David Garland seems to just be.
He simply is. No?
David Garland’s early fascination with adventurous music was confirmed in 1968 when he attended a concert by Jimi Hendrix and had his 13-year-old mind blown by the opening act, England’s Soft Machine. Growing up in an artistic family in Lexington, Massachusetts, Garland played drums in what was literally a garage band, and taught himself piano and guitar. By the time he attended Rhode Island School of Design (’72-’76, overlapping with members of Talking Heads), Garland was organizing free-improv ensembles, playing jazz piano, composing chamber music, and singing songs. After graduating with honors from RISD, Garland moved to New York City and for ten years supported himself as a graphic designer and illustrator, free-lancing for pianist Paul Bley’s Improvising Artists Inc. record label, La Monte Young, and others. But he was in New York primarily to hear and make music.
Garland developed, on piano, an approach to improvisation he considered “instant composition,” and also composed ensemble pieces that were influenced by minimalism; he presented these at the avant garde center The Kitchen and elsewhere. In 1980 Garland joined bassist Bill Laswell, singer Shelley Hirsch, and others, in Nigel Rollings’ band Ad Hoc Rock, as drummer and later as guitarist, keyboardist, and singer. The band played many venues, including The Kitchen, a benefit at Carnegie Hall, and the seminal 1981 “Noise Fest” at White Columns.
In 1980 Garland wrote the first of his Control Songs, a genre he created to contain his otherwise uncategorizable songs, which combined his interests in melody, noise, and the song form, with lyrics addressing the “elusive but necessary sense of control that helps us function.” Instrumentation ranged from mediaeval bowed psaltery to the then-brand-new Fairlight CMI, one of the first digital samplers. Garland soon performed these songs solo in the very first music series at The Knitting Factory, at New Music America Festivals, and on tour in Europe. Garland’s first album, “Control Songs,” was issued in 1987 on the German label Review Records, and included musicians John Zorn and Christian Marclay.
In 1985 and ’86 Garland was one of five improvising vocalists, with Arto Lindsay, Shelley Hirsch, David Moss, and Sussan Deihim, in “Dead Stories” and “Tower of Babel”—concert and theater projects by turntable pioneer Christian Marclay. Garland formed the band The Worlds of Love with banjo and synthesizer player Cinnie Cole and percussionist Ikue Mori (of DNA). They released an album (also on Review Records) and toured in Europe in 1989. Garland worked with The Worlds of Love to record an album of songs by Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, which was ultimately released as Garland’s “I Guess I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” in Japan in 1993.
Garland continued to release innovative albums on small labels, including “Togetherness: Control Songs Vol. 2” (Ergodic, 1999), “My Vortex Camera: Control Songs Vol. 3” (Review, 2000), and “On the Other Side of the Window” (Review, 2003). Though these albums haven’t been widely heard, Village Voice critic Kyle Gann hailed Garland as “the best songwriter of my generation, bar none,” and Garland’s music is the subject of essays in Gann’s 2006 book Music Downtown. Robert Wyatt, drummer and singer in Soft Machine, the band that had so impressed the 13-year-old Garland, has called Garland’s songs “terrific, a great surprise,” and praised him for bringing “such originality and freshness to what is usually a cliche-ridden genre.” Garland’s 2007 album “Noise In You” (Family Vineyard) is his most heartfelt and imaginative, and his first to be widely distributed. In “Noise In You” Garland has created a sumptuous experimental song cycle in which his voice is joined by the voices of some of the most creative of a younger generation of song-inventors: Sufjan Stevens, Diane Cluck, and others.
In 1983 Garland began presenting unusual music on the radio, first as a volunteer at WKCR, Columbia University’s station, and since 1987 professionally on WNYC New York Public Radio, America’s most-listened to public radio station. Over the years Garland’s on-air guests have ranged from John Cage and John Zorn to Devendra Banhart and Wooden Wand. Now in its 20th year, Garland’s Spinning On Air show (Sundays, 7-8 pm on WNYC-FM 93.9 and wnyc.org) is a great place to hear insightful interviews, and in-studio performances by cutting-edge innovators. Garland produces, presents, and chooses guests for the show himself, as well as programming and presenting wide-ranging classical music shows on WNYC. More about radio.
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