answer: Ya don't, except by the same process, now dead, ushered in by mothership OP magazine, and then Sound Choice, Factsheet Five, OPtion and the small welter of neo-samizdat half-ass gatherums that flourished from the late '70's on into the '80's, dead by virtue of a moribundity displayed from Day One. Neither the serious literateur nor the newbie flake would bother to deny that the realm anciens of arrested-growth cases in DIY publications strangled themselves from womb to tomb... and still do. Presently, if one wishes, one can buzz around the Net for much the same, hopefully better (admittedly a forlorn dream in the face of such brainstunned stenopits as Gnosis and the Gibraltar Encyclopedia), and perhaps find link rings of kindred artists and genera, but the print medium - the magazinic fount formerly the only avenue available - is gasping and choking, almost dead.
However, it isn't a settled contention that the implosion of genre zines has been a bad thing. Even in electronic venues, most of them, excepting The Wire (which itself is slowly dessicating), are or were mediocrity palaces, owned by jerkwater boneheads, staffed 90% with scribblers, not critics. Nonetheless, a somewhat decent gamble at exposure was a possibility in those places, despite atmospheres 1) oft wasting printspace, 2) shelving submitted CD's completely, or 3) never allowing columns, reviews, or even sneezes to reach the readers. The average consumer could only shake his or her head.
CROSS-COUNTRY AND AROUND THE MUSICO-INTELLECTUAL UNIVERSE
That orientation process has since become ironically anarchic, and that's where William Harrington comes in, now with a catalogue of five releases: three as Urban Electronic Music, one under his christened name, and another a release of high school involvement in a psych-bluesrock sextet dubbed Several Mouth Parts. Like everyone else now, Harrington sits in the middle of an amorphous field and a catch-as-catch-can situation, not necessarily the best venue to present his work in but arguably better than a gaggle of ink-mooks in a yatter-rag like OPtion. Harrington's history's interesting, though, and one that wouldn't at first indicate domicilage in the endless reaches of a Net hosting exotic non-aligned creatives. A Yonkers-ite, a New Yawkan, he - in the '70's, like so many teenagers whose mode was to look afield and view what was going on in the wider world - traversed the continent to arrive at CalState Dominguez, a SoCal college. Harrington had worked as a professional musician in high school back East and was eager to inherit more tools from the West. In the lower reaches of California, he studied composition, electronic music, and prepared piano techniques with Richard B. Evans, author of The Well Prepared Piano, considered by many to be the classic book on John Cage. There he also ran into Nicholas Slominsky, who scribed the highly regarded Lectionary of Music, attending the giant figure's seminars and talks. This proved sufficient to goad extensions of his psychedelic years into wilder avenues.
A lot of musicians naturally, when the time came to eke out one's existence away from the primordial nest, gravitated to employment in record shops. Harrington somewhat followed suit but opted for the wholesaler's side, spending a couple of years in the middle morass of the industry, a prime spot for amassing an impressive collection of recordings of electronic and avant-garde musics. This and his schooling, not to mention natural talent, led to starting up as keyboard tech for such groups as the immortal Gentle Giant. That's rather a blessing and a curse. After all, few vector so smoothly into the very apex of the profession so quickly, but - even given that wonderment - with Gentle Giant, you've pretty much hit the plateau in terms of progrock authenticity and depth, so where to go from there? King Crimson? Genesis? Premiata Forneria Marconi? How about Frank Zappa? Interestingly enough, Harrington somehow came to the attention not of Zappa but of one of his keyboard players, Tommy Mars.
For Gentle Giant, Bill had been taking care of the setup and maintenance of keyboards, vibes, cello, and various guitars. While touring with that legendary baroque rock group, he couldn't know that Zappa had formed a new crew including not one keyboardist but two. As was FZ's wont, top professionality was expected of members, the maestro leaving all particulars to his backing unit. When you played with that strange virtuoso with the Groucho moustache, you came to the table with the goods, all the goods, or you didn't sit down to the meal. Thus, the newbie ensemble was beginning to acclimate when it suddenly realized the enormity of its situation. With Peter Wolf flanking Mars on keys, Zappa's new ensemble desperately needed someone to handle the equipment as road dates loomed. This was just before the Fall ‘77 Tour, and so urgent was the need that Harrington found himself hired on the spot by a functionary dispatched to do just that, never meeting a single band member. Merely having been able to keep up with the Giant was sufficient. He was in.
Harrington had just jumped on board with one of the most discerning aestheticians in American culture: Francis Vincent Zappa, the consummate musician, first-rank comedian, intellectual, and, I will argue, one of the most important American provocateurs since Thomas Paine and H.L. Mencken. It goes without saying that if you were working for the Zap in any capacity, you were non-pareil, almost without equal. Bill stayed on for three years, ranging through as many American tours, two more in Europe, and several months in-studio, working on Baby Snakes, with a brief but credited appearance in the movie. He was also in Zappa's entourage when Pierre Boulez first came a-callin'.
The association lasted until 1981 and Bill would be in on many key moments. Not only was studio time valuable, but the many nights spent at "Joe's Garage" were something of a legend. In '79 or '80, Zappa leased a North Hollywood warehouse, a four-wall storage space turned into multiple use: a rehearsal space, an oasis for the working out of new ideas, the auditioning room for potential band members, and an impromptu raconteur rostrum. Zappa, as fans well know, was fond of telling bizarre stories. At the Garage, he told lots of ‘em. As Harrington cites: "He was one of the funniest guys I ever met."
But all good things come to an end and so did this. No one tops out three times, not unless Bach reincarnates and you somehow ingratiate your way to his ghostly side. That wouldn't be happening any time soon, so Harrington had nowhere to go but to himself after all the grueling but glittery stratospheric activity. Back in Los Angeles, he dug into a UCLA Extension Music-Business course, was awarded two NARAS scholarships, and studied record production with Nick Venet (Nikolas Kostantinos Venetoulis), a guy who was not only one of The Beach Boys' and Creedence Clearwater Revival's main men, but producer of a number of cult bands highly of interest to rock esotericists: Mad River, Lothar and the Hand People, and so on. These lessons would prove fruitful to Harrington's DIY work.
Of late, those opuses have been garnering notice and praise, played on NPR stations as well as college and other indie venues. 2006 saw the awarding of a SUBITO grant by The American Composers Forum - not a light distinction, especially as his music derives from loops, analog & digital synthesis, found objects, found sound, and traditional instruments. Harrington describes the work as shifting from experimental ambient to avant-garde free jazz but also takes the broader adoption of the term "soundscapes". No one's likely to mistake it for AOR, come what may. Philadelphia invited him to appear in its Ventura New Music Festival, Electro-Music 2006, New York yanked him athwart the Make Music New York fest, and the indie film 40 Bands in 80 Minutes slipped the bicoastal bleep-and-squinch artist into its wilderness of madmen and -women. Long after travelling among the stars, Harrington's musical journey hadn't folded; to the contrary, it had just recommenced.
In the '80's, during the aforementioned DIY "revolution," there was an electronicist named John Wiggins, who worked for HBO as a soundman, putting that experience to even better use as a musician - and when I say "better," I don't mean he was well-paid, a laughable assumption well-known to anyone who's hazarded the feat, but that he decided to work his skills into an aesthetic context, releasing several cassettes in a period well before the advent of CD. That small output was largely a cut and paste affair, composed as though episodic outtakes from a set of particularly oblique Loony Tunes, but intriguing, pristinely presented, and different. That sums up Harrington's work as well, who, like Wiggins, has also been slicing his daily bread in TV, working on TV shows like Lucy, Cheers, and a rather large number of popular series.
THE THEORY OF EVOLUTION
The release of a tape of Harrington's old ensemble, Several Mouth Parts, is a trip back to the woolly days of the early '70's, when musicians got together to get loaded, fall in behind a rhythm, and jam to their hearts' content. This is what the CD The Mind is the Body is. The band came fully loaded with organ, congas, bass, drums, flutes, harmonica, bass phallophone (about which we will decline to guess), and two guitars. The keyboards were manned by Harrington, then known as "Baby Gouda," who also played the flutes.
The Mind is the Body is amusing for several reasons, not the least of which are the memories stoners and ex-stoners will receive in crawling back down Memory Lane, when everyone was either in an amateur band like this one or listening to friends who were. While Bill was over in Torrance at South High, I was a few miles hence, going to Hawthorne High, whence issued the Beach Boys (who played at our Prom... which I did not attend). Probably, myself having trekked ceaselessly about the beach cities music milieu, we passed each other several times at local gigs, parties, and the The Whisky A Go Go. I very much remember jams exactly like what Several Mouth Parts here conducted, and they were precisely as documented... which brings both smiles and grimaces. Chicago, Boston, Portland, and all other metro areas were the same. It was the '70's, things were not as they are now.
30 years passed and Harrington decided to jump back into the deep end of the pool with Urban Electronic Music (2000) under his own name. He wasn't kidding about the "urban" part. Besides a wealth of keyboards, guitars, and devices, one will hear salad bowls, communion bells, a cell phone, and an army bugle. From the Terry Riley-ish opening forward, the electronic songs are at first a miasma of arcing, colliding, humming, phosphorescing sounds and signals that then lay back into malignly industrial underground cathedrals of rock and chills ("God Bless the Miners"), other times glitched with mutely threatening echoing chambers and back alleys ("Jungle Birds"). "Days Left" is a Bell South pastiche working towards melody while "Organ Song" places oscillating drone against subtle and overt elements, stripping back the fundament for a Peter Michael Hamel-ish fog.
UEM turned up, next time around, a year later, as a duo in the LIve disc, adding guitarist Jilli Dart, who commences the CD with a cut of feedback and triggers, Harrington stepping into the following cut. Where he begins and Dart ends are soon lost, save that we know Harrington's playing the peripatetic sax alongside his own electronics... which Dart is also shifting on. Thus, signatures are fudged and blent. The release is actually, though it claims 14 cuts, one long transforming soup which remains pretty much within its own tempo and noise levels, ratcheting up here, fuzzing out there, squawking elsewhere. Harrington loves to dub in natural sounds, leavening the mix by interposing the real world atop his electro-frenzies. "The Organ Song," one of my favorite of several fairly composed ditties, makes a very welcome mid-maelstrom appearance, icing out the concert for a few minutes but also establishing a more coherent atmosphere, one that remains for a couple of cuts before chaos comes stomping back in.
The duo became a trio in 2007 in the Code release: Harrington, Dart and percussionist Andy Sykora. Though the CD's again divided up into eight ostensible songs, it's once more a long live jam at Los Angeles' Dangerous Curve dive. Highly repetitious, the release is this time more an exercise in noodling, minimal structure, background noising, and dronery. In another form, it might've been performed in a Beyond Music Fest as loose experimentalism.
Those twained extensions weren't the real Harrington, though, so he returned under his own name in the same year's Nuclear Menace, a cross between Craig Leon, John Wiggins, Conrad Schnitzler and Bill Nelson's later output. The disc is another cross-blend of pastiches, noodling, and melodic miniatures with no narrative threadline nor even a seeming wisp of intent but plenty of aesthetic pleasures, from stripped down obliquities ("Syd") to more Riley-esque Arabian mosaicking ("Rajilli: They Have the Bomb Too") and further loopy experiments ("The Long Descent"). The rather abrupt shifts in setting are more pronounced than in the first UEM CD and can be a trifle disconcerting. One can't, however, help but feel this was part of the plan, instilling an intermittent sense of sensory alienation and dislocation, working quite nicely that way. Synths comprise the majority of voices but Harrington plays his favored sax and then works at a guitar while inviting several guests in (Dart, Sykora, and five others). The longest of the 15 cuts is just seconds over 5 minutes but "They Finally Did It" and several others prick the desire for much lengthier extrapolations. Nothing is demanding, though repeated listens begin to unfold subtleties not immediately graspable.
Mention must be also made of Harrington's mastering agent: Scott Fraser. This guy issued the impressive 1981 Natural Histories before working with Kronos Quartet. Histories, though completely unknown, remains a dormant classic of the period and one which should be reissued. Fraser was then working to top standards in found sound, composition, experimentalism, and his own daring creativity, producing a sextet of songs that were subtle and devastating, especially in the spectacular "Skyscream" and mind-bending "Recitation." The whole release was easily an avant-garde treasure surpassing many much more famed pieces. It can only be hoped that his small trove of masterpieces will one day resurface, but here he puts the icing on Harrington's cake, emitting pristine recordist work. Fraser in fact mastered all Bill's releases. Perhaps we'll see musical pairing of the two in the future? One can only hope.
|MAIN PAGE||ARTICLES||STAFF/FAVORITE MUSIC||LINKS|