Friday, May 9, 2008

Politics, As Usual

Pleased though I am that Obama seems to have clinched the nomination, I was angered to find that story trumping Myanmar on the cover of this week's Economist. I wonder if foreign editions had different covers? I hope so.

Update: Complained about this to some friends last night and was shot down in a hurry. They argue that the media is so restricted in Myanmar that there are simply not enough facts or pictures available to justify a cover story. If things loosen up and there are more eyes on the ground, they say, Myanmar will get its dubious distinction - perhaps next week. I bet they're right. Stay tuned.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Move Over Messiaen

Enjoyed this post at Dark Forces on a free performance of Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time. I'd been hoping to get to this, but was spooked last minute at thoughts of lines and midtown and so missed an apparently incredible show. Serves me right.

As Tashi was ripping it up at Town Hall, I was likely online watching Radiohead's In Rainbows: From the Basement. Nothing mind-blowing here (actually, much as I love these guys, I'm getting a little sick of these samey "live" broadcasts), but I was intrigued that at the end of the scorching "Myxomatosis," someone from the band (off-camera) says to Jonny Greenwood: "A bit of Wagner going at the end there?" I knew Radiohead were into Messiaen, and Messiaen into Wagner, but I never realized the tails met.

Update: Actually, now that I think of it, this isn't the first time. Paul Lansky's "Mild Und Leise," sampled in Radiohead's "Idioteque," is based on Wagner's famous "Tristan chord" and its inversions. Small world, hey guys?

Sunday, April 20, 2008

You Are Alive

Twisted commercialism from Takahashi Murakami, now displaying at the Brooklyn Museum. These videos, at once treacly and gruesome, are a good distillation of the rest of the show.

Prose Punk

Monday, April 14, 2008

Brooklyn at Heart

Pregnant? Facing a move from city to country? Issues?

My sister, too!

She's started a blog. Take a look.


After the recent losses at Academy, I wasn’t particularly surprised to see Mondo Kim’s already puny classical section displaced by rock & roll. But browsing reggae towards the back I discover: they only want it further from the customers! There it is on the endmost wall, slightly expanded (though annoyingly nothing dates before Bartok.) Oh well; we'll take what we can get.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Love and Happiness (Spring Edition)

(A la maniƩre de Taylor)

Trader Joe’s Shammies

Cheap, eco-friendly, they absorb loads more than your average sponge, dry fast, stand-up to washing, and you get to say “shammy." Four bucks for a two-pack at Trader Joe’s or these bad-asses online.

PSB Alpha-B1 Speakers

I don’t care what the audiophiles say - $280 ain’t cheap for speakers – but they’re a sight less than Bose and apparently a lot better quality. I love mine. The sound is rich and clean and allows me to hear all sorts of detail that was getting lost on my little JBLs.

This Heat – S/T

A recording much enhanced by good speakers, This Heat’s 1978 debut was rehearsed and recorded in a converted refrigerator locker. You can hear it, not only in the echoes of the recording, but in the chilly angularity of the compositions themselves. The music is varied and tough to sum up in a paragraph, so I'll just say (cheaply) This Heat couldn’t exist without Krautrock and post-rock couldn’t exist without This Heat.

Mavis Gallant, Varieties of Exile

The young, lonely women who populate these stories would probably implode if faced with This Heat, but their creator, Mavis Gallant, is in her own way just as steely. My favorite stories in the collection deal with every day tensions between English and French Montrealers in the period in and around the Second World War. Gallant is a master of realistic characterization and describes subtle strains with economy and precision. Michael Ondaatje puts it well in a blurb: "Before we know it she will have circled a person, captured a voice, revealed a whole manner of a life in the way a character avoids an issue or discusses a dress."

Genesse Cream Ale

Cheaper than Bud, tastier than Pabst, a historic beer from fearsome upstate New York. Take it ice cold, straight from the can, with something salty. You won't miss your Stella.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Other People's Stuff (with Gnomic Commentary)

Sorry. Tough to get back to blogging after a long break. Real content to come. . .

Radiohead's "Bangers & Mash" on Pitchfork TV
Yorke on drums looks cool, but adds nada

Steve Smith on Ace Frehley
And Schoenberg on his playlist - I love this guy

Kim Deal on new Breeders, old Malkmus
Let the 90s go

Andrew Bird on work-in-progress
Brave description of creative process; song sounds dubious

"Smoke" in Asia (via Do the Math)
Pentatonic scale goes full circle

Hank Shteamer on Simon's Capeman
And five AACM records in the post just before it - I love this guy

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Stereo Types

I put together my first decent stereo last night, an incredible thrill for a music nerd and long overdue. It’s fairly low-end stuff - a Sony single-feed CD player, early 00's Yamaha receiver and two 8" PSB speakers - but it's a huge improvement on my old set up (iPod and computer-speakers) and I've had a hard time turning it off.

It seems sort of weird now that I waited so long. When people would occasionally ask why my old system was so cheap, I’d say “I get what I need” (this apparently from a Stereophile interview with Keith Jarrett, though I’ve never been able to track it down) and for the most part, I did.

Lately, though, as I study and listen to more. . .complex? music (i.e. - classical, jazz, experimental, etc. - I wish there were a single term) I find myself craving more detail. Symphonic music is really frustrating on tiny speakers, as is most other music with wide dynamic range, subtle textures, or complex interplay between forces. The classical that sounded best on the old set-up: Bach preludes for solo piano.

Although I got worked up about the dramatic power of dynamic shifts the other day, I know how impossible they can be on a cheap set-up, and understand why high volume and heavy compression is the norm for music intended for a large audience of varying means.

I bring all this up to make the simple (and, in retrospect, probably obvious) point that one’s means of playing music must have an extraordinary effect on comprehension and enjoyment. It's easy to see how the migration of music from stereo to computer has been a boon to existing fans of complex music, with money and incentive to purchase appropriate speakers (and tickets) to hear it. For those who don't know it or listening on inadequate equipment, however, I wonder if the changes in technology are perhaps making things more difficult.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Shopper's Lament

Anyone know what happened to the Post-War classical section at Academy Records? A few months ago, there were probably 200 discs; last week, fewer than 50. And why is the Living Composers section so skimpy and, well, weird? Are people less willing to part with their aspirational purchases (still struggling over this one - thanks, Alex) or is it simply not worth the shelf-space? With Tower out, Downtown Music Gallery moving (we hope), and now this, it's a pretty sad scene for the five of us still buying CDs. At least there's J&R.

On a related note, I was amused to see Chopin and Tokyo noise-God Merzbow back to back in the used Experimental Music bin at Other Music over the weekend. I'd try a mash-up (Merzerka, anyone?) if I had the time and means, but alas, counterpoint calls. Later.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Roll Over, Beethoven

In my tireless journeying to avoid homework, I have discovered, somewhere near the end of the internet, that a 1988 poll named Neil Diamond, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Luther Vandross the top three artists Americans want to hear in the sack.

Sadly, I have never had sex to Beethoven or any other classical music, but given the chance, easy money: Prokofiev's hard-driving Seventh Piano Sonata, Third Movement. Aw, yeah.

(With apologies for the lack of video to those struggling not to form an image.)

Monday, March 24, 2008

Gay is the New Dissonant (or Something)

Well, if no one else is going to answer the questions or gripe at the sanctimoniousness of this morning's post, I might as well.

So, er, [new voice]: I saw Love Songs, too - same show, same theater - and I have a few bones to pick. First, you might've explained that the theater, The Paris, was less than half-full at the time of viewing - your uncouth masses probably amounting to no more than 5 to 10 people. You might also have mentioned that the Paris is on 57th Street - just south of Central Park and the Plaza Hotel, and just west of swanky Fifth Ave: i.e. prime tourist country. If you want to get a more realistic sense of New Yorkers' reactions to gay sex, you might've done better downtown - and on a day other than Easter.

More important, the scene you mentioned involved more than just kissing. Those boys (one of them still in high school) kissed (vigorously), but also stripped down to their boxers and rubbed and licked and made ridiculous faces - all while singing b-grade musical theater. No genitalia, granted, but were it just a kiss as you implied, the reaction might not have been so violent.

Your comment about people feeling "comfortable" expressing themselves publicly about gay sex also seems off. Those groans and laughs are a symptom of profound discomfort, no? Now, this doesn't excuse it, particularly in a public forum, but remember: even in 2008, even in outre French cinema (which this was not), male-on-male love scenes are relatively rare. The ratio of straight kisses to gay kisses on screen must be something like 10,000:1, right?

People have always struggled with the new and unexpected. I was reminded reading Carl Wilson's amazing Celine Dion meditation, that even the exalted liberal Parisians met Stravinsky's Rite of Spring with a near-riot at its premier. What you don't hear about so often is that people became acclimated to Stravinsky's dissonances relatively quickly. Within the year it was being cheered in French concert halls; in 1940, Walt Disney programmed it alongside Bach and Tchaikovsky in Fantasia.

Now, should you be looking out for cheerful sodomy on Nick at Nite any time soon? Of course not. But are things likely getting better than worse? The answer to that seems obvious, too.

Queer Reaction

Can someone tell me what's so off-putting about this image? Why, at a French film (Love Songs), on Manhattan's Upper-West Side, at 8 p.m. on an Easter Sunday (an hour you'd figure social conservatives might be otherwise engaged), the image of two men kissing was met with laughter, whoops and whispers, and uncomfortable shifting? Or why a similar scene, involving two women, provoked no reaction?

The questions may sound disingenuous, but the wonder is genuine: What is it about gay male sexuality that people find so disconcerting? And why are people so comfortable expressing themselves about it in public? I can't imagine Jungle Fever would be met with so much as a hiccup if it were shown today on the Upper-West Side. What distinguishes gays? What is it about that picture?

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Lonely Friday

Left to myself on a Friday night, the intake gets pretty nerdy: tuna sandwich, orange spice tea, and now finally - highlight! - a viewing (in large, silver cans) of Claude Vivier's "Lonely Child."

If you can't take the full 15 minutes, skip to the five minute mark and check the subtle interaction between singer and orchestra. When I don't look at the screen, I have trouble telling what's voice and what's instrument. (I love this effect in other genres, too.) Vivier apparently struggled with speech in early-childhood; I wonder if those extended vocal techniques refer to that time.

Anyway, more soon on Vivier, whose remarkable life and death is like something out of Dennis Cooper, and on his unusual (and often accessible) music, enriched by the back-story, but not in need of it.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

| T -------- | T --------

Was Portishead always strong on rhythm and weak on melody? I can't remember the old stuff too well, but the new one, "Machine Gun," from the forthcoming Third, is just that. The skeleton of the song is really simple - two quarter note thumps followed by a spray of sixteenths - but the contrast in textures is satisfying, and the rhythms, slightly dragged, create a nice tension. (This is more apparent in the studio version, available for download, than in the live version above.)

Obviously the band was into the groove, too, as they let it run the entire song. It'd be nice to give props for a brave restraint, but the effect, to these ears, is more boring than hypnotic. Ditto the generic two chord progression, which sounds a lot like the band's own "Wandering Star" and loads of other pop songs. What say? Am I losing my edge or are they?

Monday, March 17, 2008

Minimum Balance

Caught the excellent Marilyn Crispell trio Sunday night at the Village Vanguard. It was the last set of a six-night run, but if the players were tired or sick of the group dynamic, you wouldn't know it. It's a killer line-up - Crispell on piano, Mark Helias on bass, and Paul Motian on drums: veteran musicians, virtuosos all, playing charts mostly written by the players themselves. I can't imagine you can make music of this caliber and complexity without sensitive ears, so it was a bit shocking when, from the very first note, it seemed obvious the drums were way too loud.

I don't know what the sound was like up on stage, but it surprises me that after 11 shows, no one off-stage had the courage to suggest the group re-think balances. It wouldn't have taken much: move Motian to the back, strip the set of mics (if there were any - tough to see from my seat) and pump up the bass and piano. But for whatever reason no one mentioned it and the music suffered.

I wish this were an exceptional occurrence, but after years of concert-going I've come to expect crappy sound - even from talented players in well regarded venues. As a consequence, I've started to see less pop and jazz and more classical, where instrumental balances are considered a crucial aspect of performance and basic audibility can be taken for granted.

What's the deal, though, with pop and jazz? Why do we tolerate shitty sound, especially when we know from recordings the revelations clarity can bring?

My best guess is that it has to do with the social origins of the music. Long before popular forms were heard in concert, they were played at marches, dances, bordellos, sporting events. While the music may have grown in complexity and subtlety (in some cases necessitating the sort of focus at one time the preserve of classical music) people still expect to be able to order a drink mid-set, to chat with their friends, and move about the room.

Another factor, especially at rock shows, may be that identification of volume with intensity I mentioned the other day. It always confuses me to put on ear plugs at a concert. My dad says it's something like wearing sunglasses to a museum and I think that's right: no matter how good the plugs, you lose a ton of information. And yet! People seem not only to accept but to embrace this aspect of the live show. (You get this a lot at bars and parties, too. It always shocks me to see people shouting over the music week after week. Wouldn't it be easier to just turn it down a few clicks? And yet! Something's obviously lost.)

Anyway, balance issues aside, it was still a pretty satisfying show. Even when Motian drowned out the rest of the group, there was plenty to enjoy in his rhythms alone. The man is some sort of rhythmic genius: at times he would play nothing but his ride with one stick, and I would still have trouble keeping up.

Helias, who's played with tons of amazing musicians and yet kept a relatively low profile, was also impressive. He has a rich tone and strong melodic sense, reminiscent of Charlie Haden, and his playing, like the master's, seemed extremely modest - always in service of the overall sound, nothing extraneous.

Crispell, though it was her gig, was in some ways the hardest to gauge. Maybe it had to do with that cursed lack of audibility, but it took focus to hear what she was doing and she didn't always attract it. Her playing was an odd pairing of knotty atonality and sweeping lyrical passages - the former generally coming off better than the latter. That said, like Helias, she seemed an incredibly gracious player, even in the selection of pieces which were, I think without exception, by her band mates.

I'd be curious to hear what others have to say about the volume issue, as it's so pervasive - and I am so utterly convinced that it needs to be rectified - that something must be amiss. Lest balances go askew in this blog, please chime in.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Chiu-d Out

Disappointing show last night at the Stone by violinist Tom Chiu of the excellent FLUX Quartet. Admittedly, vibes were off before the music even started: we were made to wait in the cold until five minutes to show-time (with no apology or explanation from the guy at the door), the performance was about 20 minutes late to start, and there were several ear-splitting mistakes during the mic check. The no-frills feel of the Stone is cool - no reservations, no drinks, reasonable ticket prices (with half the proceeds going to the players) - but this was just unprofessional.

Things improved when Chiu finally got started, generating delicate Aphex-y blips from a laptop and processor. He twiddled knobs for a few minutes, making surprisingly little impact on the sound (I'm often confused by causal relationships in laptop performances), then picked up a piece of paper and intoned from what sounded like a disclaimer on a financial report. I gather the idea was to poke fun at those market-minded stiffs who don't dig things like improv at the Stone, but the words never gelled with the music and the end result seemed pretentious and smug.

The next piece was a duet with another laptop artist, Michael Schumacher. We were told Chiu caught Schumacher's set at 8 and was so impressed he asked him to stick around and jam. (This was apparently the first time they'd met.) The results, as one might expect, were confused and uninspired: Chiu dutifully working his way through an arsenal of extended violin techniques (harmonics, microtones, detuning, using the bow percussively, etc.), while Schumacher's laptop emitted bland crackling sounds which I think even Chiu may have mistaken momentarily for speaker malfunction.

From there, things got better (Chiu joined by
fellow Fluxers Conrad Harris (violin) and Max Mandel (viola) for some more structured improvisation on a Chiu composition) and much worse (Chiu accompanying an enthusiastic actress from the audience who wanted to recite a monologue from Henry the VI). By the last number, Chiu advised his assorted crew, which by then had grown to include Schumacher, Mandel, the composer Matthew Welch, and a poet desultorily introduced as "Crazy Mike," that they ought to keep it short. I got the sense no one in the audience objected.

As my friend commented on our walk home, Chiu is obviously well-trained and well-intentioned, but knows little about improv and seems to view it as something of a facile trick. I'm all for musicians taking risks, but if the idea is just to entertain oneself and a few sympathetic friends and colleagues, don't put an ad in the paper and don't charge.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Please Shut Up

Great piece by Carl Wilson on Deerhoof and the uses of silence. The gist: much of the band's power derives from their use of dynamic shifts. Here, here!

I've been to hundreds of shows and it still seems magical when a band locks in for a sudden shift: soft to loud (or vice-versa), trebly guitar assault to thick drum & bass groove - you get the idea. I'm not the only one; the crowd inevitably goes wild for this.

My question: why doesn't this happen more often? If everyone digs music with dynamic shifts, why do so few of us make it? My provisional answer: ego, childish lack of control, and the false identification of volume with intensity. I've played in several bands, and too often, when a piece calls for quiet, people balk, noodle (usually with increasing volume), or ignore the instruction altogether. When people have instruments in their hands they want to make sound.

I just read on Alex Ross's site about a Webern piece (Six Pieces for Orchestra) which calls for something like three notes from the trombones in 15 minutes. I have never met a rock musician who could keep quiet for so long (nor, to be fair, a rock piece which calls for such extravagant instrumentation, but you get my meaning). Maybe we need notation, too?

Anyway, it's a great post and well worth your attention. And incidentally, if there's anyone in NYC looking to make music, get in touch. My output these days is leaning far too heavily on silence. Outerbridge at gmail.