Monday, March 9, 2009

Skill and the shadow: Middle Sleep and Les Murray

I am told this is the only extant photograph of Middle Sleep, which I like to call a post-progressive rock band from Los Angeles, active 1981-1983 from their homebase on Lookout Mountain in mythy old Laurel Canyon.

We have here, left to right: Richard Derrick, our connection to this part of the past; David Wray; Mark Segal; and Pam Stafford.

I call them "post-progressive," because they continued to experiment with some of the ideas opened up by the longform, progressive rock of the 1970s as punks all around them in L.A. (especially in the suburbs) scorned it for urgent simplicities.

Richard Derrick's friend d. boon had a leg in both worlds, jamming on 70s rock with him and Mike Watt, searching out the complexities of the guitar, while also writing and recording furious minute-length punk songs with Watt and George Hurley in The Minutemen.

We knew more about the post-prog side of d. boon after Richard released an archival CD of edited jams, d. boon & friends, which I reviewed for the L.A. Weekly. This, in turn, sent my songwriting partner Matt Fuller and I to San Pedro to visit with Richard, as I describe in the liner notes to Go South for Animal Index (2007), the first poetry score to feature Middle Sleep.

As recent blog posts attest, we are making ample use of Middle Sleep on the score to The Sydney Highrise Variations. There are just so many stretches of the poem where I am stumped for how to score it as sung text and sing it, but when I sort through my jumbled archive of instrumental music that might serve as a musical bed for Les Murray's reading, one of the Middle Sleep improvisations that Richard so skillfully edited raises its hand.

Free mp3

Skill and the shadow
(Middle Sleep, Les Murray)
Middle Sleep, Les Murray

This is a rough mix, unmastered; Grammy man Adam Long will eventually labor over this endlessly to make it sound perfect. Right now, the voice is just dropped in at the places where it goes.

Here is the excerpt of the poem:

When we create our own high style
skill and the shadow will not then part;
as rhetoric would conceal from art
effort has at best a winning margin.
Les' biographer, Peter F. Alexander, explains these lines nicely in the critical essay he wrote for us:

What he longs for is the emergence of an authentic Australian vernacular, not just in architecture but in every kind of national expression. ‘When we create our own high style/ skill and the shadow will not then part’.
Les was writing about his Australia, but we can borrow the sentiment for other unformed regions that don't yet quite know themselves or recognize what is best in them, like St. Louis.

"Skill and the shadow" comes almost at the end of the score; this will be track 24 of 27, and 27 is an instrumental coda.

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