Facilitated by the same team that worked on The Singers’ recent Initiate (produced by David Breskin, recorded and mixed by legendary engineer Ron Saint Germain, and designed by Spottswood Erving), this boxed set is the little brother of a larger, identically-titled work available from DelMonico Books — Prestel: an art monograph featuring large reproductions of the Ruscha pictures accompanied by a sequence of 66 written and spoken-word ghazals, and the very same music. This is the second such endeavor by Breskin after RICHTER 858, his highly acclaimed art/music/poetry project of 2002, which explored Gerhard Richter’s abstract work and featured the work of sixteen writers and music by Bill Frisell (the genesis of Frisell’s current 858 Quartet).
When Breskin approached Nels about composing music for this project, he was met with both excitement and caution. The following quotes (in italics) are from Cline’s liner notes:
After following so-called Pop Art as a teen and later working for years in an art book store, I was well familiar with Ruscha’s work—it comes out of the tap in Los Angeles!—as well as his odd sort of celebrity and his dry humor. These aspects of his work seemed to inform a whole school of thought in the 1980s, by which time Ruscha was a giant on the scene. My first and biggest question was: How I could add to or illuminate any corner of this man’s work sonically?
Breskin’s idea to organize Ruscha’s paintings into two groups of 33 images (Ruscha’s Silhouettes on a “Side A” and his Cityscapes on a “Side B”) led him to ask Nels to compose one extended piece of music for Side A (essentially the title track), and 33 nanopieces for Side B. However, once the score was written and musicians assembled, the music took on a life of its own:
A project like this unavoidably approaches (and yet naturally enough avoids) the very idea of SOUNDTRACK. On Side A, there is a real story being told, what David half-jokingly calls “a time-lapse history of Western Civilization, American subdivision.” The primordial New Land is “discovered” by European interlopers and settlers; they push westward; land and slaves are purchased, fences go up; cities are created, the land altered in extreme; proximity and increased ease of communication beget, ironically, isolation.... David did give me clues to what he wanted for the music, but no specific direction save for the initial Side A brief: create one long piece of music, not a collection of discrete songs.... Yet it seemed obvious to both of us that there should be a progression from acoustic (the primeval, prehistoric world through Native-American America) to electric (settled and urban/suburban America). I leave it to the listener to take these general reports and descriptions and add their own nuanced interpretations, of course. But my choices of harmonica, pedal steel guitar, and Hammond organ were all intended to reflect a sort of Americana, while the music and choice of musicians could at any moment transcend and/or subvert this notion should it become facile or rigid.
The 33 Side B Cityscapes would tell a different kind of story, and would demand a different set of musical responses. Here, each short piece of music seeks a 1:1 relationship with its paired Ruscha picture, and each share the same title. The violent or otherwise threatening language of these paintings’ titles became the generative force behind the music, and created the narrative framework and dramatic arc of Side B:
These Cityscapes are not representational cityscapes and are (perhaps) the most abstract work of Ruscha’s fifty-year oeuvre. There are no images, save for the censor strips themselves—created in acrylic or oil, or less conventionally, by removing pigment with bleach. As with all the censor strip work, language is emphasized even as it is obscured. In the various threats, taunts, commands, pleas and loaded queries which grace these pictures, David found his trigger: he would go back to the “Cradle of Civilization” to explore the U.S. presence in Iraq (most particularly), with some expansion/bleeding into other areas, as Imperialism tends to. In preparation, we discussed classic film noir scores, jazz scores, “event” music, and the fact that Heavy Metal was being used by American troops to torture Muslim prisoners. Given all this, a sort of pastiche approach, pioneered by composers like John Zorn, seemed natural and right. I also drew on my experiences playing with and/or listening to artists who had rethought structure/improvisation: Wadada Leo Smith, Vinny Golia, Air (not the French guys), the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Anthony Braxton, the ROVA Saxophone Quartet. So Side B is a total mash-up of free jazz, hard rock, grindcore, Morton Feldman-esque swaths of indeterminancy, blues, Ellington/Evans references, spy music, and more—all to create tension between these sensibilities, to highlight differences, to punctuate conflict.
Finally, the musicians on this album were chosen by Cline because of his personal history with them, and their ability to negotiate scores combining composed and improvised music. In alpha order, they assume pride of place as follows:
• Scott Amendola: drum set, percussion, loops/electronics
• Bill Barrett: chromatic harmonica
• Jon Brion: electric piano, EMS synthi, voice
• Jessica Catron: cello
• Alex Cline: percussion
• Dan Clucas: trumpets, flutes
• Jeremy Drake: electric & acoustic guitars, banjo ukulele
• Brad Dutz: vibraphone, xylophones, frame drum, bongos
• Danny Frankel: percussion, 1/2 drum set
• Jeff Gauthier: violin
• Vinny Golia: flutes, clarinets, saxophones
• Devin Hoff: contrabass, bass guitar, cigarbox guitar
• Wayne Peet: organ
• Glenn Taylor: pedal steel guitar
• Nels Cline: electric & acoustic guitars, lap steel, megamouth, cigarbox guitar, effects, Quintronics Drum Buddy