Henry Flynt

Vol. 2: Spindizzy

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The creation of a newly available Henry Flynt archive turned out to be one of the better points of the early 2000s, as a small Baltimore firm worked out the process of creating collections from this interesting composer and deep thinker's recording archive. The ten pieces comprising this, the second volume in the series, all deal in some way large and small with the old-timey music of Appalachia, and to a lesser degree with its bastard offspring rockabilly, and one can't go wrong with good ingredients. A simplistic description of what these pieces are all about will be offered for descriptive purposes, but is not intended to insult the much deeper content of the works themselves. To say these musical performances and the ideas behind them are endlessly fascinating is by no means an attempt to fling hyperbole at the subject. The opening violin solo, entitled "Hoedown," presents in its nearly 15 minutes of playing time many of the concepts that the composer, a native of Greensboro, NC, would return to in the decades when he was creating solo performances for violin and electric guitar. Old-timey music is a wonderful subject for the creative composer to sink their teeth into, as indeed they have, including the so-called dean of American music, Aaron Copland. The generations of artists involved in genres bubbling around the avant-garde music scene during Flynt's epoch, including minimalism, could and did take pointers from old-timey string bands which often repeated melodic fragments with slight variations for long periods of time. One thing Flynt does not have on his fiddle is the tone of an old-timey player; compared to Fiddlin' Arthur Smith, for example, he sounds like a student hanging around a fiddle contest, and if contrasted with the timbre of a non-professional, real backwoods fiddler, Flynt would come across even more the greenhorn. But the city slicker tone is no distraction when the real genius of the music is in how the content of the old-timey themes is rethought -- edited and clipped into different sections that are on the face uncharacteristic of the original structure of the music. In other words, there are ways in which old-timey music, bluegrass, or blues phrases would be divided up if one wanted to still recognize them as such, and this wouldn't be it. Yet at the same time, the listener will never lose track of the roots of these phrases because of how clear the feeling of the mountain music is, no matter what is done with it. The music is thus able to revolve between poles of familiarity and unfamiliarity -- perhaps the source of the "Spindizzy" feeling. These are beautiful performances, and Flynt becomes even more adept at manipulating the material as the years go on. The use of overdubbing and looping techniques on pieces such as "Double Spindizzy" works so well it underscores the brilliance of the original concept, like looking down into a totally clear lake and being overwhelmed by its depth. The pieces with guitar, such as "Rockabilly Boogie," are also interesting because of their structure, but ironically hold up less well as listening experiences, simply because the sonic result of what the composer does to the material is so similar to what it might sound like just to sit and listen to a rockabilly guitar player noodle for a few moments, repeating a bit of this and that before going on to something else, and never actually playing a real song. The familiarity of this kind of casual playing -- in a sub-category of "non-intentional" music that includes the sounds of orchestras warming up -- makes it seem like Flynt has gone to a lot of trouble for nothing, but alchemists don't emerge from their dungeons with gold compound every time out. "Jive Deceleration" is a wonderful concluding piece that involves rests written into the performance, resulting in silent sections -- which is something one would never find in old-timey music unless the fiddler suddenly had to hightail it for some reason. It also subdivides a typical old-timey mode into three-note sections, and should remind the listener who likes jazz of Miles Davis' first modal period. These same modes that were part of old-timey music and '60s jazz came to the Appalachias from sources as diverse as Africa and the British Isles, and hearing it all moving around through so many permutations could make someone...Spindizzy. Near the conclusion of "Hillbilly Jive," the composer goes into a bit of high-pitched violin playing that is amazingly evocative, bringing to mind the sounds of traditional Appalachian hollerin', heard at a great distance. It also is the type of thing that might make a real hillbilly run for his rifle, but thankfully the remarkable Henry Flynt is safe from these type of characters.

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