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Feature Review: Aaron Novik, Floating World, Vol. 1

Floating World Vol. 1 was one of the most unusual discs to float up to my little deserted island. So of course, I immediately had to send it to one of the most unusual music writers I know!

Aaron Novik
Floating World Vol. 1
[Porto Franco Records (2011)]

San Francisco is considered by mainstream America to be home to the nation’s outsiders. When the term “outsider” is used in the visual and structural arts, it refers to works produced by those lacking formal education in the specific artistic discipline under consideration. The recording of these 21 tracks and publication of its read-a-long booklet bearing the librettos and photos of three of San Francisco’s designated outside-of-outsider poets paradoxically from the Inner Mission district is the musical adaptation of personal writings of:

  • A van-dwelling Vietnam veteran/onetime Colorado TV newscaster now pursuing mystical visions known on the streets as Swan, reportedly aka John Ratliff.
  • An autistic experimental poet named Bart Alberti who was killed by an oncoming train in 2006 and whose polished and obtuse verse was only shared with the composer near the end of his young life after years hanging out at the rundown Mission District used book shop called The Adobe, where the composer has worked.
  • The third outside-of-outsider writer, Michael Bernard Loggins also contributed drawings for this project after a long period of guarding his writings and sketches closely.
  • Consider the composer/bass clarinetist and conceptual driver of this project, Aaron Novik, a young man whose day job at The Adobe and afterhours pursuits advancing his musical studies with a variety of mentors and a creative cohort seeming to share his resistance to the notion that used books and/or used people are disposable.

Some of the musicians working here with Novik are members of the unclassifiable if world-touring Tin Hat Trio (that seems to have added Novik clarinet mentor not heard on this recording, Ben Goldberg, who leads his own trio on the cutting edge Tzaddik Record label), as well as less-established if similarly unclassifiable band-mates from Novik’s concurrent groups named Thorny Brocky and Floating World. Carla Kihlstedt, better known as Tin Hat’s, Tom Waits’s, and Charming Hostess’s violinist of choice turns in lead vocals in a diverse range of styles and voicings on half a dozen tracks, while Katy Stephan voices a baker’s dozen somewhere between street opera, Brecht–Weill, and post-modern musical theater. Novik’s music seems to approach each written text as an individual world, whether the disarmingly brief piece by Michael Bernard Loggins “So many subjects to write about” totaling eleven words or Swan’s “Goodbye to Bird,” a relatively sprawling thirty-nine lines. Linear narrative exists within each piece. However, like Novik’s often flailing music, continuity is no more apparent than whatever indignity might overcome a homeless soul at any given moment of day or night.

Yet Novik crafts some recognizable if altered musical forms such as the prog funk of the opening “TS Eliot,” which features Carla Kihlstedt’s contrastingly mannered, if deliberately piped-in and beatbox mixed-down harmony with an uncredited shadow voice. “Time for Under Diaper (I’m outta here)” is Katy Stephan’s bright quick vocal parry with Novik’s guttural bass clarinet that could easily be a Stephen Sondheim outtake from some updated staging of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. High strung ballad rock punctuates some of the wackier and triple-time turns of Raymond Scott-like manic cartoon hijinks.

Floating World features dual alternating drummers, keyboardists, and three non-overlapping violinists along with a lone alto saxophonist. There is a trio of women vocalists on loan from Conspiracy of Beards, here acting as polyphonic chorus on “Trashing Up the Street” and the group sing of cathartic closer “Wisps.” These cramped club performances lend some gravity to the otherwise high concept of Floating World’s studio recording.

—Mitch Ritter (Beaverton, OR)

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