FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Beautiful Noize

by DAVID YEARSLEY

The summer road trip seems to offer the chance to catch up on all those recordings accumulated over the previous year. Depending on your perspective, the endless government pork ladled out onto the highways of this country can lead to teeth-grinding back-ups or to the welcome chance to listen to a new reading of both books of the Well-Tempered Clavier as the freshly poured tarmac steams outside.  A missed exit to Newark’s Liberty Airport forces not just another foray into the blight of northern New Jersey, but more importantly, the chance to follow a friend’s free-form jazz odyssey to its outer limits.

I will admit to being slow to turn my attention to a CD that landed on my doorstep way back in January. The Return of Phineas McBoof  is the latest offering from the fabulously talented, endlessly imaginative, and unfailingly fearless performer/composer/showman Cory Cullinan. This album shouted out to be played and heard, like a child eager to display its latest creations to the world.  But when I tried to locate the disc a few days after its arrival it had scuttled off to hide in some nook or cranny.

Fast forward to the dog days of August and a battle-scarred red Honda hurtling eastward on US Highway 17 along the West Branch of the Delaware River through New York along the Pennsylvania border. It’s a stretch of road being dragged towards Interstate status as otherworldly signs promising a “Future 86” inform motorists. 17 is being 86ed: at home or abroad, American nation-building always involves killing.

Few things put this driver in worse temper than seeing swaths of Catskill Mountains cleared and leveled, and ugly new bridges planked over the gorgeous waters of the undulating river. I’m of the same mind as Auden on this one:

I well might think myself

A humanist,
Could I manage not to see

How the autobahn
Thwarts the landscape
In godless Roman arrogance.

I need cheering up, and luckily I’d ferretted out that long-lost Dr. Noize disc minutes before departing. The album had barricaded itself behind a metronome and a GPS, and when I grabbed the latter I also corralled the CD.

My destination is Hartford to pick up a daughter from a string quartet camp at the Hartt School of Music. One of her best loved childhood discs is the first Dr. Noize installment: the Ballad of Phineas McBoof, a work ecstatically reviewed by me in these pages some years ago. Though said fifteen-year-old daughter’s musical tastes have changed, those noizeful songs from that CD remain in her heart on her play list, and not just the infectious mega-hit Banana, which reappears in different guise on the latest recording now accompanying my progress along Future 86.

The fundamental belief motivating Cullinan’s efforts as an untiring live performer and recording artist is that kids are the most creative, demanding, and resourceful listeners. Dumbing things down for their supposed benefit is not only boring and insulting, but misses a huge opportunity for involving young listeners in the joys of music-making, invention, and self-discovery. And like the best of “children’s” cinema, literature, and music, his work operates on several levels, pleasing, edifying, entertaining, and occasionally mystifying not just kids of all ages, but people of all ages.

The Return of Phineas McBoof begins in medias res during the intermission of a concert given by the virtuoso musical monkey McBoof and his Band of Misunderstood Geniuses, a group made up of a host of other animals, from hippo to lizard, with Cullinan’s alter ego Dr. Noize the only human-being admitted into this august assemblage.  So powerful is the music impulse among these various species that even when cooling their collective heels, claws, and suction cups back stage at a gig, they can’t help bringing new songs to life.  Dr. Noize and the many-limbed drummer Backbone the Octopus (a role taken by Cullinan’s wife Janette) remind themselves of their just-invented chord progression and congratulate each other in a bantering display of off-beat collegiality. Along the way they inform us that the verse is in E-Major the chorus moves to F-sharp to lend the proceedings more “Gravitas”— right from the starting gate we experience Cullinan’s knack for elevating the listeners rather than pulling them down with boring baby babble. Cullinan’s vast gifts and irreverent pursuit of his mission of education and uplift allow him to take a seemingly ponderous Latin word like Gravitas and toss it out there with nonchalant lightness.

What we are hearing is a (reenacted) world premiere of the song, one conjured in the break from a “job.” This first performance is buttressed by the other band members as it proceeds from a sunny optimistic duet to ensemble frolic. Aside from the concrete knowledge about structure and harmony conveyed in the set-up, the message imparted by this opening tableau is that music is an irrepressible delight for all: as the song proceeds in rich colors, and harmonic turns worthy of Lennon and McCartney, we are swept up and along, through to the disarming, colloquial injunction of the refrain: “Go be Awesome!”

We then follow fiddle-master Lenny Long Tail making his way back to the stage for the second half of the show. Even this short journey, one that undertakes an unexpected detour into a hallucinatory cabaret, is full of fantasy and allusion, packed with references, musical quotations and gags. Resuming the concert, Dr. Noize recounts his past as a pontificating kids’ performer ladling out soporific musical sermons. Among Cullinan’s many strengths is self parody and the puncturing of political correctness. Passing by one of Cory’s painfully didactic concerts, Phineas and his band recognize the future Dr. Noize’s potential for engaging audiences of all ages. Out of this reverie breaks a rock ‘n roll romp of the Funky Monkey that demonstrates forcefully Dr. Noize’s transformation from preacher to no-holds-barred musical madman.

Following this bracing survey of styles and moods is like shooting musical rapids on the mighty Colorado in Cullinan’s adopted state. One is continually astounded that Cullinan can pack his hour-long disc so full of the most diverse music: from folk to classical, from the urban grit of rap to the natural world of birdsong, serving up the funkiest soul food sandwich served up in the history of recorded sound.

With so much on offer Missteps could lead to disaster, whether failed jokes or barrage allusions like so many academic footnotes, and Cullinan is not afraid of taking risks.  Meticulously constructed and presented, the CD nonetheless exudes a sense of being created in the moment with unbounded humor. The album is a towering artistic achievement, that never feels weighty and reveals new secrets with each listening.

This narrative discovery, doubt, and affirmation follows bandleader McBoof as he seeks artistic fulfillment away from the spotlight, music itself being of greater importance than fame and celebrity. Personal integrity, friendship, and the difficulty of farewell are confronted along with myriad other emotions and shifting musical representations of them. Among many highlights is a raucous reprise of Banana as if sung by the three tenors. This is one of many examples of Cullinan-the-voracious-musical-omnivore: young listeners introduced to foreign languages, harpsichords, recitatives, grand opera, and too much else to enumerate here. Only a tremendously generous musician could carry this off without becoming hostage to his own genius.

Dr. Noize’s next destination is the orchestra: Phineas McBoof Crashes the Symphony.  That should get me a long way down the road ahead and open up new vistas onto the endlessly captivating landscapes of Cullinan’s musical imagination.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Bach’s Feet. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

 

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

More articles by:
Weekend Edition
June 24, 2016
Friday - Sunday
John Pilger
A Blow for Peace and Democracy: Why the British Said No to Europe
Pepe Escobar
Goodbye to All That: Why the UK Left the EU
Michael Hudson
Revolts of the Debtors: From Socrates to Ibn Khaldun
Andrew Levine
Summer Spectaculars: Prelude to a Tea Party?
Kshama Sawant
Beyond Bernie: Still Not With Her
Mike Whitney
¡Basta Ya, Brussels! British Voters Reject EU Corporate Slavestate
Tariq Ali
Panic in the House: Brexit as Revolt Against the Political Establishment
Paul Street
Miranda, Obama, and Hamilton: an Orwellian Ménage à Trois for the Neoliberal Age
Ellen Brown
The War on Weed is Winding Down, But Will Monsanto Emerge the Winner?
Gary Leupp
Why God Created the Two-Party System
Conn Hallinan
Brexit Vote: a Very British Affair (But Spain May Rock the Continent)
Ruth Fowler
England, My England
Jeffrey St. Clair
Lines Written on the Occasion of Bernie Sanders’ Announcement of His Intention to Vote for Hillary Clinton
Norman Pollack
Fissures in World Capitalism: the British Vote
Paul Bentley
Mercenary Logic: 12 Dead in Kabul
Binoy Kampmark
Parting Is Such Sweet Joy: Brexit Prevails!
Elliot Sperber
Show Me Your Papers: Supreme Court Legalizes Arbitrary Searches
Jan Oberg
The Brexit Shock: Now It’s All Up in the Air
Nauman Sadiq
Brexit: a Victory for Britain’s Working Class
Brian Cloughley
Murder by Drone: Killing Taxi Drivers in the Name of Freedom
Ramzy Baroud
How Israel Uses Water as a Weapon of War
Brad Evans – Henry Giroux
The Violence of Forgetting
Ben Debney
Homophobia and the Conservative Victim Complex
Margaret Kimberley
The Orlando Massacre and US Foreign Policy
David Rosen
Americans Work Too Long for Too Little
Murray Dobbin
Do We Really Want a War With Russia?
Kathy Kelly
What’s at Stake
Louis Yako
I Have Nothing “Newsworthy” to Report this Week
Pete Dolack
Killing Ourselves With Technology
David Krieger
The 10 Worst Acts of the Nuclear Age
Lamont Lilly
Movement for Black Lives Yields New Targets of the State
Martha Rosenberg
A Hated Industry Fights Back
Robert Fantina
Hillary, Gloria and Jill: a Brief Look at Alternatives
Chris Doyle
No Fireworks: Bicentennial Summer and the Decline of American Ideals
Michael Doliner
Beyond Dangerous: the Politics of Climate
Colin Todhunter
Modi, Monsanto, Bayer and Cargill: Doing Business or Corporate Imperialism?
Steve Church
Brexit: a Rush for the Exits!
Matthew Koehler
Mega Corporation Gobbles Up Slightly Less-Mega Corporation; Chops Jobs to Increase Profits; Blames Enviros. Film at 11.
David Green
Rape Culture, The Hunting Ground, and Amy Goodman: a Critical Perspective
Ed Kemmick
Truckin’: Pro Driver Dispenses Wisdom, Rules of the Road
Alessandro Bianchi
“China Will React if Provoked Again: You Risk the War”: Interview with Andre Vltchek
Christy Rodgers
Biophilia as Extreme Sport
Missy Comley Beattie
At Liberty
Ron Jacobs
Is Everything Permitted?
Cesar Chelala
The Sad Truth About Messi
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail