Last spring, Pittsburgh City Paper reported on WZUM-AM, which brought 24-hour jazz programming back to the airwaves — on the radio band known better for talk shows, no less. The station is operated by Pittsburgh Public Media, an all-volunteer organization that includes former staff members of WDUQ-FM like Tony Mowod and Scott Hanley, as well as veteran Pittsburgh sports broadcaster Bill Hillgrove.
Located at 1550 AM (and streaming at www.pghjazzchannel.net), WZUM operates as an initial step that will hopefully result in a high-watt counterpart on the FM band.
The station has since received on-air advertising from the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust. Local musicians and even political figures like Jim Roddey can be heard between songs, endorsing the station and asking listeners to donate to keep progress happening toward the FM station. And every day, more listeners have answered the call.
“The more people discover us, the more they’re like, ‘Oh, wow, look at this. This is incredible!’ And they donate,” says Chuck Leavens, president of Pittsburgh Public Media and an on-air personality himself, who can be heard throughout the day during the week.
But now it’s getting to be crunch time. By Dec. 31, PPM needs to close on the purchase of a license that will bring the station to the FM band at 101.1. “Our license, [which] we purchased ... from the State University of New York, just outside of Ithaca, is a translator license that had never been put on the air,” Leavens says. “The State University of New York agreed to sell it to us. And we need to finish paying for that and close on it so we can go to the next step of building [the station].” Donations continue to come in daily, but at press time, PPM remained about $28,000 short of the amount needed for the close.
If the funding goal isn’t reached, Leavens says, a few options remain. PPM might be able to negotiate an extension on the deadline. As a worst-case scenario, PPM will continue on WZUM-AM at 1550 AM. It will also continue to broadcast on the FM dial at 88.1, courtesy of a license purchased from Bethany College, though that signal reaches only through the Ohio Valley.
But rather than back-up plans, Leavens prefers to talk about the next steps in the process: building a station with a transmitter and an antenna 1,000 feet tall. “There’s no station in town that has their signal coming from that height,” he explains. “And the trick with FM is that height is everything. You have height and you look down onto all the areas. That allows you to make a larger signal.”
Besides, Leavens sees the station as an opportunity to be a community voice. He mentions partnerships that have been developed with local places like the Afro American Music Institute, in Homewood. There are plans to build studio space that could accommodate live performances by the Institute’s students, in tandem with local and touring musicians. “This opportunity is not one that’s going to come along again next year. This is not one that’s going to come along again in five years,” he says. “It’s trite, but it really is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
Donations can be made to WZUM at www.pghjazzchannel.net
This week’s track comes from gothy peace-punk band Silence. Back in April, the four-piece released its gloomily melodic debut full-length The Deafening Sound of Absolutely Nothing, on West Virginia-based label Profane Existence. Stream or download the upbeat post-punk jam “The Deafening Sound of Absolutely Nothing, Part 1," from that record for free below.
Do you know the big saxophone man Colin Stetson? He’s a composer and wind-instrument pro whose collaboration resume is stacked to the rafters with indie rock VIPs. Just a few: TV On The Radio, Arcade Fire, Animal Collective, Bon Iver, Godspeed You Black Emperor, David Byrne, Feist, Tom Waits, LCD Soundsystem, Sinead O’Connor. Maybe he’s the only bass saxophone player in North America or maybe he’s just super good at it. Maybe both. Either way, his solo work is not to be missed.
A bass saxophone is bigger and lower in tone than a baritone sax, which is more commonly heard in popular jazz and other genres. It’s about the size of a stuffed giraffe you’d win at a carnival, or, more helpfully, around four or five feet tall and weighing up to fifty pounds. When Adolphe Sax presented his patented new invention (the saxophone) in 1846, the imposing, stuffed-giraffe-like bass iteration was the one they saw.
Tangent: please enjoy this paragraph from Sax’s bio on the website of his hometown Dinant, Belgium.
“His childhood was tragic. Hardly able to stand, Antoine-Joseph fell from a height of three floors, seriously bumping his head against a stone: he was believed dead. At the age of three, he swallowed a bowl of vitriolized water, and then a pin. Later, he was seriously burned in a gunpowder explosion; he fell onto a cast iron frying pan and burned himself on one side. Three times he escaped poisoning and asphyxiation in his bedroom, where varnished items were lying about during the night. Another time, he was hit on the head by a cobblestone; he fell into a river and was saved by the skin of his teeth.”
Crazy. Maybe he invented the sax as a weapon of self-defense?
Anyway, Stetson utilizes circular breathing, a wind instrument technique I 0% understand but assume works like this. The result is a sort of hectic ambience, the technique enabling Stetson to keep notes going unnaturally long. But it’s more than just breathing or the lowness of the notes that makes his music stand out.
Many of his recordings utilize unique mic placement to create multiple, distinct instruments all out of one performance. For instance: one standard mic on his sax, one on the other side of the room, which capture two completely different qualities of sound out of the single performance. He’s also big on boosting the sound of his fingers clicking the keys on the sax, adding a pitter patter rhythm which goes well with the elongated whole notes that make up most of his melodies.
The whole thing has a respiratory vibe, but closer to asthma than pranayam. This is creepy, unsettling music, apocalypse stuff (it’s clear why Godspeed was into him). The music is also super pretty and auteurish, it sounds like nothing else. It’s minimalistic and wicked ambitious. It’s cerebral but unsubtle. And yet, there’s no secret in the music, there’s nothing behind the curtain, it’s just the big saxophone man doing his thing. Watch:
I’ve been thinking about it recently and I realized that all of these Music To Sweep Tos are good for sitting behind a computer because that’s what I do. (“Sweep” is actually short for Minesweeper). I’m going to open it up a little bit in the coming weeks, but I had to get Stetson in here today because that’s what I’m feeling right now.
So I hope you enjoy his work and if you do, please check out the rest of his music. The songs on today’s playlist are a good intro (“Judges” is kind of his “Careless Whisper”), but there’s so much more where that came from.
Now you know the big saxophone man Colin Stetson. Congrats!
This week’s MP3 comes from Wreck Loose. The band's rollicking new single, “Long Time Listener, First Time Caller” may put you in mind of '70s-era Elton John, and that's a very good thing. Stream or download the song below, and then check out Wreck Loose Sat., Dec. 3 at Brillobox when the four-piece officially releases the song as a limited-run 7-inch.
There's a scene in the movie Forgetting Sarah Marshall where a surf instructor (Paul Rudd) teaches Jason Segel's character how to stand up on a surf board. His advice: "Don't do anything. The less you do, the more you do."
I gave similarly frustrating direction to my friend Chuck from 2011-2014 when asking for a particular strain of electronic music. Nerds call it "minimalism." He'd send me really great stuff from Dominik Eulberg and Minilogue, and I'd say, "yeah, yeah, it's good, but there's too much." I'd be on board for the opening ambients, but once a kick drum landed and even the slightest hint of form emerged, I'd lose interest.
I'm not sure what's wrong with me. As in the movie scene, once Segel tries just lying flat facedown on the board, the instructor responds "You gotta do more than that, 'cause you're just laying right out, it looks like you're boogie boarding." In this exhausting analogy, I was searching for boogie boarding music, music very close to being nothing at all.
I found it in Thursday Afternoon by Brian Eno in 2014. It's a one-track album from 1986 that music geeks probably love (I wouldn't know!). There's not much to it, a bunch of arhythmic piano notes and some subtle droning, but the song strikes a nice balance of nothingness and form. It was exactly what I had been after for years.
Okay, so this isn't for everybody. Some of these tunes might sound a little new-agey. "Thursday Afternoon", in particular, can feel a little like you're getting a massage in a room filled with dreamcatchers. Or like a bunch of incense started a band. Or, as the music magazine MOJO described it, "[A] seamless 61 minutes of random piano notes falling, like raindrops from a leaf, onto a shimmering synthesizer puddle." Yuck!
Having said that, I love this stuff. Hours pass easily doing work to this music (the ten songs in this playlist top five hours total) and I don't think it's quite as gimmicky and easy to make as it may sound. If you're turned off by the near-formless tracks from Eno and Hatakeyama, give Stars of the Lid a try.
SOTL, as they like to be called, is one of the preeminent groups working in ambient music. They started in 1993 and while they've been on hiatus since '07, there's a ton of great music that's a little more active than the rest here. A little. There's still only an instrument or two per track, but there's structure beyond repetition, the chords are smart, things actually happen even if they're quiet about it. Also works well for hangovers. And sleep.
The Icelandic composer Johann Johannsson, on the other hand, brings some actual solid melody to the table, albeit slow as fuck and way understated. He's also a film scorer (currently working on the score for the new Blade Runner), and you'll be able to hear it.
Kid606 isMiguel Trost De Pedro, a Venezuelan electronic artist who I first discovered via his 2000 album Down With The Scene. That album is great, but not really ambient (aside from this one). At times, it's actually pretty hard to swallow (ear-wise), which is why I was surprised when I found his cover of one of Eno's other ambient classics, Discreet Music (full circle!). Words like "understated" and "minimal" are gonna get worn out here, so I'll just say it sounds like something your toddler or cat would play by accident on the synth. Good stuff.
So if you're feeling stressed this week, whether at home, work, sweeping or not, these ten tracks might help. Or the relentless calmness might fill you with psychopathic rage. It's hard to say with these things, but I think you should roll the dice.
Best if you work in: surf board instruction, holistic anything
This week's mp3 comes from sludgy doom/experimental metal trio Brown Angel. Stream or download “Fair and Lovely” from the band’s latest release, Shutout, below; you can also pick up a copy of the full record from Sleeping Giant Glossolalia (and if you need more convincing, check out our review).
My parents were never too hot on video games. My brother and I weren’t allowed to own them and were encouraged to keep it minimal if we were playing at a friend’s house, which we never did.
However, there were exceptions.
Every Thanksgiving, we’d be treated to a Thursday-to-Sunday Super Nintendo rental from our local video store (what a sentence). And we’d spend most of the hours in between plugged in to Turtles in Time and Super Mario. So much to be grateful for.
There was another loophole: once a console was obsolete and thoroughly un-cool, we were free to have at it. This started when my brother bought a Nintendo 64 in 2001, but I’ve carried on in kind, with a Super Nintendo in 2005, a PS2 in 2007 and a Wii in 2012. It’s a healthy way to be, I think. It helps tamper the all-in, sleep-when-I'm-dead enthusiasm/madness that tends to accompany new gaming technology for kids (or adults).
We were also allowed to play games on the computer. (I’m not sure why this was seen as different). Wolfenstein, this epic biker gang drama called Full Throttle, Lemmings, that sorta stuff. But there was one that stood above the rest: Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness.
It’s a fantasy, real-time strategy game, orcs vs. humans, in which you build up an army while balancing a budget of gold, lumber and oil. There are dragons. There are catapults. Peons say "jub jub" when you click on them. It's top tier.
I found a way to play it online last year, and around the time Donald Trump won the Republican nomination, I started playing pretty often after work while listening to the song’s in today’s playlist.
Part of this was born out of the fact that I found myself mindlessly drawn to the ugliest parts of this election and I couldn’t find a way to stop. I spend most of my day in front of a computer, often keeping tabs on the paper's Facebook and Twitter profiles, so it was pretty tough to avoid at work. But what disturbed me is that I went to it quickly when I got home. I’d walk in the door and find myself on the couch, combing through Twitter and clicking on anything that made me nauseous. It was not a particularly healthy way to be and I can’t imagine I’m alone on that. So I played Warcraft.
On Tuesday night, I was doing a live election podcast with Charlie Deitch and Margaret Welsh. As the night wore on and the result became clear, we started talking about how we had escaped and distracted ourselves during this election, and how we planned to do so in the future. My memory is a little hazy (beers were had), but I believe Charlie took up the timpani and Margaret, bocce. My distraction was obviously the big W2:TOD, and in talking about it, I realized how significant of a role the game had played in my life the past year.
While I know that now is not the time to sit on the couch and hide from the situation our country is in, I do think it's important to find some peace for yourself on a regular basis these days, to stave off insanity/depression/disease brought on by current events. I think we can all agree on that. I gotta say, though: I didn't think I'd find mine in a 21-year-old video game about orcs. But I did.
The songs on the playlist are dramatic, dissonant, noisy, spooky, and at times, atonal. There's a 30-minute song from Swans; there are tracks from Jonny Greenwood's There Will Be Blood soundtrack (perfect for prospecting oil in Azeroth); there's some noise rock from Animal Collective and Kid606, "Dopesmoker" by Sleep; music from It Follows; and Aphex Twin (obviously). This is music to creep to (fantastic!).
Over the past six months, I've spent a lot of time listening to these songs and playing this game. Without it, I'd surely have taken to drink (a much better way of saying "drink too much") or lost my mind. I know we need to be active now more than ever, but you have to take care of yourself while you're doing it. So my advice: play a video game you like (not Warcraft, I don't want a bunch of n00bs crashing the site) and listen to these tunes. Or something else, something methodical and gratifying and difficult and surreal, and listen to these tunes. It'll feel great.
So, my parents did their best to shield me from video game obsession and for a while it worked. But after 29 years, the wall has fallen, like a Lordaeron gryphon over Blackrock Spire. And I gotta say: it was perfect timing.