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.