22 December, 2009

Oi To The World

I just posted a file over at the Dilettante Blog; one of my favorite holiday songs: Tchaikovsky's Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies, as performed by The Vandals.

Back in 1996, when I was still a high schooler, The Vandals released a Christmas record called "Oi To The World." I happened to randomly pick it up, and fell instantly in love with it. It's been a holiday tradition for me ever since.

This year, I'm in Australia for the holidays, and completely forgot to pack it! Lucky for me, the whole record seems to have been uploaded in gloriously poor quality to YouTube in one of those weird I'm-really-an-audio-file-in-disguise-since-there's-no-real-video-to-see-here files. Regardless I'm glad to have found it, and I thought I'd post a track or two here.

You might already know this song. No Doubt covered this track a number of years ago, skanking it up as they do, but I definitely prefer this original. And if you like this, the whole record seems to be up. My favorites: "Nothing's Going To Ruin My Holiday,""Thanx for Nothing," and "Hang Myself From The Tree," which totally has a Tuba solo! Their cover of "Here I Am, Lord" is also pretty amazing. (The easily offended might want to stay far away from C-H-R-I-S-T-M-A-S, and some others, which should be clear from the titles.)

But what sort of lefty curmudgeon would I be if I didn't post the delightful rant against commercialism, "I Don't Believe in Santa Claus"?

Happy Holidays All!

19 December, 2009

Amen, Part 2

Watched that video in Part 1? Good. So, moving on.

As a composer, the idea of intellectual property is a complex one. I am all for giving stuff away for free, but ultimately, I have to survive. Survival takes money, money takes work, and my work is writing music. But I also see the very real harm that can be done to culture when numbers start being crunched inside of office buildings, and when the people crunching these numbers—most of whom have no business dictating culture at all—start deciding what is culturally allowable. This is one of the things that I like about Creative Commons; it allows the artist to decide upfront how their work is to be used, and the number crunchers, theoretically, stay out of it. Controlling the means of (re)production, you might say.

Well, as you know from watching the video in the previous post, The Winstons would have benefited greatly from Creative Commons licensing. When “electronica” went mainstream and started making money, everyone wanted a cut of it. In the end, the artists got nothing, but some random music companies--who seem to have just stolen the samples (but had good lawyers I guess)--ended up making a bundle. Keep it classy, music industry. Ultimately, the question is: what was the cultural value of the Amen break (or any other samples) remaining free of charge, and, in the end did the good outweigh the damage?

I don't have a specific answer to this question, but it does bring us to our discussion of UbuWeb. Do you know about this amazing thing? UbuWeb is anti-corporate utopian Internet hub full of amazing avant-garde treats. It’s like the best college radio station you’ve ever heard, and it never goes off the air. On-demand pirate radio for the “aughties.” It was founded in 1996 by a bunch of crazies—(and who doesn’t love crazies?!)—and all materials up there are entirely free for your listening/reading/viewing pleasure. Also, they haven’t asked permission to post any of it.

As they say on the site: “Nothing is for sale on UbuWeb. It's all free. We know it's a hard idea to get used to, but there's no lush gift shop waiting for you at the end of this museum.” (Having visited many of the amazing museums in London when I was there for the DCR concert, I definitely appreciate this analogy.) But wait. Hold up. Say what? So—they upload this stuff, without asking permission, then give it away for free? How is that possible? Well I guess in a utopian sense, the question would be: why would it not be possible? But really, here’s the deal:

“If it's out of print, we feel it's fair game. Or if something is in print, yet absurdly priced or insanely hard to procure, we'll take a chance on it. But if it's in print and available to all, we won't touch it. The last thing we'd want to do is to take the meager amount of money out of the pockets of those releasing generally poorly-selling materials of the avant-garde. UbuWeb functions as a distribution center for hard-to-find, out-of-print and obscure materials, transferred digitally to the web. Our scanning, say, an historical concrete poem in no way detracts from the physical value of that object in the real world; in fact, it probably enhances it. Either way, we don't care: EBay is full of wonderful physical artifacts, most of them worth a lot of money.”

Legal speaking, they can say that they are for educational purposes, which is true. (I actually downloaded the copy of Cardew’s out-of-print Stockhausen Serves Imperialism for my dissertation research form Ubu…speaking of crazies.) But really, the bottom line is, as they say, if they had to "get permission from everyone on UbuWeb, there would be no UbuWeb.” And how terrible would that be?! (I’ll tell you. It would be awful. Life would be exponentially more boring.)

As UbuWeb co-founder Kenny Goldsmith says “As long as we stay within the margins of culture, we're pretty much safe. When we occasionally dip our toe into the more profitable or mainstream side of the avant-garde, do we get slapped around.” (Sound familiar? No one cared about the use of samples, until people realized they could get rich off of it!)

He continues: “Are we crazy? Yes. Are we exposing ourselves to great risk? Yes. Could we get screwed? Yes. What we're doing is clearly wrong, and we wouldn't have a foot to stand on in the court of law. But we think the good greatly outweighs any damage. ... UbuWeb can be construed as the Robin Hood of the avant-garde, but instead of taking from one and giving to the other, we feel that in the end, we're giving to all.”

The good outweighs any damage, indeed. I respect that they are taking a stand like this and saying: "you know what people? The world will be a better place if we upload this totally insane sound art piece, so we’re just going to do it.” If we need anything right now, it’s for the world to be a little bit better!

03 December, 2009

Amen, Part 1

Recently, the NYC percussionist and all-around-nice-guy Chris Thompson posted a really great video on Twitter. (Maybe on Facebook too, not sure.) It’s all about the “Amen break.” As the narrator Nate Harrison says, the Amen Beak is “a ubiquitous piece of the pop culture soundscape” In other words, even if you think you don't know it, you probably do.

The Amen, as he explains, was originally a drum break from a song called Amen, Brother, by The Winstons. This track was released as a B-side in 1969. The A-side, Color Him, Father won a Grammy. Amen, Brother, on the other hand, was pretty much forgotten. Until… well, you’ll see. Although it’s a little long (especially by YouTube and/or viral video standards), and can sometimes feel a bit like sitting in university lecture, it nonetheless provides an interesting history on the beat, played by the late drummer Gregory C. Coleman.

Almost more importantly, though, it offers an analysis of the legal and ethical issues behind the use of this break as a sample--and sampling in general—including a pretty direct attack on capitalism and its propensity for cultural co-optation. (Teh invisable hand iz steelin ur ideas; makin money off ov ur werk.) Following this, he makes a case for the use of Creative Commons licensing—which if you don’t know about you should totally check out here.

There is a part two to all this, but how 'bout watch the video first. Deal?

16 November, 2009

Tosca's Kiss

I'm starting to work on a new (short) opera (more on that soon) so have been trolling the internet for the past few days looking for good performances, inspiration, etc. Then tonight, composer Sean Griffin posted this this video to his Facebook page. I can't thank him enough. I've sort of fallen in love with it. I reminds me a little bit of my favorite scene in Jim Jarmusch's Coffee and Cigarettes.

The scene (as the description says): "Filmed by at the Casa Verdi, these old long-retired stars re-enact the scene of Tosca killing Scarpia. After that they do a bit from "Rigoletto" Act 2, scene 4. Then the soprano Sara Scuderi listens to her old record of "Vissi d'arte" from Puccini's "Tosca" and comments."

Just watch. Especially from 3:10 to the end. So good.

15 November, 2009

The Wild Beast Stirs

Anyone who's been out to Valencia, CA to experience The California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) in person knows that it's a special place. There's a strict freedom of expression rule—there's a clothing-optional situation in effect, an unspoken look-the-other-way policy regarding certain substances, and little or no regulation of self-expression via graffiti. In a lot of ways, it's the Wild West, and that can be a very good thing for art-making.

Well, they've recently built a brand new concert hall. Inside sources tell me that it's not quite ready for the public yet—still working on some landscaping around the space—but that the building itself is pretty great. While few on the outside would have been shocked if they'd named it "The James Tenney Memorial Concert Hall"—or something like that—that's just not CalArts' style. Quite to the contrary, they've named it "The Wild Beast."

As this article mentioned, CalArts seems on the surface to just like naming its spaces after animals, cf. REDCAT. But as the CalArts site reports, it actually has very little to do with animals, at least not of the four-legged variety: "The new music pavilion has been named The Wild Beast by lead donor Abby Sher in honor of composer Morton Feldman's metaphor for mystery of sound and silence from which the vibrant of music emerges." According to illustrations, a sign outside the hall will display Feldman's words: "I am interested in how this wild beast lives in the jungle, not in the zoo." (My source suggests that this sign might not actually be erected, which would be a tragic shame. The sentiment stands all the same, I suppose.)

But what's the space like? How does it sound? From what I can tell (and have heard) it looks and sounds great, and is extremely versatile. But don't take my word for it! Watch this video for the proof:

12 November, 2009

...is the Digital Composer-in-Residence.

So, the votes are in, and I've be chosen (elected?) as the first Digital Composer-in-Residence on DilettanteMusic.com. As part of this new job, I'll be blogging a lot over there--(probably more than here!)--so why not head over and check it out? My first post went up this morning, and there will be more to follow soon!

17 October, 2009

Dilet­tante Music

So, some breaking news from across the pond: I have been chosen as one of three finalists in the Dilet­tante Music Dig­i­tal Composer-in-Residence com­pe­ti­tion. (The other two are Chiayu, a Taiwanese composer studying at Duke, and Aaron Gervais, a fellow composer/drummer from Canada.)

As part of the competition, the London Sinfonietta has recorded my submitted piece, 1986, and starting on October 20th, the polls will be open for the people (that's you!) to choose the 2010 Digital Composer-in-Residence. The polls will be closed and the winners announced on November 5th, culminating in a live performance of all of the works by the London Sin­foni­etta that night at Wilton’s Music Hall in London. Check out the event listing here, and keep an eye on the Dilet­tante blog for more information.

This morning, there was a feature on the competition on BBC3's Music Matters, which you can listen to here for the next seven days. It includes clips of all three finalist's works—all very different—as well as (earlier in the show) very interesting interviews with the Bang On A Can composers, Steve Martland, and a feature on In C.

Watch this space for more updates on interviews, podcasts, etc., as well as information on how you can vote!

07 October, 2009

On Speaking Softly

Sorry things have been so quiet over here for the past few months. In addition to my dissertation--which is going well, but definitely still-going--I've been writing a lot of music, and getting ready for the season, which now feels very much in full swing. Newspeak just got things going last night for our Oct 29 show at The Stone, and before that I was participating in a mini-residency at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where I gave a talk to the grad composers, coached the percussion ensemble, and had a piece performed (amazingly!) by the UM Symphony Band under Michael Haithcock.

Kicking off the season was the launch party of The Coterie, a new opera company founded by my wonderful Librettist Royce, and a stellar performance of Speak Softly by Line C3 as part of the New Amsterdam Records new Archipelago series at Galapagos. Here's the video:

Aren't they great?!

Anyway, I will try harder to stay on top of this blog, but please be patient if every now and then I clearly phone it in by posting an "interesting quote" that I clearly dug up while doing dissertation research. (Anyone up for some Clement Greenberg?) Seriously, though, there are some (as yet unannounced) things that will definitely make appearances in this space, so I promise to only phone it in on occasion.

Happy Autumn!

01 July, 2009

Painting Yourself Into a Corner

Dan Johnson has an excellent account of the Ojai Festival over on his blog. Recently brought to my attention by the ever-observant (and also-excellent account giver!) Jeff Edelstein, the festival sounded utterly fantastic, with great performers and pieces. I am very envious that Dan was able to attend. (And Bravi to eighth blackbird for their deft curation!) But I have to say I have a slight beef with something he said.

In his review of Louis Andriessen’s Worker’s Union, Dan says:
Now, "political" music is a funny thing—Andriessen's Marxist ideology paints him into a corner (...) Andriessen's a Marxist, so he wants to cast off decadent bourgeois concert-hall culture in favor of brash, vernacular idioms, but on the other hand he doesn't want to embrace popular/commercial culture. So he troubles his clear forms and pulses with épater-le-bourgeois dissonance, intensity and duration.

This statement is really interesting to me, but also a little confusing. I’m currently writing my dissertation on political music, and just wrote a few pages on Andriessen, so maybe this is not a fair debate—dissertation research versus well-done concert review—but I have a difficult time understanding how Andriessen’s Marxism has painted him into a corner.

Worker’s Union was written in 1975, in the middle of what was a sort of “early period” for Andriessen’s political work. During this period, Andriessen’s political music fell into two main categories. The first is a form of gebrauchmusik intended for use at political rallies. This included vocal music—Volkslied (1971) and Dat gebeurt in Vietnam (“This is happening in Vietnam”), both of which contained “collaborative chanting” intended to “express collective solidarity,”—as well as instrumental music, like De Volharding (1972) and Worker’s Union (1975), which present repetition and “collective unison” instrumental textures as a metaphor to encourage perseverance in pursuit of a political cause.

The second category of Andriessen’s political music—the techniques of which would follow him forward out of the 70s and into the 80s and beyond—explored deeper philosophical underpinnings associated with the struggle against fascism—including the dialectically-minded Il Duce (1973), Il Principie (1973-74), and De Staat (1973-76), a triptych. These works draw inspiration from Brecht’s notion of “a-social models,” presenting problematic texts by Machiavelli, Mussolini, and Plato to teach the audience (via example) now not to behave. These utilize a dialectic that is Marxian, rather than Hegelian, and so (as Everett tells us) “the opposing forces of the conflict are transformed into an aspect of a new contradiction.” This type of thinking—as well as the lessons learned from work on Brecht and Eisler’s Die Maßnahme in 1972—solidified issues for Andriessen that extended beyond the mere protest pieces he was writing in the early/mid-70s.

So, there’s that. But I also don’t understand Dan’s claim that Andriessen didn’t want to embrace popular/commercial culture, granted this could be a matter of semantics. (What is “embrace”? What is “popular”?) For me the Orkest de Volharding embodies Andriessen’s political ideal of this period. Among other things, this group closed the gap between high and low culture by integrating instruments and techniques used in rock and jazz music—like electric guitar, and jazz articulation. It brought its revolutionary music into alternative performance spaces, like factories, schools, political rallies, and community centers. It served as an evolutionary step in a lineage from Cardew’s Scratch Orchestra, and Rzewski’s Musica Elletronica Viva, both important political ensembles from the late 1960s.

As for the notion of the épater-le-bourgeois, I think there is something to this, and I like the connection that Dan makes on this front. But I am less certain that the dissonance in Worker’s Union is a matter of merely wanting to shock the bourgeoisie—though that was probably part of it—as much as it is a by-product of the way the piece is constructed—i.e. as with the Scratch Orchestra: not necessarily intended to be played by “experts” but rather, by anyone who would be willing to put in the time and effort. That is, anyone with the courage and will to serve “the cause” can serve the cause.

Often, when people think of political music, they imagine a ranty obnoxious preaching-to-the-converted sort of drivel. And there is a certainly a lot of that out there. (Cardew alone could fill several concert programs worth of music that would tell you how awesome Mao is and why everything else is an atrocity.) But Andriessen isn’t really like that, and I wonder if as a result he sometimes gets a bad wrap—if, for example, people expect something more direct from him and if, when it's not delivered, these same people feel some odd sense of disappointment. (And I am not suggesting that this is the case for Dan, rather stating a broader observation.)

With the exception of the very early pieces—Reconstructie, Dat gebeurt in Vietnam, etc.—Andriessen’s music is political on a higher level than just a propagandistic message. Even within this early period we start to see this. Of De Staat, he says “I wrote De Staat as a contribution to the debate about the relationship of music to politics.” This is not smash-the-state propaganda. This is political philosophy. If one is expecting propaganda, or one wants to be served a composition that is easily digestible in one sitting, then one will probably be disappointed with Andriessen’s political work—or, in my opinion, with any political work worth its salt.

Dan cites an interesting book review by Gregory Bloch, who observes:

Adlington suggests that a fascinating study would be to compare Andriessen with another deeply political composer, whose politics play out not only in his works but also in his approach to performers and institutions: Cornelius Cardew. The comparison is particularly instructive here, since much of Cardew’s music (like Andriessen’s worst music) is characterized precisely by a lack of ambivalence, a univocality that is, in the end, both an aesthetic and political failing.
This univocality, which I think can be found in Andriessen's earlier works, is what ultimately makes that kind of preachy political music many have come to expect. But Andriessen, through his understanding of Marxist dialectics, has been able to escape this. So it just doesn’t make sense to me to say that Marxism has painted Andriessen into a corner. With all due respect to a fine review from an interesting writer, for my money, Marxism liberated Andriessen.

19 May, 2009

Trusting the Market

"Be wary when you hear about the glories of the market system. The market system is what we’ve had. Let the market decide, they say. The government mustn’t give people free health care; let the market decide.

Which is what the market has been doing—and that’s why we have forty-eight million people without health care. The market has decided that. Leave things to the market, and there are two million people homeless. Leave things to the market, and there are millions and millions of people who can’t pay their rent. Leave things to the market, and there are thirty-five million people who go hungry."

- Howard Zinn, Changing Obama's Military Mindset

17 May, 2009

Sunday Morning Trepanation

This morning I attended a rehearsal of the new music group TRANSIT, who will present the NY Premiere of my Sunday Morning Trepanation at the Gerswhin Hotel on May 21st at 8. The group sounded great--great great great players--but the rehearsal itself was a rather strange experience for me. SMT is a piece that feels somewhat distant from where I am today, though I still really like it. Clarinetist Sara Budde--who played a very recent piece of mind with NOW Ensemble--even commented: "This is by the same guy who wrote Spalding Gray?" It's as if I was visiting a relative I hadn't seen for a long time.

Sunday Morning Trepanation was composed seven years ago while I was a graduate student at the University of Michigan. The piece, "equates contemporary religion with the drilling of holes in the skull," and is full of brutal sonic images: grinding, crushing, drilling; mangled hymns, contorted plainchant. (I was not very subtle at 23!)

But it was very interesting to hear what musical elements I have retained or lost from that period; to hear "early Little," or whatever. For example, I'm still very interested in drama and dramatic pacing, use similar harmonic shades, mixing tonality and atonality somewhat freely, and still have certain orchestration preferences (vibes, e-bow), etc. But then there are the elements I've dropped, mostly to do with style rather than substance: giant time signatures in the score, a suspect interest in complexity which, though I think it works compositionally, now seems like an odd attempt to "sound modern". I guess the heart of the matter is that the core of my music isn't all that different that it was 7 years ago, it's just changed in its surface and in its details. It put on a new coat; got some sensible shoes.

Anyway, if you're interested you can listen to the piece here. (Careful, there are some pretty drastic volume levels!) And be sure to check out Transit on the 21st. It sounds like it is going to be a really interesting show--with music by Angelica Negron, Matt McBane, Daniel Wohl and others.

28 April, 2009

Jello sings the blues.

"I saw the Berlin Wall go up and watched Vietnam being fought on TV every night. And my parents, rather than shield me from reality the way some many other Eisenhower-generation parents did to their kids, tried to explain to me what was going on and why they felt it was bad for cops with dogs to be hosing down civil rights demonstrators in Selma, Alabama. My dad actually drove me through the slums of Detroit one time to show me why people were rioting in the cities.

So when people around me complain-- you know. 'Why don't you ever write any personal stuff? We want to hear some personal stuff. We want to hear the real you.'--I tell them that this is basically what comes out of me. This is my way of singing the blues."

-Jello Biafra, Option Magazine, 1991

27 April, 2009

my boyfriend's back? - a monday morning web meander.

While wandering around Flickr, looking for free, creative commons images to use in the design for my new website (stay tuned!), I came across this gem:

Which, as the title of this post suggests, reminded me of The Angel's 1964 hit My Boyfriend's Back. ["My boyfriend, Revolution, is back, and you're going to be in trouble."] Which, given the creepy quasi-chivalrous vibe --(knight in shining armor?)--reminded me of this song, first introduced to me by Andrew Tholl:

Which lead me to ask: When will Marilyn Manson cover this song? I mean, it would be absolutely perfect.

(Stay tuned for a complete theory of the transformative application of persona in the cover songs of Marilyn Manson, which I swear I will write about someday....once I finally finish my dissertation.)

22 April, 2009

Susan Boyle / Martin Tanner

Feministing has an interesting, if ultimately bleak, analysis of Susan Boyle's recent triumph on Britain's Got Talent. The Boyle Situation suggests a trend from that show: the person-everyone-thinks-will-suck-based-largely/solely-on-how-they-look, who then blows the audience out of the water. (Remember Paul Potts?)

This is likely done for ratings--everyone loves an "underdog". But at a deeper level, it frames things in a way that accentuates the "ugly" so that it can be all the more moving then it is finally accepted by the "beautiful" on the basis of merit. (They really play it up in the edit room, showing shots of Boyle chomping on a doughnut before the show, complete with "fat kid" underscoring.) And the hosts are totally up front about it--Amanda Whatever calling Potts "a lump of coal" that can be transformed into a diamond. And it's okay for them to do this, the editing tells us, because, based on the reactions in the crowd it's just what everyone was thinking anyway.

I am not really qualified to get into this topic in any actual depth, but I wonder: to what degree is this a matter of the tension within an insider/outsider dichotomy? I dated someone once who used to boast that she'd "performed at Carnegie Hall." And while this was factually true, the performance took place in the context of Carnegie as a rental space, not as a presenting institution. I say this not to criticize, but rather to illuminate the dichotomy. For her, there really was no difference between Carnegie Hall and "Carnegie Hall," but for anyone who "knows better" there clearly is.

To bring it back to BGT: if you are an outsider like this, then--like Potts and Boyle--you might just not understand "how it works." (You might think Carnegie is "Carnegie".) You thereby might "do things wrong"--by insider standards--like wear the "wrong shoes" or "have bad hair" or whatever other socially prescribed nonsense. In some cases, this extends even to the point of having no clue as to what constitutes "good music," which we're fed regularly on American Idol. (Idle?)

Anyway, on some level the whole situation reminds me of this song by the late Harry Chapin, about a cleaner from the Midwest, who decides to make a go of it and try to have a professional singing career. As a young musician, I thought often about the distinction he makes between music-as-life and music-as-livelihood. Check it out:

21 April, 2009


So, I know it's been said elsewhere, but I have to hand it to Life's a Pitch for putting together a pretty brilliant/fun PR activity to promote the performance of Michael Gordon's Trance coming up tomorrow at LPR. (Though she notes that it was actually Michael Gordon's idea!) Some Newspeak regulars will be playing, and EM and I will there to embrace the work's wondrous pummeling.

20 April, 2009

Slow and Steady

Congratulations to Steve Reich, whose Double Sextet was just awarded the 2009 Pulitzer Prize in Music. Double Sextet was commissioned by eighth blackbird, and was premiered by them at the University of Richmond last March. The NYC premiere took place at Carnegie Zankel Hall on April 17, 2008, exactly one year before the first annual New Music Bake Sale.

Welcome / Bake Sale / Brooklyn Phil

Welcome to new readers arriving here here via Createquity, and many thanks to Mr. Moss for the kind shout-out. As for the note that this blog is infrequently updated, I'd like to restate my on-going promise to post more often. If the last few months are any indication, this may be a bit of a losing battle, but to willfully misquote Orwell's Boxer, I re-affirm: I will try harder.

So a few things have been going on. Some excellent and some not so excellent; and both, oddly, in Brooklyn. First the not-so-great: I just read that the Brooklyn Philharmonic has not only canceled the rest of this season, but ALL of next season's programming. They've been in the news a lot recently, since they are also being sued by Nathan Currier over what seems to have been a rather unpleasant situation all around. (And one on which I will take no sides, though am tickled to read posts by those who will!)

This is a sad thing, obviously, but the Brooklyn Phil is one of those arts organizations that was destined to get slammed by this economic disaster greed-fest. AA and I were recently talking about this; how the groups to survive this recession/depression will be the mammoth groups and the small-DIY groups. The mid-sized groups will be the ones with the greatest likelihood of going under. The large groups are so--ahem--well-endowed, that they can weather anything, while the smaller groups live on basically nothing as it is--and generally have little or no staff to support--so they too will survive.

And speaking of small-DIY organizations, now for the good news: New Music Bake Sale! Newspeak and Ensemble de Sade have been working like mad for the last four months or so to present the First Annual New Music Bake Sale. And I am pleased to report: we actually pulled it off! And not only that, but it was great, far exceeding our expectations!

This was a union of the small and DIY, and I really mean union. There were groups of all aesthetic varieties, and there was--to be blunt--no bullshit. There was none of the old, storied uptown/downtown nonsense. There was no competitiveness. There were just people who love new music enough to work really hard at it, for little or no money, on a regular basis for a long time. It was a diverse but amazingly supportive vibe. As James Holt mentioned in his kind addendum over at Sequenza 21--"we're all in this together." Another blog noted that "everyone at the tables was charming, friendly, convivial," saying that it was "like a modern day Woodstock minus the mud and the rain."

And I think this is sort of a great way to think about it. Woodstock had Hendrix, Sly Stone, Sha Na Na, and CSN&Y. We had Newspeak, Talea Ensemble, Red Light New Music, So Percussion, Wet Ink, and Dither (and, like 20 others). All at the same event. All very different. All equally supportive. I think it says something powerful about the current DIY generation, and about the sense of community we embrace. Not to get ahead of myself here, but maybe this is how/why we'll ultimately survive. At least I hope so.

Photo from Feast of Music.

06 April, 2009

Staff Sgt. Phillip Myers Comes Home

The Times recently had a brief but very sobering post about Air Force Staff Sgt. Phillip Myers, the first KIA service person to be photographed in his flag-draped coffin, returning home. As per the conditions of the recent ban lift--the result of an executive order from President Obama--Myers family gave their consent to the press attending the ceremonial and sad homecoming.

Some things in the article really struck me. The first is how quickly things change, perhaps in general, but in war in particular: Myers was awarded a bronze star on March 19, yet just over two weeks later he was dead, and days later returns home draped in a flag. The second--and this is really nothing shocking, but brought things home for me--is that Myers was 30, as am I.

But the sentence I found particularly chilling was this: "Dover Air Force base, in Delaware, houses the largest military mortuary in the country and is the Pentagon’s point of entry for service men and women killed abroad." One assumed that there had to have been a location for something like this, but actually learning where it is sort of shook me. It is as if Pentagon has built its own private San Michele, which I somehow found troubling. I wonder if, among the military, there is the sense that one wants to go home, unless it's to Dover.

Those opposing the lift on the ban fear that the images of the draped coffins could become politicized. While this is certainly possible--(some might say inevitable)-- these images provide an essential dose of empathy, an illuminating look at how the military works, and in particular how it deals with their dead. Being able to see these photos has the potential to open eyes and alter perceptions.

It reminds me of something my grandfather--a WWII vet from the European Theatre--said during his interview for Soldier Songs, paraphrased here:

At First Army Headquarters, keeping a record of all the casualties--the dead the wounded--and that's about the first time it hit me, when you see all the casualties coming through, he dead the wounded...though I never recognized any of the names.

Just reading this short blog entry in the Times, well, in some ways it's really the first time it hit me. It made the war more real, more dreadful. It made the sacrifices of those who fight it--and of their families--all the more vivid. Is this somewhat unpleasant? Perhaps, but it is also very important. If this ban lift will help the American people better see the true (if difficult) cost of this war, then it is nothing if not positive.

04 April, 2009

Guerrilla Music

The best thing ever? Maybe.

04 March, 2009

Andrew Tholl is a Mad Genius

I was just spending a little time getting to know my friend Andrew Tholl's relatively new website. Andrew is a very fine violinist and drummer. And as if that wasn't enough, he's started composing very seriously in the last few years, writing a whole slew of interesting pieces.

He's always been great with titles, at least in my opinion. He's one of two friends who I call if I am unsure about one of my own titles. Here are some of his gems:

our arrangement will never be mutually satisfying

poke and tickle

who’s cranky now

Maybe you need to know him, but these titles are pretty fantastic to me.

But one title of his totally takes the cake. It's called i’ll never be younger than i am today (for andrew tholl). It's for solo violin, and lasts 1 hour and 5 minutes.

So first, I think it's a deep title; lots of mortality hidden in there, but presented in a way that's not too morbid. But what gets me is the dedication!

I know that a lot of composers are also great performers. And I know that a lot of composer/performers write music for themselves to play. But I love (and have never seen before) the idea of composing a work for oneself, dedicating it to oneself, and making said dedication part of the title!

Pretty brilliant. Andrew Tholl is a mad genius. He hits the east coast this April with the terrific Formalist Quartet, who will make stops in New York, Princeton, and elsewhere. Check 'em out.

Photo by Todd Reynolds

01 March, 2009

Let's all go to the movies! (and forget our rotten lives.)

As the recession deepens people are still putting some money into entertainment, or at least into movies. At least that's what this article in today's Times reports, sayings that box office receipts are up nearly 16%!

The standard percentage of movie attendees is usually around 10% of the population. It's been that way, more or less, since the 1960s, bottoming out there after a gradual fall through the 40s and 50s. Thigh high-watermark for movie attendance was—perhaps not surprisingly—the 1930s, in the wake of the Great Depression. (Though this may also be attributed to the excitement over the advent of talkies, starting out with The Jazz Singer in 1927.)

But apparently it's not just the economy, it's also the films that studios are releasing in response to cultural desires: films that are, in one way or another, escapist. The article says:

The film industry appears to have had a hand in its recent good luck. Over the last year or two, studios have released movies that are happier, scarier or just less depressing than what came before. After poor results for a spate of serious dramas built around the Middle East (“The Kingdom,” “Lions for Lambs,” “Rendition”), Hollywood got back to comedies like “Paul Blart: Mall Cop,” a review-proof lark about an overstuffed security guard.

For someone whose life is dedicated to making art, the idea that Paul Blart is what society is looking for right now is troubling, a feeling driven home here: “A bunch of movies have come along that don’t make you think too much,” said Marc Abraham, a producer whose next film is a remake of “The Thing.” The article continues: "Cinematic quality has little to do with (financial success). The recent crop of Oscar nominees has fared poorly, for the most part, at the box office. Lighter fare has drawn the crowds."

This is perhaps the best sign of how the recession might directly impact me. Financially, I live on very little money, have no serious investments, and can't really get laid off. But if the audience for the type of art I feel it is important to make no longer demands what I can supply, well, that could be a problem. Soldier Songs, for example—though not about the Middle East—is a "serious drama" intended to "make you think," and the upcoming Dog Days, though a (black) comedy, does involve a family starving in the wake of a devastating (maybe nuclear) war. (Sunshine and Puppies!) I will be very interested to read between the lines of the reviews for performances of these works in the coming months, to see if this sentiment—that they are too serious for these serious times—is expressed.

And though it's not his fault, President Obama provides a double-whammy for this scenario. I was recently talking to my friend Dallas (whose new record is quite good). He was discussing the correlation between the popularity of metal and political power cycles. When the Republicans are in office, he said, metal thrives as a genre. But when Democrats are in office, it fizzles. The reason? People are simply less angry under Democrats, (or so he says…personally, I think I’m equally angry under each).

He claimed that during the Clinton administration, Slayer—one of the greatest of all time—couldn't get anywhere near the top of the Billboard 200 charts. During the Bush administration, however, their Christ Illusion debuted at #5. (Who was at the top of the charts during the Clinton years? Hootie & The Blowfish, who were #1 twice, in 1994 and 1996, #5 in 1998!)

A quick look around the Billboard charts suggests that it's a little more complex than this, and metal is certainly not a genre that is going to cast as broad a net as pop. (That’s part of what metal is about anyway: insider/outsider tension.) But it's still interesting to consider what might have shifted culturally to have Slayer in the same Billboard slot that Hootie & The Blowfish had held eight years earlier.

Compare this 1996 performance by Hootie and The Blowfish, which makes Lionel Richie look like G.G. Allin...

...to Slayer's 2006 take on PTSD; timely and intense. (Warning: some graphic images.)

The influence of metal is a big part of my work, as is the desire to encourage thought and questioning. If the above is in fact true, I’m not sure that what I can offer an audience artistically is really what they want right now, though it might be what they need. I guess I'll just make what I need to make, and they can catch up to me when the smoke clears, and they’ve seen one Paul Blart too many.

16 February, 2009

Adventures in Fund Raising

Last night I attended the premiere of of Mermaid in a Jar--an excellent one-act opera by Rachel Peters and Royce Vavrek. After the show, I had the pleasure of meeting, among other people, Tom Ridgely. Tom is a director, and co-founder of the theater company Waterwell.

Checking out their website, I found this funny and adventurous fund raising campaign, giving potential donors countless reasons why they shouldn't donate to the theater:

My favorite lines?

*"I'm Tom Ridgely. For just $12 a day you can get our Dramaturg the bottle of Pino Grigio she so desperately needs to fall asleep each night."

*"They don't need your money. They don't need it. They're just telling you that because they like to buy nice things."

*"The other day, I saw them stepping on kittens."

Brilliant! I'll be curious to know how well it worked!

31 January, 2009

The Ultimate Jew meets Amanda Lepore: Surreal Scenes on South Beach

So I just returned from Miami, where I had the pleasure of working with the wonderful musicians at the New World Symphony, along with my old friend Jeff, and my new friends Timo and Daniel. (We were there to hear the premieres of new works inspired by Charles Ives. It was a really great show, organized by the wonderful Yuki Numata.) The orchestra's headquarters is in South Beach on Lincoln Road, which is a strange mix of Aspen, Venice, Atlantic City, and some of the older-feeling parts of LA. It's a pretty out place. Not too much of what you see is real, and by the second morning I had officially proclaimed Amanda Lepore as the patron saint of South Beach.

Getting caffeinated before a rehearsal, I noticed a woman sitting at a nearby Starbucks who was the closest thing to Lepore that I may have ever seen. It was pretty ridiculous. So collagen-injected she could barely speak, she was a wonderfully grotesque example of "beauty" in that particular shallow, late-capitalist, crumbling society sort of way.

Suddenly an older gentleman walks in and sits down next to her. I swear he looks like Jackie Mason, but I can't remember if Mason is dead or not. (Is that terrible?) This gentleman tries to flirt with the plastic lady, and she treats him kindly, like a cute grandfather--(I am at this point tending to my cream and sugar needs)--but what matters is that I got to hear his voice, which further suggests that it might well be him.

Earlier today, now back north, I remembered this bizarre scene, and decided to Google "Jackie Mason" and "Miami." Lo and behold, it turns out that Jackie Mason was on Lincoln Road in South Beach on that very day shooting The Ultimate Jew, his video-blog, where he pretty much rambles nonsensically, sounds off on Republican talking-points, and gets schooled by young whipper-snappers on politics. It's enlightening.

Watch Part 1 here, in which Jackie discusses the closing of Guantanamo with a fellow Jewish stand-up comic who is also, coincidentally, a relative of Senator Chuck Schumer:

Three Cheers for Miami Beach!

26 January, 2009

Hennacy on Hersey

"Heresy is a word that has no meaning to me now, for I renounce the whole system of Catholic or other theology, which is based upon the fear of hell and the hope of getting into heaven by all sorts of dubious bargains."

- Ammon Hennacy, On Leaving the Catholic Church (1965-1968)