FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Beautiful Noize

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

 

More articles by:

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

Weekend Edition
July 20, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Paul Atwood
Peace or Armageddon: Take Your Pick
Paul Street
No Liberal Rallies Yet for the Children of Yemen
Nick Pemberton
The Bipartisan War on Central and South American Women
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Are You Putin Me On?
Andrew Levine
Sovereignty: What Is It Good For? 
Brian Cloughley
The Trump/NATO Debacle and the Profit Motive
David Rosen
Trump’s Supreme Pick Escalates America’s War on Sex 
Melvin Goodman
Montenegro and the “Manchurian Candidate”
Salvador   Rangel
“These Are Not Our Kids”: The Racial Capitalism of Caging Children at the Border
Matthew Stevenson
Going Home Again to Trump’s America
Louis Proyect
Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders and the Dilemmas of the Left
Patrick Cockburn
Iraqi Protests: “Bad Government, Bad Roads, Bad Weather, Bad People”
Robert Fantina
Has It Really Come to This?
Russell Mokhiber
Kristin Lawless on the Corporate Takeover of the American Kitchen
John W. Whitehead
It’s All Fake: Reality TV That Masquerades as American Politics
Patrick Bobilin
In Your Period Piece, I Would be the Help
Ramzy Baroud
The Massacre of Inn Din: How Rohingya Are Lynched and Held Responsible
Robert Fisk
How Weapons Made in Bosnia Fueled Syria’s Bleak Civil War
Gary Leupp
Trump’s Helsinki Press Conference and Public Disgrace
Josh Hoxie
Our Missing $10 Trillion
Martha Rosenberg
Pharma “Screening” Is a Ploy to Seize More Patients
Basav Sen
Brett Kavanaugh Would be a Disaster for the Climate
David Lau
The Origins of Local AFT 4400: a Profile of Julie Olsen Edwards
Rohullah Naderi
The Elusive Pursuit of Peace by Afghanistan
Binoy Kampmark
Shaking Establishments: The Ocasio-Cortez Effect
John Laforge
18 Protesters Cut Into German Air Base to Protest US Nuclear Weapons Deployment
Christopher Brauchli
Trump and the Swedish Question
Chia-Chia Wang
Local Police Shouldn’t Collaborate With ICE
Paul Lyons
YouTube’s Content ID – A Case Study
Jill Richardson
Soon You Won’t be Able to Use Food Stamps at Farmers’ Markets, But That’s Not the Half of It
Kevin MacKay
Climate Change is Proving Worse Than We Imagined, So Why Aren’t We Confronting its Root Cause?
Thomas Knapp
Elections: More than Half of Americans Believe Fairy Tales are Real
Ralph Nader
Warner Slack—Doctor for the People Forever
Lee Ballinger
Soccer, Baseball and Immigration
Louis Yako
Celebrating the Wounds of Exile with Poetry
Ron Jacobs
Working Class Fiction—Not Just Surplus Value
Perry Hoberman
You Can’t Vote Out Fascism… You Have to Drive It From Power!
Robert Koehler
Guns and Racism, on the Rocks
Nyla Ali Khan
Kashmir: Implementation with Integrity and Will to Resolve
Justin Anderson
Elon Musk vs. the Media
Graham Peebles
A Time of Hope for Ethiopia
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Homophobia in the Service of Anti-Trumpism is Still Homophobic (Even When it’s the New York Times)
Martin Billheimer
Childhood, Ferocious Sleep
David Yearsley
The Glories of the Grammophone
Tom Clark
Gameplanning the Patriotic Retributive Attack on Montenegro
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail