Page One: Vinny Golia: Even to this day ...

a column by
Bill Shoemaker


Vinny Golia, © 2022 Chuck Koton


Bigger is better. That has been a guiding principle – if not the guiding principle – for orchestra music since Beethoven, both in terms of the size of the orchestra and the duration of the works they perform. For their times, his scores called for an oversized orchestra. His Symphony No. 9 was, in contemporary terms, a marathon. A century-long game of one upmanship ensued. Mahler nearly doubled the duration of Beethoven’s 9th with his Symphony No. 8; with it, an element of hype was introduced, as “the Symphony of a Thousand,” as it is now known, only requires a few hundred instrumentalists and singers.

Scale and duration teamed with complexity to yield a line of 20th Century works that either required multiple conductors, multiple orchestras, or both. The cueing for Charles Ives’ mid-1920s Symphony No. 4 for an orchestra of nearly one hundred and a large choir was beyond the capacities of a single person. Penned in the early 1970s, Penderecki’s Utrenja for double choir, soloists, and expanded orchestra required three conductors, linked by video to coordinate each other, and the singers and musicians spread throughout the hall. Then there is Anthony Braxton’s 1978 Composition 82 for four orchestras, utilizing four conductors and 160 musicians, the first of a projected series of works that would ultimately be performed by orchestras on different planets in far-off galaxies.

Vinny Golia’s Even to this day ... promises to be a work of comparable gigantic proportions. “Promises” may seem an odd assessment, since it spans a dozen discs, but only if the sub-title is overlooked: Movement One: Inoculations. Two additional movements are under construction. Although the LA-based multi-instrumentalist-composer has a 40-year history of writing lengthy compositions for increasingly large ensembles, Even to this day ... all but dwarfs earlier benchmarks like The Vinny Golia New Music Orchestra Live at REDCAT (pfMENTUM/Nine Winds; 2018) a DVD of more than two hours of music performed by a 45-person ensemble, the program’s melding of scored material and improvised solos necessitating two conductors. Bigger is better has held up in Golia’s case.

In terms of duration, the completed Even to this day ... may surpass Stockhausen’s 29-hour Licht; but, instead of super-formula composition, Golia is far more freely expressive in the 158 sections comprising the dozen disc-long “Modules.” Instead of Stockhausen’s representation of an eternal spiral, Golia’s design can be likened to a diary recording impressions, reflections, and remembrances during the tumult of the pandemic. Licht may be timeless, but Even to this day ... is timely in an acutely relevant sense, as the work represents both the impact of the pandemic and the will of a music community to work around it.

Even to this day ... germinated six years ago when saxophonist Rent Romus formed an orchestra of Bay Area musicians to premiere Golia’s Moai, scored for 70 musicians. At that time – Golia had recently turned 70 – Romus suggested a work to mark Golia’s 75th  birthday; but it was only on March 12th, 2020, when Romus was in LA for a gig, that Golia agreed to a piece for about 120 musicians, including “a lot of strings,” and began writing sketches. “Then the lockdown happened and I thought, that’s it, no concert, stay in your room, and don’t ever come out,” Golia recently recalled. “But I kept working on it.”

Golia not only had to write in isolation, but develop new collaborative processes. “I eventually figured out a way to use samples, live musicians, and soloists who could record remotely,” Golia explained. He was therefore able to sustain collaborations, some of which are decades old. In addition to soloing on both piano and organ, Wayne Peet mixed the tracks with Golia. In addition to California-based associates like trumpeter Sarah Belle Reed and double reed player Kyle Bruckmann, Golia engaged trumpeter Jeff Kaiser and bassist Ken Filiano, respectively based in Missouri and New York. “I would send stuff out, and the musicians were really fast doing their parts and sending them back. I was really fortunate in that. The only person who took a long time was Ken. I learned years ago not to rush him because he will come up with something brilliant.”

Golia concurrently gained familiarity with online performance through his teaching at Cal Arts, where he was the first Michel Colombier Performer Composer for three years beginning in 2009. “We adapted pretty quickly to online classes, which was ok for lectures, but not so much for real playing. A lot of people can’t really groove in these telematic settings because of a lag. It may be my lack of understanding of how to use it, but it just seems anything with tempo is affected. There’s still a little slack, which makes things difficult. I think people like Michael Desson and Mark Dresser have figured out a better system of putting their units together. One aspect of it is fantastic, it really works with freer music, but for the types of grooves I use it doesn’t work so well.”

The year it took Golia to compile all the tracks for the box set reflects not only an adaptability to technology, but an evolution of materials. Samples have produced hybrid sounds since the mellotron, its sustained strings and flute sounds having an iridescent tinge that confirmed and superseded their technological origins. Fast forward a half-century; something similar is at play with the samples producing orchestral passages in Even to this day ....  At times, they convey a cathedral-like resonance, and a between-the-eyes impact at others.

Golia’s recordings for large ensembles have always had a different gravity than his small group albums, which initially employed jazz record conventions like opening and closing the set with up tempo blowing vehicles. Beginning with Compositions for Large Ensemble 40 years ago, Golia introduced more daring approaches to form and the relationship between notated and improvised elements, the three discs reading like a very long, vividly worded sentence with several ellipses. With each new large ensemble recording, Golia’s growing palette reflected his interest to include musicians with a contemporary classical music background, particularly those open to improvisation and what is commonly called conduction.

Granted: Golia’s writing on Inoculations is as stylistically varied as the 21 soloists he enlisted for the project – some are longtime associates like tuba player William Roper and saxophonist Steve Adams; others are new names like violist Cassia Streb and cellist Derek Stein – but at the core of this music is a palpable, unrelenting, existential urgency. Golia’s achievement is to sustain this urgency hour after hour while replenishing the listener’s engagement with virtuosic turns in both the score and the solos, and the brisk pace set by relatively short tracks. This latter aspect of the work is noteworthy: in a media environment that promotes epic scale, Golia’s approach harkens to the 78 era – make your point before time runs out.

For all of its ample attributes, the question remains: Will Even to this day ... transcend timeliness and become timeless; or, like Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7 or John Corigilano’s Symphony No. 1, will it become a composition tied to the crisis that birthed it? The answer lies in its next two movements.

 

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Prior to travelling to Oberlin College to record Composition 82 in August 1978, Braxton toured an iteration of his Creative Music Orchestra in Europe, whose ranks included Golia. Braxton, who championed Golia’s transition from painter to musician early in the decade, sequestered himself throughout the tour to put the finishing touches on the nearly two-hour piece, and write a new piece as well. “It was pretty funny,” Golia said. “He was really excited about it when he showed it to us. The horn parts went on for pages, and Marty Ehrlich said, ‘Excuse me, Anthony, but when do we breathe?’ I learned to circular breathe on that tour.”

The story underlines two points constantly overlooked in discussions about Golia’s roots.  Even though he is invariably IDed as West Coast, having spent over 40 years in Los Angeles, running the prolific Nine Winds label, building bridges between the city’s historically fragmented jazz and new music communities – and between generations at Cal Arts – Golia is a Bronx guy who originally set out to be a visual artist, earning a BFA from the New York Institute of Technology in the mid-1960s.

Unlike his contemporaries, who had an early eureka moment encountering jazz or classical music, Golia’s early, lasting impressions were made at his dad’s workplace – The Bronx Zoo. “The one thing that has been constant since I was a kid are animal sounds and hearing their vocabularies, from elephants to birds,” Golia explained. “All of those sounds became part of my vocabulary. I didn’t quite know it until people started talking to me about my music, but I’ve heard strange sounds since I was a child. When dignitaries came to the Zoo, they brought gifts and there would be traditional music from that country. I heard Indian music, African music, when I was like 10, 11.”

World music was integral to Golia’s teenage record collecting, with John Coltrane and other jazz greats joining Ravi Shankar and Olatunji in the rotation as Golia painted. Subletting Bob Moses’ loft on Bleecker and Bowery in the late ‘60s gave Golia proximity to musicians like Chick Corea, Dave Holland, and Dave Liebman. He occasionally showed in coffee shops and other spaces in the Village, his paintings and line drawings soon appearing on record covers: Corea’s The Song of Singing (“a transitional painting”); Holland and Barre Phillips’ Music From Two Basses, and Joe Henderson’s Black is the Color. Concurrently, Braxton was a corner man as Golia cut his teeth as a saxophonist.

It was after his move to LA that Golia began to pivot towards music. Golia’s last show went up in ‘72 in LA; at different points during the two-week run, Braxton and Holland played duets, and John Carter fronted the New Art Quartet rhythm section, Bobby Bradford being in New York recording tracks for Ornette Coleman’s Science Fiction. By then, Golia spent nights gigging, shuttling between scenes, and soaking in LA’s rich jazz history, one historically overshadowed by New York’s.

“There is that thing that if you’re not in New York you don’t exist,” Golia said, shrugging his shoulders. “Even if you go back to the bop era, the only place Charlie Parker really felt at home was in Los Angeles, because a lot of cats were working on the same kind of ideas. The first bebop tenor players like Wardell Gray and Dexter Gordon come from here – maybe you can include Don Byas as a kind of transitional figure. You have Harold Land, Eric Dolphy, all the cats that migrated from Texas, and Mingus – he was a transplant but we take credit for him. A lot of musicians who changed the music came from the West Coast. There’s little acknowledgement of it.”

At the same time, Golia was learning the nuts and bolts of the record game working in various capacities with LA companies. The ‘70s was a decade that saw a rise of independent and artist-administered labels, and the emergence of distributors and mail order operations like New Music Distribution Service specializing in genres representing slivers of the market. Like its musicians, LA’s labels are backgrounded in the prevailing narrative; but without John William Hardy’s Revelation and Tom Albach’s Nimbus imprints, there would be cavernous gaps in the discographies of Carter, Bradford, and Horace Tapscott, who had only blips of national exposure through their respective Flying Dutchman LPs – not to mention a host of other artists, spanning Anthony Ortega and Gary Bias, about whom little to nothing would otherwise be known.

“I looked around and James Newton was putting out his own records; this was before he went with India Navigation,” Golia recollected about the coalescing DIY energies. “John Carter had been looking for a label, and decided to put out a record himself. I helped him with that. I started my own label because I figured it was the only way people would hear my music. I was just starting out; I wasn’t an established figure like these other cats, and they’re putting out records on their own labels. At the time, I was friends with Paul Bley, who had started his own label. He was really helpful, giving me a lot of useful information about how to do it. And I could cut out the middle man and control what I put out.

“Tom [Albach] and I talked about different distributing possibilities. It was interesting for the two labels to run in tandem and give an overview about what was happening. Tom was more focused on Horace and the people who played around him. He created a fantastic resource. Nobody would otherwise know of Adele Sebastian, a flute player who died early, or Linda Hill the composer. Nobody would know about them if it wasn’t for Tom. And Horace. I knew Horace’s music when I came out here and I looked for him, to see his gigs. And we became friends and I wound up playing with him. He was really fantastic to me and so was Bob and John.

“The label came at a good time,” Golia reflected. “There were ways to distribute your music. It didn’t hurt that my day job was working with record companies. I worked in the warehouse, I was a head buyer – worked my way up – so I knew how the system worked, and could get some records into the store. That’s how you got the music out there.” Golia chose to name the label Nine Winds, as that was the number of wind instruments he then owned. He only later learned that 9, being the largest cardinal number in numerology, represents completion, which he was ok with.

The trajectory of Golia’s early Nine Winds albums reflect the changing aesthetics of creative music as the ‘70s slipped into the ‘80s. The first small group dates balance driving freebop and off-center, distinctively colored compositions, and established a circle of collaborators with whom Golia would continue to work, including Carter, Alex Cline, and Roberto Miranda. His 1980 solo album remains an inflection point, as Golia created solo music that did not simply convey ideas, but also the character of each of his instruments – Golia acknowledged that his orchestra music also frequently evolves from his choice of instrument. As his circle of collaborators expanded to include Filiano, Nels Cline, and, briefly, Tim Berne, Golia staked out new conceptual territory on Compositions for Large Ensemble; as sprawling as Los Angeles, its six sides teemed with disparate ideas, each worthy of a deep dive, setting the standard for Golia’s subsequent forays into orchestra music.

California has long been the backdrop for advents in experimental music; in the 1990s, George Lewis, Bertram Turetsky, and other institutionally affiliated musicians brought improvisation, untethered to jazz, towards the foreground. Golia recorded with them, as well as Joëlle Léandre and Wadada Leo Smith, encounters documented by Nine Winds and other labels. Whereas Golia’s small groups had played clubs like Hop Singh’s, improvised chamber music located the music almost exclusively in formal spaces instead of jazz venues. With similar developments in creative music communities from San Diego to Vancouver, a new iteration of Left Coast new music came of age.

Golia easily traversed the resulting additional fragmentation of the scene in LA, the ‘90s and the aughts becoming a particularly fertile time for varied ongoing projects. His quartet with Bradford, Filiano, and Alex Cline, recorded three albums between ‘98 and ‘07, including Sfumato (Clean Feed), a Lisbon studio date documenting a ‘03 European tour. Several quintet albums with varying lineups were issued during the same period – the compelling two-disc One, Three, Two (Jazz Halo) with the Clines, Michael Vlatkovich, and Scott Walton, was recorded on tour in Belgium over the four days following 9.11.

Concurrently, five volumes of the Large Ensemble were released, of which only two were single discs. Over this period, there was an increasing deployment of strings and double reed instruments as the ensemble grew from approximately two dozen musicians to over 40. “When it was only 20 to 23 pieces, the ensemble was still small enough that we could still play some of the clubs that were around like Hop Singh’s,” Golia explained. “I did it for a number of years. When some people left the group and others come it, it changes the music. That happened when Ken Filiano came in; his musicianship with the bow – as well as pizzicato – and his playing in classical orchestras around the city as well as the bebop guys, changed the way I wrote, because I had another voice that could do a lot of things that I wasn’t able to do before. That led me to play with more of the classical players and the straight-ahead players.  They wanted to play. The whole thing changed again in the ‘90s; and when Ken left, that changed things. By then I was at Cal Arts, where I had access to all of these young virtuosos. I always had an interest in new classical music so I blended it in more and more, and it morphed into what it is now.”

Overview; 1996-2006 details this development over the course of two CDs and two DVDs; progressively, the orchestrations thicken and the episodes fueled by a discernible influence of advanced jazz, while still potent, are fewer and farther apart. A listener going directly from Compositions for Large Ensemble to Even to this day ... may not hear the connections between them, but Overview makes it abundantly clear that the music remained readily identifiable as Golia’s throughout the decades, as the Large Ensemble became the New Music Orchestra by 2014.

“The music I write now is pretty dense,” Golia admitted, “and I like to have these layers coming in and out: there’s a soloist, there’s a rhythmic thing; and so on. It’s still very much like painting composition. Sometimes I don’t look at music as music. I look at it as assemblages or collages. Ken told me that the scores look that way. I don’t see it. Of course, you don’t see it, he said, but it looks like you’re still painting or drawing. It was a big realization. I often use coloristic chords; they vaguely relate to harmony in a multi-faceted sense; they have shapes you can relate to as sculpture. I reason I got into making music was to have a sonic art that you could do with others, instead of a sitting in a room and painting, which I did for years. That’s a lot of where it comes from, the concept of rhythm, shape, color coming to life through an orchestra.”

 

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In March, the construction of the second movement of Even to this day ..., scored for metal band and orchestra, has been complicated by the return to at least a somewhat normal schedule for most of the musicians. Nels Cline is working overtime, Golia mentioned, recording his parts between rehearsals with Wilco for a summer tour. Golia is also gigging again; in just over a fortnight, he will perform Bobby Bradford’s suite dedicated to Jackie Robinson, Stealin’ Home, as part of the cornetist’s octet with Roper, Don Preston, Chuck Manning, Henry Franklin, and Tina Raymond. Subsequently, work on the culminating movement for soloists and symphony orchestra has been pushed back.

The delays have given Golia more time to ponder what’s next, what’s after the ellipsis of Even to this day ....  “I’m trying to figure out what is on the other side of the ellipsis,” Golia said with a chuckle. “There’s a lot going on and I’m trying to figure out my place in the music. To be honest, I’m left out of a lot of the discussions about the music that I’ve been active in for over 50 years. I’m not alone; there’s a whole generation of cats like me who are in this nether land where people may know our names but they don’t really know anything about us. There are a lot of West Coast people that fall into this category, people who have made innovations which maybe now are taken for granted. 20 or 30 years later, people go ‘oh, my god, that’s brilliant.’ That’s the way it is. The only thing I can do about it is to keep at it.”

 

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