Polarity/1: Flesh & Blood Electronica for Our Times
Musicians who create in the realm of electronica or whatever one calls sampled, processed, or electronically generated music, almost always emphasize the genre's machine-like-qualities of Hans and Frans Germanic crunching juggernaut rhythms, and bloops and bleeps that resemble the conversations of robots. The composer, performer and soundscaper Polarity/1, however, creates music that has one foot firmly in electronica and the rest of the body in an organic musical universe that includes pop, folk-rock, various schools of jazz, Latin, funk and modernist music from the classical tradition. He mixes these genres into well-blended songs to create a sound that is like the Six Million Dollar Man: part man, part machine but at heart totally human.
[Mark Kirby] What the hell do you call this stuff?
Polar Levine a.k.a. Polarity/1 "I call the instrumentals Electronica/Fusion and the songs Electro-Folk. This genre issue has been dogging me for years. I've digested so many different genres of music from different times and places since I was little, and because of that all genres and styles have equal value to me. If anything characterizes Polarity/1, it's that I orchestrate with genre as much as with instruments.
"I have a habit of alternating a collection of songs with a collection of instrumentals -- all falling into some unbridgeable genre divide. I get bored easily, so I only focus on stuff that's different from what I've done before. Since I was little, I always got hooked on artists who constantly change direction, even within the same album; like Zappa, Miles, Coltrane, the Beatles, Radiohead, Bjork, and Beck."
[Mark Kirby] What is your musical background? How long have you been playing music? When and how did you start?
Polar Levine a.k.a. Polarity/1 "I've been listening to music actively since I was around two years old. I started off with my dad's records, the radio, American Bandstand, Soul Train and the Ed Sullivan Show. My earliest faves were Cab Calloway (from my dad and Betty Boop cartoons), salsa (my dad's Tito Rodriguez records and the radio), Elvis, James Brown, Chuck Berry, Beatles, Led Zeppelin.
"When I was in high school I discovered Brazilian music, Appalachian folk, Eric Dolphy, Japanese Gagaku (court music of the 16th century), Bob Dylan, Olatunji, Muddy Waters and Mahavishnu Orchestra. My thing with Dylan got me to buy a guitar so I could express my rage over the inconveniences of life on earth. Within weeks, I was writing clueless protest songs about important political issues I never bothered to read about. Later on when I was at the Studio For Interrelated Media at Massachusetts College of Art, I was listening to a lot of European post-serial stuff like John Cage, George Crumb, Morton Feldman, Stockhausen, Laurie Anderson, and the minimalists Steve Reich, Terry Reilly and Philip Glass.
"So, for a few years I stopped writing songs but concentrated on abstract soundscapes for multimedia performance pieces. This was in the eighties before samplers became affordable. I'd make huge tape loops that stretched the length of my loft. They were made up of tiny slices of tape cut to specific lengths based on constantly evolving rhythms that I'd score. This involved lots of all-nighters and lots of drugs and cookies. Days later, when I'd finished the loops and finally got to hear them I'd discover mistakes, which took another all-nighter to fix. Thank the god for samplers."
Visit Polarity/1 for electronica instrumentals on myspace
Visit Polarity/1 for electro-folk songs on myspace
Polarity/1 also cited a massive number of influences and favorites that covered hip hop (Lupe Fiasco, Nas), Electronica (Prefuse 73, Jon Hassell), Brazilian (batucada, Maestre Ambrosio), ‘70s funk, jazz (from Django Reinhardt to Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, and many others), blues, country (Doc Boggs, New Lost City Ramblers, George Jones), African music, Flamenco, old school gospel (Soul Stirrers, Staples Singers, Gospel Keynotes), salsa (especially bomba and the Fania stuff from the '70s), middle and south Asian music, Indian classical music and hard to categorize artists like Brazilian Girls, Broken Social Scene, Thomas Dolby, Bjork, Los Lobos and others.
Polar Levine a.k.a. Polarity/1 "I know it sounds like I'm dropping a lot of impressive cool-factor names, but from the time I was tiny, I was constantly exposed to strange new music. That's because of my dad's early influence and an older weirdo cousin, plus growing up in New York with a huge variety of sounds on the radio. I'm drawn to the unfamiliar. This has advantages and disadvantages. I can play a little bit of a lot of different instruments but I never got very good at any one instrument. I can effectively work in any genre."
This spirit of eclectic playfulness and experimentation is evident on his two solo CDs, Speechless and Prettier Than You, and on Heavy Meadow by Audioplasm, his collaboration with Latin/electronica/bizarre artist Rubio.
Speechless is, naturally, Polarity/1's instrumental record and a repository for his wild and wide musical palate. While it is definitely an electronica CD that he composed, performed and recorded himself, he also added some live wire human elements as well.
Polar Levine a.k.a. Polarity/1 "All the tracks were around 85% done when I brought in some living organisms to add a touch of reality and liveness." ["Bring on the Sudz" blends a post-Disco dance beat with a '50s mambo sound and texture. It features ex-Lounge Lizard saxophonist Michael Blake.] I wanted a sax player who played like the nasty honkers from the sixties like Archie Shepp and Pharoah Sanders. [Blake also wails out on the title cut, adding some '60s free jazz black fire to a dense groove that is part Afro beat, part Bo Diddly beat played on cowbells. "The Eagle Has Descended" is the funky theme song of an imaginary blaxploitation sci-fi movie, with a psychedelic break off jazz drums and disembodied voice.] I layered into the groove the voice of a friend taken off my answering machine. 'Brother dearest, the eagle has descended and has left a little clump in your honor.' He owed me some money and he called to let me know that he stumbled upon some income and was ready to pay me."
The song "Nilestones" is, by contrast, sparser and more deceptive in its structure. Over a musical core of chopped and disembodied vocals, drummer Gregg Bendian, recording mate of jazz guitarist Pat Metheney, guitarist Pete McCann, synthesizer player David Gilden and Blake gradually build upward with dense, jazz rock style music, creating a swirling effect, at once anchored and freewheeling.
"The Sumo Glide," an easy-going funk tune, and the hip hop inspired "Blues for Chucky" feature former Prince bassist Scott Parker Allen. The most incendiary cut on the CD is "Munton's Revenge" which is built around a fractured jazz funk beat in 7/4 time. It features an apocalyptic dual between drummer Gregg Bendian and guitarist Pete McCann that goes from air tight unison lines to blazing leads and back.
Speechless mixes many of Polar's above-mentioned musical influences, particularly the jazz and experimental modes. But what of his interest in and influence by rock, folk music and Bob Dylan? The CD Prettier Than You is an album of songs with clearly sung vocals -- as opposed to the processed and manipulated vocals-as-sounds approach on Speechless, and leans more toward rock.
The songs on Prettier Than You fly in the face of current conventions, which ignore politics, critical thought, or even everyday life; and instead focus on sex fantasies, crass individualism, and our national religion of money, power and respect. The subject matter on this CD ranges from attacks on consumerism ("Free Money" and "Charge It") to the music industry ("There's Music" and "Ka-Ching") to the political corruption and ineptitude in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina ("Duck"). The title cut "Prettier Than You" lampoons the modern obsession with spokespersons and celebrities selling products and news.
The first song "Love Is Hard" starts out with an early '90s Miles Davis groove with trumpet riding over a sparse funk beat. The vocals come in a clear naturalistic manner. The words are poetic and allegorical like those of Bob Dylan (but not as obscure). Like he does with his instrumental music, Polarity/1 uses a playful formalism in creating Prettier Than You.
The lyrics often started out as free-associative goofing around. "Love Is Hard" opens with a play on jazz singer Mose Allison's name -- 'Allison ponders a man named Mose' -- then kicks off some wordplay based on the Ten Commandments movie. When the lyrics were half done I figured out what the song was about which, of course, had nothing to do with Mose Allison or the Ten Commandments. The wordplay just gets the process started.
"There's Music" is a country, folk song with a northern Brazilian groove that celebrates real roots music, music that is authentic and not created by people trying to sell to a demographic: "There's music for the booty and the soul / There's music that's beyond control / There's music that's not about a market test / That's the music that I like best.
Some of the songs on this album -- the title track "There's Music," "Garbage Man," "Dança Da Solidão" and "Prettier Than You" -- were written and arranged on an acoustic guitar.
Polar Levine a.k.a. Polarity/1 "The idea with those was that I wanted to do a bunch of roots-based songs where the roots elements come from all different places. "Prettier Than You" is a funk/blues thing like an old Little Feat song. The guitar parts naturally morphed into Soukous, a style from the Congo that's built around two or three repeated guitar figures playing off each other. I added this Brazilian thing with live percussion. The second verse is sung in a fifties rockabilly style. For the choruses I was imagining the Staples Singers back in the fifties and early sixties when they were doing straight gospel. Rubio plays B3 organ and this beautiful scuzzy funky-ass bass part."
[Mark Kirby] Prettier Than You has songs that are very political in that you call out corporations, the music industry and the government. Was this a conscious choice with regard to this CD?
Polar Levine a.k.a. Polarity/1 "The first songs I wrote when I was a kid were political songs. Both my albums of songs, Prettier Than You and Yankin' The Food Chain, are full of political stuff. Since I generally have a bug up my ass about something I read in the newspaper, political songwriting comes naturally. The main difference between the political songs I write now and the ones I wrote when I was a kid is that now I know what the hell I'm talking about. I'm also convinced that the world doesn't need another guy writing songs about romance and heartbreak.
"I started doing "Polarity/1" just at the time I became pals with Danny Schechter, who's a journalist/author/filmmaker in the I.F. Stone mold. For a while, he had a perfectly cushy career as a producer for CNN and 20/20, which he then sabotaged because he was sick of seeing his reporting get blanded out or killed as the networks turned their news departments into ratings-friendly, lite entertainment.
"When we met, he'd just finished his TV career-ending book, "The More You Watch, The Less You Know," about his life in television news. He asked me to put together a rap song as sort of a "soundtrack" for the book. That became "News Goo," which still gets lots of play on political radio broadcasts like Democracy Now. Since then I've scored four of Danny's documentaries, including writing the theme songs."
Buy Heavy Meadow
Polarity/1 has scored music for "In Debt We Trust," Schechter's feature-length documentary that is an exposé of the credit industry and America's culture of debt; and his new documentary on cable porn pioneer Ugly George. These projects also include music by Audioplasm.
The Audioplasm CD Heavy Meadow is the most musically adventurous of the recordings made by Polarity/1. Rubio, the other half of Audioplasm, has a similar effect on Polarity/1 as your first best friend as a little kid had on you; the friend that convinced you to explore a condemned house and other knuckle headed stunts that almost got you killed. Along with African, Asian and Latin influences are abstract space funk numbers that recall early ‘70s Herbie Hancock and other offsprings of the electric Miles Davis.
Polar Levine a.k.a. Polarity/1 "Rubio is the best collaborator I've ever had, partly due to his Latin obsession. We're both deep into African-based groove science so we get really jolly throwing pieces of these rhythms into our stuff."
"Guillermo Ate My Luch" starts things off with a bizarre Latin techno groove and a melody made from snippets of sounds. Electronic and real percussion percolate together with Eddie Palmieri-style, Afro-Cuban, piano riffs; voices from inside the head of insane person; and rhythmic chanters straight off an old Salsa recording.
Polar Levine a.k.a. Polarity/1 "'Guillermo Ate My Luch' is a standard issue dance track (boom-chik, boom-chick) cooked in a batter made up of samba, mambo and merengue. In the samba-esque parts I play a repinique (a small samba drum) and Guillermo Cardenas plays tambora and guira (a double-headed drum and metal guiro) on the merengue parts. Rubio plays the mambo piano figures. I chopped up a spoken voice into a sort of percussion instrument."
This is the modus operandi for the rest of the CD. The cut "Pa La Lucha" anchored more in Latin music, heavy reggaeton beat at the center of Afro-Cuban piano riffs and percussion beats. The vocals go from serious Puerto Rican solo soaring and group chants to humorously spirited scat singing. The title cut lopes along with a heavy, throbbing deep trance beat and droning synthesizer with other sounds, creating a thick Buddha Bar style otherworldliness. This morphs into "Naddy Waddy" with an Afro-groove beat and singing by Rubio's three-year old daughter. The standout cut, where little boy smartassness and politics come together, "Bob Smith of the F.B.I..," mixes Afro-Cuban rhythms with an audio weirdness reminiscent of the Residents.
Polar Levine a.k.a. Polarity/1 "This song started as a Weather Report type thing. Rubio tacked on the Yes-influenced bridge and I sliced up a drum and bongos loop to add chaos. The voices were taken from a cassette that Danny Schechter gave me where he recorded an FBI bust taking place where he was living in 1973. He's caught on the tape busting these G-men's balls."
Polarity/1 is a musician with a courageous outlook on his place in the music world and has chosen his integrity and artistic goals over mere materialism.
Polar Levine a.k.a. Polarity/1 "If getting rich was the motivation, I could have done whatever it is that sells. This whole web-based indie music network allows me to work outside of the corporate game. I can make money as a graphic designer because I'm a visual art whore, but I'm not a music whore."