Friday, December 29, 2006

Fuck ringtones...

...I'm going to start writing music for these.

That's right: musical condoms. Yet another unforseen benefit of the demise of the Soviet Union...

(Thanks to Anne Bartow over at Sivacracy for the link.)

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Ringtones are all irritating

I know, I know. I've been spending too much time on YouTube. I swear, it's only cuz Time Magazine told me to. (Can I just digress here for a moment and mention how irritating I find that whole Person-of-the-Year-2006 thing? As if somehow grass-roots, independent communities never mattered until now?)

Anyway, Jill hipped me to the above video. Fucking beautiful, it is.

Incidentally, there's also a Birmingham (i.e., British) Complaints Choir, but they're not as good, in my opinion -- for one thing, they're less able to keep the straight face necessary to make the lyrics work.

Here, then, is another example of the kind of thing I was trying to get at a few posts back: "serious" humor as an effective resistance strategy. In this case, the juxtaposition of "boring dreams" and too-long reference numbers (for instance) threatens to produce laughter and tears all at once: is this the hoped-for utopia of the 21st century?

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Slings and Arrows

In case you thought "classical" music was all love and kisses... that's right, this is video of a recent booing incident at La Scala. The tenor, Roberto Alagna, walks off the stage (after remembering which way leads to the exit), and is replaced by, well, the other guy: Antonello Palombi. Palombi is out of costume, but nevertheless just happens to be waiting in the wings. Coincidence? You be the judge.

Somebody somewhere in this scenario (Alagna? the audience? Palombi? the lady interviewed after the booing footage?) is taking themselves too seriously. I can't figure out who...

(NB: Unless you speak Italian, you'll probably only be interested in the first 45 seconds of the video.)

Monday, December 18, 2006

Survey says

Why am I doing this? You know I generally avoid such things...

It started with a set of questions circulated by the Bad Plus. It coincided with the gradual process of unpacking and organizing my CD collection. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Maybe it still is: you tell me.

Anyway, a few caveats:

1. I guess the survey wasn't meant to provoke comprehensive answers, but most dedicated musicians have the mania of antique collectors and baseball fans: we like making (and comparing) lists, and what's the point of a list if it's incomplete? In other words: it was painfully difficult to restrict myself to one or two responses in each category. One of the ways I was able to do it, however, was by steering clear, for the most part, of the obvious answers (hence the lack of Ellington, Monk, Mingus, Satie, Ives, and others; and the paucity of Zappa).

2. In general I tend to listen compositionally, by which I mean that for me the compositional element (to the extent that it can be distinguished) trumps things like sound quality or even performance skill. Of course, what is composition, really? Yeah, I know, it's an aesthetic problem -- anyway, indulge me for a moment as I use that term as a placeholder for my own listening proclivities.


1. Movie score.

The Day the Earth Stood Still (Bernard Herrmann). The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (Ennio Morricone).

2. TV theme.

East Side / West Side (Kenyon Hopkins). Pee Wee's Playhouse (Mark Mothersbaugh... I think).

3. Melody.

“Idiot Bastard Son” (Frank Zappa). “Surf’s Up” (Brian Wilson).

4. Harmonic language.

"Lush Life" (Billy Strayhorn). Piano music of Alan Hovhaness.

5. Rhythmic feel.

“Slow Down” (Larry Williams). “Da Doo Run Run” (The Crystals).

6. Hip-hop track.

“Jennifa Taught Me” (De La Soul). “Hole in the Bucket” (Spearhead).

7. Classical piece.

String Quartet no. 1 (Leos Janacek). Requiem (W. A. Mozart).

8. Smash hit.

"Lay Lady Lay" (Bob Dylan). "Doo Wop (That Thing)" (Lauryn Hill).

9. Jazz album.

People Time (Stan Getz / Kenny Barron). Kennedy Dream (Oliver Nelson).

10. Non-American folkloric group.

I'll assume the word "folkloric" (as opposed to "folk") gives me a little leeway here:

Rustavi Choir (Georgian Choral music). Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens (South African mbaqanga group).

11. Book on music.

The Real Frank Zappa Book (Frank Zappa). Music Alone (Peter Kivy).


A) Name a surprising album (or albums) you loved when you were developing as a musician: something that really informs your sound but that we would never guess in a million years:

I'll interpret this as something of a “guilty pleasures” category because I don’t think anything that really informed my sound would be surprising to the listener. So here are two albums I don’t want you to know I liked at one time:

Blue (Joni Mitchell). Sweeney Todd (Stephen Sondheim).

B) Name a practitioner (or a few) who play your instrument that you think is underrated:

If my instrument is the piano: Don Pullen, Chico Marx. If my instrument is a jazz ensemble: Duane Tatro, Tadd Dameron.

C) Name a rock or pop album that you wish had been a smash commercial hit (but wasn’t, not really):

Why would I wish such a thing? (I can certainly think of a number of these I wish had NOT become hits.)

Oh, I’ve got it! Song Cycle (Van Dyke Parks).

And another: My, I'm Large (The Bobs).

D) Name a favorite drummer, and an album to hear why you love that drummer:

Dannie Richmond (any Mingus record he plays on). In general, I love the way Dannie often sounds like he's about to lose it (the beat, the groove, his place in the form) -- but never does.

* * * * *

[Hey! I’m going to add a category, since 'tis the season and all that jazz:]

Name some Christmas music you can actually stand to listen to:

1. "Sleigh Ride" (Ronettes version).
2. "Jingle Bells" (Sinatra version (on A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra): worth it just to hear him sing "Jingle Bells, Jing-Jingle Bells." Also dig those hip, wacky backing vocals.)

And what the hell, a bonus:

3. A Ceremony of Carols (Benjamin Britten).

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Old man winter

Ah, yes. This blog has gone so downhill in recent days that I've been reduced to writing about the weather.

Of course, I do have an excuse: we had a storm. It was a big storm. It would have appeared even bigger if you had lived in a weatherless place like LA for the last ten years.

Thursday morning things seemed docile enough -- for Portland in the winter -- but by the afternoon the wind was really picking up. At around 4:30, Daphne and Thandie made ready to run a few errands, but as they were heading out the door, things started looking, well, apocalyptic. I stopped them so we could at least check the news. Sure enough, all of the local broadcasters were in full emergency mode (you know, that weird breathless combination of "holy shit, look at that!" and "here comes a great story!").

I went out to pick up a few extra flashlights / batteries, making a beeline to the closest Fred Meyer superstore megaplex everything-mart. There were about four or five ominous flickerings-o-the-lights during the ten minutes I was in there, and each time one of those flickerings subsided I stupidly said to myself Well, good. We still have power. Let me get one more emergency item. (Cuz ya never know, we might just need that extra package of dried fruit to make it through the night.)

Sure enough, I was still in the Fred Meyer store when the lights went out for good. It was like being at a badly managed rock concert, sans the music. By the time I made my way outside (the FM registers remained operational: I guess nothing can stop capitalism), there were huge blue flashes going on in the hills behind the store. The rain was really driving now. The cars? Not so much. Took me about half an hour to travel the short distance to Dolph Court.

There were still powered-up patches in the neighborhood around us, but our street and its immediate environs were black. As I approached the house I slowed down and -- oh, hello, there! -- barely avoided running over the powerline that was on the ground directly in front of our driveway. I surveyed the situation, and realized that that fucker actually extended across the entire length of our part of the street.

Though I was fairly certain that I could have just driven over the mess (non-conductive rubber tires, dontcha know) and gotten into the house the conventional way, I didn't want to take any chances: what with the rain and the lack of streetlights, I couldn't get a good view of what had actually happened. I called Daphne to let her know what was up, and decided to backtrack, parking at the bottom of the hill, where things seemed safer. Then I came around the back way on foot, through some of our neighbors' yards and into ours.

We got situated with our candles and our craptacular dinner, and eventually were able to see that the culprit in the powerline incident (which Daphne told me had produced a tremendous boom) was in fact an enormous fir tree (probably over sixty feet tall) that stood out by the street at the very edge of our neighbor's property, and just adjacent to our driveway. Actually, the tree was more like a victim -- the real culprit was either lightning or wind. In any case, the fir was down but not out -- from our kitchen window we could see the silhouette of its hulking mass leaning across the street, like a strange silent blue-green ghost hovering in the storm.

It was about 1 AM when the power company trucks arrived, with their yellow floodlights and their cherry pickers and their chainsaws. It was pretty exciting actually (though in a bad-Steven-Spielberg-movie kind of a way), and since the hubbub had awakened Thandie, we took her out to the dining room to watch from the picture window. It was still raining.

All in all, we had a fairly sleepless and cold night (even though I was able to keep the fireplace going until about 4 AM, when the power came back on). But we made out better than most. The experience, mild though it was, really brought home the cool, awful (in the original sense of that word), adrenalizing power of nature. This has been a recurring theme of our move to PDX, and I must say, it's a welcome one: at its worst, the static LA atmosphere can induce a kind of wandering zombie-hood, while storms like this tend to remind you that you're alive.

Winter has stripped the trees, and on a recent sunny day we noticed that we have a somewhat awkward but nevertheless enjoyable view of the beautiful Mt. Hood -- there's a bad picture, badly enhanced, up on top of this post. I kept thinking about that mountain (and the three dudes who are currently still missing there) during the howlingest part of the storm, as I alternated between tending to both the fire and a good book. I later learned that some of the Hoodian gusts that evening exceeded 100 mph. Scary.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

I was irritated by this. U2?

If any of you were brave enough to try those Bono cookies -- get ready to puke 'em back up again.

(Thanks to Ponty Lox for the link.)

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Pomp and circumstances

The always entertaining Bob Stein at if:book blog recently linked to an interesting Marina Hyde article that appeared in the Guardian. The subject: the greed of rock stars, as expressed through the sledgehammer of recent copyright laws (and some that are still in gestation).

Hyde: "Rock stars, who sold themselves as anti-establishment, would too often have us anoint them the new feudal squires. It is an accusation that has been bandied about ever since these rebels deserted Carnaby Street for Epping Forest mansions, but these days seems more pertinent than ever. If they are not pursuing fatuous stratagems against underlings, they are attempting to extract charitable tithes from the public and redistribute them in the manner that they, musicians, see fit. [...] It is particularly easy, in this context, to sympathise with the anti-copyright-extension brigade's argument against children and grandchildren of artists earning huge incomes from intellectual property for which they never did a stroke of work. They are simply forming a version of the aristocracies they once cocked a snook at [...]".

It's hard to imagine where popular music as an industry is going to be in the next fifty years (and, since music doesn't happen in a vacuum, it's hard to imagine too the fate of "progressive" music -- if that's the term -- in that time). On one hand, the stubborn miasma of public discontent (or apathy, or distraction), coupled with the technological juggernaut (which I think will always ensure that information gets the freedom it so desperately wants), coupled with the inevitable consumer-bloc power of the next generation of music fans (who have grown up in the environment of downloading), coupled with the dispersal of canons and the emergence of the long tail, may mean that the days of MTV, American Idol, and Entertainment Tonight are numbered. Like the structural supports of the original aristocracy, these things, which seem fortress-like in their solidity, can eventually crumble.

On the other hand, one has to wonder, as per Bob Stein's suggestion, the extent to which America, which doesn't share Europe's long and bitter history with a real aristocracy, is paradoxically fascinated by the power and authority of an "entertainment class." Perhaps it's that drooling fascination that makes the subject of copyright so freakin' litigious. It might thus help explain why (for instance) Mariah Carey thinks she has a legitimate claim against porn star and ex-candidate-for-governor-of-California Mary Carey. What's next? (Harry Caray, you wanna get in on this from beyond the grave?) As Charles Isherwood put it in a NYT article about plagiarism lawsuits a few weeks back: "Doesn't it seem wearying?"

Yes. Yes, it does.

(By the way -- those are indeed Bono cookies in the picture above. Hyde has some funny things to say about the U2 frontman, so I couldn't resist...)

Sunday, December 10, 2006

In defense of fun

The amazing Destination Out recently had a nice post on Dutch master Willem Breuker, whose music I must admit I have a weird affinity for, and who more than one observer of my own compositional ramblings has cited as a clear influence on the IJG. Odd, isn't it? I don't own too many Breuker albums (the featured tracks here were brand new to me), so I guess this is sort of like Zappa citing James Joyce in the liner notes to Freak Out... and then admitting that he had never read much James Joyce. I explain it like this: with certain artists, you sense a very strong resonance straight out of the gate. In my case, from the moment I heard it, Breuker's music made a kind of immediate sense. It's just that I haven't delved too far into the discography yet.

Little by little. These tracks -- especially "Driebergen-Zeist" -- only reinforce my initial impressions. Sure, Breuker has his Zappa-isms (I suspect the first part of the opening drum fill to "D-Z" is a quote of the famous beginning to "Peaches En Regalia") and his Weill-isms (consider the lovely saxes-in-octaves thing that happens at about 1:20; who else but Weill could have inspired that?). But if this music is retrospective, it's also retrospectively iconoclastic. At least that's how I understand the much ballyhooed break with the Instant Composer's Pool: rather than searching for wholly "new" compositional methodologies (in this case, approaches to improvisation), Breuker turned to traditional techniques (mostly through-composition for large ensemble) in order to focus on playing with what the listener already knew (and how!). Creative re-juxtapositions, brilliantly alternating between satisfaction and subversion of the listener's expectations: that's where this music is at.

The D-O guys do a beautiful overview of this stuff, though I can't help finding tidbits to cavil over. For one thing, the Wallace Stevens device didn't ring true for me -- Breuker seems to require a riff on e.e. cummings, or (much better) the prose writer Donald Barthelme. And then there's Chilly's argument that "The avant garde gets a bad rap for not having a sense of humor. Especially free jazz. This gives the lie to that notion." Maybe. Certainly some of my favorite "out artists" (Lester Bowie, Monk, Ornette, to name three) have moved me by (at least in part) cracking me up. But come on. When was the last time you actually laughed out loud at an "avant garde" performance? (I'm talking about a good celebratory -- and perhaps even tearful -- guffaw, not a snarky "I'm in the club" chuckle.) And -- more importantly --why does it actually take effort to imagine that laughter might be a relevant aesthetic response?

Some old French guy famously said that "life is a tragedy for those who feel, and a comedy for those who think." But that's not quite accurate. When done right, comedy itself is suffused with emotion. And not just the emotions of "instantaneous thrills, like a good rollercoaster ride" (Chilly again). In the right context, comedy can be deployed in ways that are extremely serious (think Richard Pryor, Lenny Bruce, or the role of humor-as-resistance in the Holocaust). Even now, at this particularly dismal historical moment, it has been the comics and humorists (the Stephen Colberts and Bill Mahers and Onions of the world) who have succeeded in poking the biggest holes in the thick, scuzzy film that covers our political life.

For me, no matter how absurd or obscene Breuker's arrangements get -- and I for one will always argue that there is an important place for both absurdity and obscenity in art -- there also always seems to be room for the qualities that D-O holds in high regard, but does not hear in the Kollektief (Chilly's "heat-rending lyricism or spiritual uplift"). In "Driebergen-Zeist," that moment happens twice for me: the first time at 6:38, with its ecstatic descending figures, and the second time at 7:57, where Breuker finally makes good on a melodic promise that was introduced at 1:22. Brief though they are, these moments suggest that Breuker is up to much more than just a light-hearted shtick.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Three months in the life of a bandleader

Consider this entry, written a few weeks ago when I was in a particularly foul mood, as a personal testament to the oft-made claim that live music is dying a horrible death. It’s a blow-by-blow account of the sort of nonsense that has gone on behind the scenes as I’ve been booking our upcoming east coast tour. Which is not to say that I haven’t come across / worked with some wonderfully helpful people in the process (Darcy James Argue comes to mind, and Tom Lubelczyk, and Mike Baggetta, and Curt Howard, and Jill Knapp, and a few others). Still, I don’t know what it is, but the ratio seems to be really skewed toward the assholes and incompetents these days. It’s sorta like politics, I guess (you know the old argument about how the system drives away all of the truly qualified people?).

Keep in mind that what follows -- a sort of transcript of my attempts to book us into this one club -- is just one slice of the overall panoply of booking tasks for this tour. I was simultaneously going back and forth with numerous other venues (probably about thirty altogether) throughout the same period, in the hopes of maybe having four or five of them come through with gigs for us. Keep in mind too that I wrote this at a particularly desperate moment -- it appeared that we were going to have a very, uh, leisurely tour. Usually I’m able to maintain a kind of zen-ish calm in my role as booking agent for the band, but this guy really gave me a run for my money. Check it out:

September 6: I send an email to two east coast DJ friends asking for recommendations for places to play in NJ. They both resoundingly endorse a venue that will for the purposes of this tale be given an alias. Let’s call it “The Flouncing Boat.” Contact information is relayed, and I send out an introductory email almost immediately. Keep in mind that I am trying to book a date in January, which at this point is still four months away. Like a fool, I assume I am way ahead of the curve.

September 11: I receive a response from the booker at the Boat, who for the purposes of this tale will also be given an alias. Let’s call him Dickhead. Mr. Head requests that I go through the usual routine: send in a CD and press, and we’ll see what happens.

Ha! I’ve had a stack of press kits, a stack of CDs, and a stack of large envelopes, all ready to go since April. And in fact, Mr. Head, I already sent a package in to you as soon as I got your information from my DJ friends back on September 6. So you should probably have received it already. Like I said, ahead of the curve, right?

Dickie also asks if we have an audience out east. My reply is instantaneous (for you booking people who might not know, that means I replied right away): “Yes, we do have an east coast following. This will be our second trip out your way -- we toured NY / NJ / DE in spring of 2005, and at our NJ show we had around 60 people. I actually think we'll do a little better this time because of IAJE.”

September 14: I send a followup email to make sure Dickhead got the package of our materials.

September 19: I get a response which reads (and I’m quoting): “u did not reply to the question of a nj following //how many people can u pull into [the boat]?????”

Never mind the irritating use of letters for words (I thought only Prince was allowed to do that with impunity?). Never mind the excessive punctuation (do five question marks somehow signal greater curiosity than one?). The real issue is how did he miss my response to his question?

No worries. I will assume that I made some sort of mistake; I’m in no position to quibble, since I’m the one who wants the gig (read: I am at his mercy). I make this assumption even though I can easily go back and check my sent mail folder to see as plain as day that I did indeed give him information about our draw in my initial response.

Once again, I respond instantaneously, beginning with the following self-effacing nonsense: “Sorry -- I thought I had sent along another email but possibly I forgot.” I then proceed to re-articulate the relevant data, more or less exactly as in the email quoted above.

I get an uncharacteristically quick reply from Dickhead. (Woah! Maybe you do know what “instantaneous” means!) Here it is: “send 4 dates that could work 4u,,,asap.” Okay, if five question marks are confusing, three commas are even more so. But no matter -- I have this in the bag now, I can just feel it! I respond sometime in the wee hours on the morning of the 20th that we are available for the whole week of the IAJE conference. Hooray!

September 25: No response from Dickhead. The silence has motivated me to send him a “checking in” email to see what’s up.

September 29: More silence. I send out another email. Where is this guy?

October 4: More silence, another email from me. (Several times during this period, I also try to use the telephone to reach Dick. No dice. The recorded voice on the other end always tells me the number is no longer in service.)

October 13: The silence continues. Does he get paid for this? I send out another email.

October 15: Do you see a pattern here? (That’s right, I send out another email.)

I must clarify: my complaint is simply with the lack of a response, not the hypothetical content of that response, should it ever come. In other words, if Dick had gotten back to me within a day or two of my last email and said "Look, I've changed my mind. We can't book you because we don't like your music," I would have much preferred that to this inexplicable communication vacuum. Booking a tour is mostly about transforming variables (e.g., "we might be able to play this club") into concrete, reliable data (e.g. "this club wants us to play on this date or that date"), and then manipulating that data in such a way that you have an optimal schedule. But when there are only variables, and when they seem intent on remaining variables, you can't do much, and you get stuck in a kind of limbo. (And the longer you wait the more difficult promotion becomes -- but that's a topic for another post.)

October 17: It has been almost a month since our last contact, so you can imagine my joy when I see that I have a message from Dickhead in my inbox. I open it up. Cue my jaw hitting the floor. Here’s the missive: “STILL NO MENTION OF HOW MANY PEEPS YOU WOULD DRAW INTO MY CLUB/CANT CONSIDER A BOOKING.”

All caps! Are you serious? Are you?????????

My response is a little less generous than it was the last time he lost our information. I go so far as to point out the fact of that previous loss, forwarding him both of the emails I sent with answers about the question of a draw. I’m not rude, but I think I convey a sense of urgency, because once again he goes against the grain and actually gets back to me the same day with this: “SEND DATES AGAIN /THEY WERE DELETED DY MISTAKE/AND I WILL TRY TO HOOK U UP.”

I’m done commenting on the syntax, grammar, and so on of these fucking emails. I foolishly give Mr. Head the benefit of the doubt, allow myself to have hope anew, and restate the dates that we’re available in what I hope is one of the last emails I will ever have to send to him.

October 19: Oh, no. I’m not letting you get away, fucker. Here’s my courtesy follow-up email reminding you that you at least owe me the decency of a response, even if you aren’t going to book us.

October 23: Each time I send out one of these “Hi! Just checking in! What do you think about a booking?” emails (burying my annoyance under the rosiest demeanor I can muster) I have to include all the relevant information (availability, potential draw) because I just know this guy is preparing to lose it all again.

October 24: I’m really working it now. Two emails in two days! Both of them saying the same thing! Neither of them getting a response!

October 30: Again, I ask: what exactly do they pay this guy for?

November 9: There are still two months before we’re out east. Thus there is still hope, right?

November 14: A few days after my last email, I had gone back to my DJ friends to see if they knew what was up. Shortly thereafter I learned Dickhead had been canned, and was no longer booking at the Boat. (Hey, Dickhead, thanks for telling me.) I was therefore not surprised when I received this final (I hope) missive from him (sorry, I can’t resist quoting verbatim one more assinine email): “THE BOATBIS PROB GION UNDER OR BEING SOLD SOON /MAY HAVE ANOTHER VENUE /WILL KNOW IN A FEW DAYS /U DONT WANT DO THE BOAT.”

Well, whether I want to or not turns out to be irrelevant -- by the time I track down Dickhead’s replacement (who is also fairly slow in responding to emails from out-of-town musicians), the moment for setting up an IJG show there has passed.

So there you have it. Three months, sixteen emails (at least), a buck-fifty on postage, and a lot of stress; all of which seems to have been a more or less complete waste of my time. Whee!

Later that week, while crawling off to sleep in the bath, I have a vision of a time, perhaps hundreds of years from now, when bookers and musicians will realize that they are both actually after pretty much the same thing, and that a little civility can go a long way toward making sure it is achieved.