The longest track on this record, “Salmon Graveyard,” does a lot in 26 minutes, but, importantly, it begins with a glissando. It sounds like a descending electronic sine tone but is probably slide guitar, played by John Hoegberg. It’s a provocative opening lick.
The glissando in question isn’t what one would call an “ornament.” It isn’t an embellishment of a musical theme – its a dive-bomb. It “glides” down from A natural, and it continues to descend through F# as the mandolin and fiddle riff enter a few seconds later. This makes it consistent with our understanding of the term - a glide from one pitch to another, from the French “glisser”, “to glide.”
I doubt that this is glissando for its own sake. Salmon Graveyard band members aren’t the sort of people to be expressive in a conspicuous or frivolous way. I assume that by putting this technique right up front in the song, it is a manifesto of some kind. Glissandi are tricky, and can be very embarrassing if misused or mal-appropriated.
Take, for example, Capriccio Stravagante by Carlo Farina – claimed by some historians as the first use of glissandi in western art music (as well as the first examples of other extended techniques - pizzicato, “sul ponticello”, and “col legno”). Browsing online, I found the 1626 piece described as “avant garde” and “humorous.” I needed to hear this watershed moment is glissandi history for myself. The only version of the piece I could find was a video on YouTube from the early 2010s. It contains a handsome, turtle-necked Baroque ensemble playing the piece in a church. I watched the entire 20-minute performance and decided that one cannot play Capriccio Stravagante in the current era while retaining any dignity.
The ensemble performs Farina’s musical “impressions” of dogs barking and hens cackling with straight faces and occasionally quizzical gravitas. At the tail end of the piece (pun intended) there is a movement entitled “The Cat.” It is the most preposterous portion of the whole thing, and, as you may have guessed, it uses copious violin glissandi to create impressionistic cat meows. A few of the performers allow the mildest of smiles to poke through while making these meows. I personally would feel more comfortable strutting before a church full of Baroque music fans in pink panties than playing Capriccio Stravagante in a black turtleneck. Using glissandi in the service of feline impressions needs to be regarded as something far lower than “cheeky” or “playful.”
I can explain my stern position on this. A “glide” is a removal of resistance, for example a glide on ice. The tedium of taking steps is replaced with a single, smooth motion on skates. A glide is an alleviation of pain, or at the very least a preemptive reduction of it. A glissando, when used to ornament a melody, removes a lot of the pain associated with listening to that melody. Over a lifetime we hear a lot of melodies and the sharp angles of those frequencies modulating immediately to other frequencies is depleting.
The 1960s obsession with “bluesy” guitar bending was the western world’s collective unconscious demanding relief from the lack of glissando in early 20th century guitar music, especially the dominance of musicians like Reinhardt and Segovia, both of whom barely even use vibrato. Charlie Christian is another example. Similarly, the industrial insertion of “pitch wheels” and “portamento” on synthesizers in the 1970s was also a corrective - synth portamento countered the lack of glissando in 50s and 60s pop and jazz organ repertoires.
Country music, by contrast, can claim to an early and important deployment of guitar glissandi. Vintage country music’s use of pedal steel sliding was required to soften the emotional pain present when the genre’s early masters were writing their signature maudlin ballads.
Salmon Graveyard themselves will eventually need to grapple with this precedent due to the preponderance of steel guitar sliding on this new album. Their use of country-style sliding is de-coupled from the typically bummed-out lyrics of the genre, and this may disorient some listeners.
Glissando in its natural usage is no less than a culture’s need to shed pain. Its not the same things as putting on a turtleneck and trying to peddle Farina’s 17th century aristocratic “humor” to a 21st century YouTube audience. The best outcome one could expect from that flippant use of glissandi are a few comments on YouTube describing the violin meows as “wonderful and lively.”
What I needed to sort my thoughts on the issue were more examples of the realistic deployment of glissandi in the European art continuum, rather than in American folk and pop. When I learned about a 1982 Romanian film entitled Glissando, I sought it out immediately, assuming it dealt foremost with the desire for freedom from pain. I optimistically even assumed the movie would use copious musical glissandi to reinforce this theme. This hope was naïve.
As it turns out, this film, directed by Mircea Daniliuc, is impossible to find in the United States. There is no DVD release that I could find anywhere. My friendly local video store clerks could only shrug at my request. Even the “Eastern European Movies” streaming service I’ve used in the past, which has quite a few art-house movies from Romania’s Ceaucescu period, had no trace of Glissando or any Daniliuc films.
Therefore, I had no other option than to watch a lo-res Glissando on YouTube, without English subtitles, not understanding a single bit of it. I watched the entire 2.5 hours, searching for thematic suggestions of glissandi and pain. I poured over visual cues, body language and of course the audio. The soundtrack was uneventful and none of the characters ever picked up instruments. There wasn’t so much as a trombone slide or plaintive theremin.
I’ll summarize what I saw and could glean from the movie. There are two men who don’t look dissimilar to each other, and one of them may not even be real, but a fantasy of the other man. The man who may be a fantasy is also a gambler, and spends half of the movie at card tables. Interestingly, sometimes the “fantasy” character seems to be emerging from a dream into the other man’s reality, and this is signified by his black attire, dressed as for a funeral.
When in black he is always accompanied by young mute man, who looks almost exactly like Corey Thuro - the mandolin player in Salmon Graveyard. I was pretty impressed that the mysterious young mute character, who is clearly a hallucination of some kind, looked so much like Thuro.
The other thing which is undeniable about “Glissando” (1982), is that the characters spend a LOT of time in bath houses. Sometimes they are in a big city bath house that is run by nuns, and other times in some sort of spa town, steaming themselves with panoply of very frail looking septuagenarians. I can see how both gambling and bath houses are an attempt to “glide” across pain – especially considering the 1930s setting of the film and the hindsight perspective of an 80s filmmaker knowing that all the gambling and steam baths in the world couldn’t stop WWII from bringing pain back to Romania and Europe at the end of the 30s.
Which brings me to another aspect of glissandi that is very important. That some glissandi are not a deliverance from pain, but pain as a deliverance. These are often called “discrete” glissandi and they consist of a fast motion across fixed pitches, such as on a keyboard. The discrete notes are blurred to the ear, but these glissandi are a far bumpier and more painful travel than a “bend.” The first example I thought of was Jerry Lee Lewis, whose infamously destructive piano solos were nothing if not ornamented with violent swipes up and down the keyboard using a technique called “palm glissando.” At this point, reader, you should expect to hear that I’d gone to YouTube to learn more about this technique, and indeed I did. There I found numerous “tutorials” for playing palm glissandi like Jerry lee Lewis. They were all amusing in the way they all seemed to seek a method with “less pain” – an acknowledgment that there is no “palm glissando” that is free of pain. The comment sections on these videos are full of one word entries by those who followed the tutorials – “ouch.”
Jerry Lee Lewis was obviously a maniac and required the physical pain of palm glissandi to distract him from his much deeper emotional pain. Which proves that transcendence often requires some pain to be free of pain, a type of inoculation. This doesn’t complicate the legacy of glissandi so much as it shows the complexity of pain. Glissandi are simply different cultural and personal perspectives on the longing to transcend pain – one person’s languid “glide” between notes is Jerry Lee Lewis’ grotesque “palm glissando” in a different framework.
Incidentally, the Wikipedia entry for “palm glissando” lists Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Klavierstuck X (10) as a definitive and extreme use of the technique on piano. This led me to re-listen to the piece after about 25 years, and to re-read the double LP Klavierstuck I-XI’s infamous liner notes. This 2-record set from 1965 is indeed a document of some incredible and painful-sounding solo piano-playing. But most memorable for me, both now and 25 years ago when I first encountered it, were the incredibly long and daft liner notes. The ample text real estate afforded by the inner gatefold allowed Herr Stockhausen himself to compose an epic ramble of microphone trainspotting and technical minutia – including a tangent about troubleshooting a creaky piano bench. But more importantly, it is a delirious course-by-course and drink-by-drink account of every single meal pianist Alloys Kontarsky ate between the recording sessions.
To give the reader the best picture of this, I’ll provide Stockhausen’s own words describing the events surrounding the recording session for Klavierstuck X: “On November 16 we went to lunch so late that the Im Silberman Winkle [note: this is a bistro of some sort in Zurich) was filled to overflowing with cake-eating ladies and he [Kontarsky] could only order, of the three warm dishes offered, a jugged venison over spaetzle, a green salad and hot tea with lemon. In contrast the evening meal at Schloss Wülfington restaurant was a minor feast. He [Kontarsky] consumed a bouillon with beef marrow, six helpings of saltimbocca alla romana (he sent the rice back), another six helpings of saltimbocca alla romana, green salad; he drank a half liter of Johannisberg wine; there followed crepes suzette together with mocha coffee; and to follow three glasses of pear schnapps he chose a Montecristo Havana cigar, with an expanded commentary on European cigar duties (he praised Switzerland’s for reckoning duty by weight) and on the preparation and packaging of Havana cigars. On November 17 he closed the session [they needed an extra morning session to complete the demanding Klavierstuck X] by composing a lunch: bouillon with marrow again, filet of sole meuniere, another half liter of Johannisberg wine, a pear Helene, mocha coffee, one glass of pear schnapps, and an Upton Havana cigar.”
Now there is no doubt in my mind that Stockhausen put “palm glissandi” in Klavierstuck X to help Europeans cleanse their pain from World War Two. Stockhausen, himself orphaned as a teen during the war, understood the communal pain of the war and seemed - to me anyhow - to be on a new age quest to compose music to cure people of the war’s trauma. Ever the hippy optimist, it seems like he was oblivious to the fact that Kontarsky was utterly terrified of Klavierstuck X and was devouring
saltimbocca, schnapps, and tobacco to numb the pain the absurdly difficult piece would cause his fingers later that evening. That fact that the next day Kontarsky celebrated the completion of the piece with midday wine, schnapps and tobacco confirms this.
At the end of the liner notes, Stockhausen justifies his parade of trivial data by explaining that this was the first time he ever oversaw a recording session of one of his compositions. He further explains that he provides these extraneous details because he was shocked to learn that the end product of Klavierstuck I-XI, and subsequently all albums, are so closely tied to the “material circumstances” in which the sessions occur. Stockhausen called these sort of butterfly effect-like situations which surround recording sessions an album’s “imponderables.” One would be remiss not to point out here that this should have been less than a revelation for Stockhausen, and that waxing bellicose about cigar taxes isn’t “imponderable”. Most performers in the history of music are human, and they definitely ate meals at some point in/around the recording sessions of our most beloved albums.
I wonder if any of Mariah Carey’s millions of fans around the world need to know about the Cobb salad she half nibbled from a styrofoam take-out box before tracking “All I Want for Christmas is You” in order to grasp the totality of the song’s true nature? Where does Stockhausen draw a boundary on this chain of causality in the life of an album? At one point in the liner notes he even mentions the turbulence on Kontarsky’s flight to Zurich. I’m sure if Klavierstuck I-XI had been expanded to a triple gatefold Stockhausen could have given readers the chance to consider Kontarsky’s nanny, and how her occasional cruelty towards him as a youth carried with him through adolescence to adulthood, ultimately underscoring what we would hear in the vinyl record of his playing in 1965 Zurich.
For my research purposes, I think Stockhausen’s excessive notes are fairly helpful – they helped me understand why a band like Salmon Graveyard would allow their guitar player to use so much glissandi, and even allow a long piece to open with a glissando. But it also occurs to me that one can’t be expected to read such a long, diverting bit of writing and connect with its supposed profundities. After all, liner notes should introduce readers to the music itself, not to a bunch of prattle that the writer wants to talk about.
Tom Borax, Jan 2023