Thursday, February 26, 2009

What Lil Beck said

Via my (increasingly pointless but occasionally entertaining) Twitter feed:

"respectfully disagrees w/ Gov. Jindal & the right wing. how can we afford to NOT fund a flying train?!"

Precisely. How long are we supposed to wait for the future?

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The big rah rah

Do you ever feel like maybe you were born on another planet, and were mysteriously placed here merely to observe the weird rituals of this crazy, beautiful phenomenon called humanity?

No? Well, I do.

Example given: I dug the "pseudo state of the union" tonight as much as anyone could -- those of you who follow this blog with even passing regularity know the generally high esteem in which I hold our new president, and it was a pleasure to hear him lay it all out in no uncertain terms. I continue to maintain that he is more or less exactly what our country needs right now.

But the generalized, bipartisan, chortling, back-slapping, wheeling/dealing processional that preceded the speech -- the long masturbatory buildup that has in fact attended every one of these I can remember, going back several presidents -- well, this isn't the first time I've asked myself: honestly, what is the point of that? If there's anything more unseemly than the sight of politicians blatantly trying to win votes, it's the sight of politicians blatantly trying to impress each other while on national television. What are they clapping about? Ain't nothing been fixed yet, mofos.

In other words: less pomp, please, and more focus on the circumstances of our current dilemma.

(Of course, I also think it's absurd that Congress has to dress so formally all the time. So many of our senators/representatives seem to have spent their careers building elaborate facades around themselves -- I wonder if they could keep up that illusion if they had to come to work in their pajamas every once in a while?)

Oh, yes, and: sweet christ in a cummerbund, what possessed MSNBC (and maybe CNN too, I dunno) to employ the much-maligned (and rightfully so) "focus group emotional tracking device" (or whatever the fuck it's called) in "real time" as the speech was happening?

Can we let the campaign go for even thirty seconds?

Hmmm. For some reason, I seem to be cranky tonight.

Boozey rides again

IJG, live in Olympia, WA, in September of 2008.

Things I'm trying to reconcile

1. My sense that the Internet, in its many manifestations, is the structural element / organizing principle of the still-emerging 21st century music economy, and that "winning at the internet" is a key technique for making a living with your own music,


2. My sense that Internet addiction is a real phenomenon, with real negative physical and psychological consequences.


Saturday, February 21, 2009

Halloween in February

In an effort to buffer some of the stressful politics-oriented reading I've been doing lately, I decided to start making my way through Oliver Sacks's Musicophilia today. Bad idea:

Dwight Mamlok was a cultivated man of seventy-five with mild high-frequency deafness who came to see me in 1999. He told me how he had first started to "hear music" -- very loud and in minute detail -- ten years earlier, on a flight from New York to California. It seemed to have been stimulated by the drone of the plane engine [...] and, indeed, the music ceased when he got off the plane. [...] The pattern changed when he flew to California in the summer of 1999, for this time the music continued when he got off the plane. It had been going on almost nonstop for three months when he first came to see me. [...]

When I asked Mr. Mamlok what his internal music was like, he exclaimed, angrily, that it was "tonal" and "corny." I found this choice of adjectives intriguing and asked him why he used them. His wife, he explained, was a composer of atonal music, and his own tastes were for Schoenberg and other atonal masters, though he was fond of classical and, especially, chamber music, too. But the music he hallucinated was nothing like this. It started, he said, with a German Christmas song (he immediately hummed this) and then other Christmas songs and lullabies; these were followed by marches, especially the Nazi marching songs he had heard growing up in Hamburg in the 1930s. These songs were particularly distressing to him, for he was Jewish and had lived in the terror of the Hitlerjugend, the belligerent gangs who had roamed the streets looking for Jews [pp. 60-62]

Certainly not the first time I've ever heard of the weird things the mind's ear can do as it ages (or responds to injury) -- but it spooked me all the same.

This is actually a fascinating book -- if I get my shit together at some point I'll write a more detailed commentary.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

How The New Yorker is different from The New York Post

Since the IJG dabbles in musical satire and potentially offensive comedic bits from time to time, I try to cut other similarly-inclined artists a lot of slack. Many of my own cultural heroes have pissed somebody off at some point, and I get how that's an occupational hazard for anyone interested in playing around on the fringes.

That's why I didn't say much about the New Yorker cover that caused such controversy during the last presidential election. I mean, on the one hand, I could understand why people were so offended by it.

But I also understand that while politics is a field that calls out for clarity, good art, alas, is often ambiguous. I don't know if the New Yorker cartoon was good art, but it was certainly ambiguous, in that multiple interpretations could be credibly attributed to it. One of those interpretations -- that Obama was a terrorist looking to destroy the US -- was indeed offensive and racist. And the last thing anyone needed at that moment in the campaign was another instance of a fundamentally stupid assumption recklessly tossed into an already volatile discourse. The fact that there was an alternate interpretation of the same cartoon -- a Cleavon-Little-in-Blazing-Saddles interpretation, in which Obama, looking directly at the viewer, seemed to be saying "excuse me while I whip out, and taunt you with, every ridiculous preconception you have about me" -- was less important than the fact that the very people who didn't understand that Obama wasn't a terrorist in the first place would probably never understand that take on the cartoon.

In any case, the bigger point is that with the New Yorker cartoon, at least there was a credible alternative to the racist interpretation. Which is more than can be said for this travesty published by the New York Post.

When pressed about the possible comparison of Obama to a dead chimpanzee, Post editor, Col Allen, provided this rationalization:

The cartoon is a clear parody of a current news event, to wit the shooting of a violent chimpanzee in Connecticut. It broadly mocks Washington's efforts to revive the economy.

Allen is right that sometimes the juxtaposition of seemingly unlike things can lead to witty social commentary. I seem to remember a political cartoon from the 1980 presidential campaign, in which Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and Walter Mondale were pictured as the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion, singing, respectively, "If I only had a brain," "a heart," and "the nerve." But that cartoon worked because there was a connection -- a surprising, funny connection -- between the three candidates and their three unexpected doppelgangers from the Wizard of Oz. In the end, the illustration eloquently and elegantly summed up some of the political criticism that was floating around at the time.

The Post cartoon also makes a connection between two seemingly unlike things, but it is not the connection the paper so disingenuously claims -- that both stories merely happened to be in the news at the same time. Any idiot could create a cartoon using that technique -- and, say what you like, the cartoonist in this case, Sean Delonas, doesn't seem to be an idiot. (He does, however, seem to be a bit of an asshole.)

No, the specific juxtaposition speaks volumes. I mean, shit. Instead of a dead chimp, why not choose other topical and current images of demise? Why not the geese that flew into the engines of the Hudson plane, for instance? Why not the latest kid to get booted off American Idol? Why not the (unfairly) disgraced Michael Phelps? Couldn't the caption "They'll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill" have worked equally well in any of those scenarios?

No, there was a particular reason Delonas chose to link the chimp story with the story about Obama's stimulus package -- which was, incidentally, how the bill was described ad nauseum in the weeks leading up to its passage, so no claiming that the unnamed author of the stim is actually Pelosi (as if murdering a different politician would somehow be more palatable). The idea of a "police shooting" comes ready-made with certain associations. The idea of using a chimpanzee as a stand-in for a human being comes ready-made with certain associations. We may not want to admit those associations to ourselves. We may want to pretend that they refer to ancient history. But pretending and denying are not viable (or sane) responses to pathological phenomena.

And don't kid yourself: if we still have this sort of thing floating around in our national psyche, then "pathological" is really the right word.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009


Hey! I have a new tune -- "Et Tu, Tutu?" -- premiering tonight (Tuesday, February 17) in the Portland Jazz Festival, as part of a set by the esteemed Portland Jazz Composers' Ensemble.

7:30 PM at the Old Church, in downtown. More info at the PJCE website.

Hot dog!

Monday, February 16, 2009

Everything suddenly got less interesting, and then more interesting again

Everybody's favorite left-wing, named-after-a-rock-guitar-god, Zappa-loving radio host is now off the air. Again.

I understand that some people hate her, and some people love her. But in terms of the overall picture of media bias in this country (which leans pretty far to the right once you get out of the big cities), I'd say on balance that this is a bad development. Though I imagine RR will soon be broadcasting again from somewhere else. The woman is clearly a survivor.

In other news, porn star Stormy Daniels seems to be engaging in a kind of performance art. Hooray for performance art!

(Or maybe it's for real? Nothing wrong with that, in principle. I mean, if this guy can be president...)

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Part v. whole

The always-astute Seth Godin hits upon one of the issues facing those of us who work in genres (like jazz composition) that depend upon the development of an idea, as much as the quality of that idea:

The web has become a giant highlights reel... [...] We can skim really fast now. [...] As consumers of information, though, I wonder if the best parts are really the best parts. [...] the parts you miss are there for a reason.

Real change is rarely caused by the good parts. Real change and impact and joy come from the foundation and the transitions and the little messages that sneak in when you least expect them. The highlights of the baseball game are highlights largely because the rest of the game got you ready for them.

Oh, the irony! Did you notice how I highlighted key quotes from a post about the dangers of highlighting?

But it's true, and he's right. One of the, oh, I dunno, 5 million reasons I adore Frank Zappa is that he understood there was a certain aesthetic value in, well, momentary boredom, and that sometimes you have to let dumb shit happen on tape for a little bit in order to make the beautiful sections of an album really stand out.

The web, for all its potential as a tool for focusing our attention on the specifics of something (I guess "cropping" would be the main metaphor here), is also a deep hit of short-term gratification (cue Louis CK noting how quickly impatience can morph into ingratitude).

To put all that another way: for independent musicians, it's great how sites like CD Baby and eMusic offer browsing customers an opportunity to hear 2 minute clips before actually purchasing an album. But honestly -- how would you go about selecting a representative 2 minute clip from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony? Or Coltrane's "My Favorite Things"?

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Friday, February 06, 2009

Your pork is my bacon

Got up this morning thinking that if I had to hear one more talking head spew sound-byte-y BS about the stimulus bill, I would simply have to tear my hair out. Or, uh... you know... gnash my teeth.

How grateful I was to discover Steven Pearlstein bringing some (sarcastic) clarity to this issue:

"This is not a stimulus plan, it's a spending plan," Nebraska's freshman senator, Mike Johanns (R), said Wednesday in a maiden floor speech full of budget-balancing orthodoxy that would have made Herbert Hoover proud. The stimulus bill, he declared, "won't create the promised jobs. It won't activate our economy."

Johanns was too busy yesterday to explain this radical departure from standard theory and practice. Where does the senator think the $800 billion will go? Down a rabbit hole? Even if the entire sum were to be stolen by federal employees and spent entirely on fast cars, fancy homes, gambling junkets and fancy clothes, it would still be an $800 billion increase in the demand for goods and services -- a pretty good working definition for economic stimulus.

Right. The underlying point here is that "wasteful spending" is often code for "spending that immediately benefits someone else," or "spending that offends my ideology in some way." But c'mon: spending is spending. And it's always stimulative somehow.

Pearlstein goes on:

Meanwhile, Nebraska's other senator, Ben Nelson (D), was heading up a centrist group that was determined to cut $100 billion from the stimulus bill. Among his targets: $1.1 billion for health-care research into what is cost-effective and what is not. An aide explained that, in the senator's opinion, there is "some spending that was more stimulative than other kinds of spending."

Oh really? I'm sure they'd love to have a presentation on that at the next meeting of the American Economic Association. Maybe the senator could use that opportunity to explain why a dollar spent by the government, or government contractor, to hire doctors, statisticians and software programmers is less stimulative than a dollar spent on hiring civil engineers and bulldozer operators and guys waving orange flags to build highways, which is what the senator says he prefers.

Yes. These sorts of comparisons seem absurd to me.

And, in that vein, why are we supposed to assume that government jobs aren't really jobs? Par exemple:

Henninger weighed in with his own list of horror stories from the stimulus bill, including $325 million for trail repair and remediation of abandoned mines on federal lands, $6 billion to reduce the carbon footprint of federal buildings and -- get this! -- $462 million to equip, construct and repair labs at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"What is most striking is how much 'stimulus' money is being spent on the government's own infrastructure," wrote Henninger. "This bill isn't economic stimulus. It's self-stimulus."

Actually, what's striking is that supposedly intelligent people are horrified at the thought that, during a deep recession, government might try to help the economy by buying up-to-date equipment for the people who protect us from epidemics and infectious diseases, by hiring people to repair environmental damage on federal lands and by contracting with private companies to make federal buildings more energy-efficient.

Anyway, now it appears we are on our way to a deal... we'll see what happens.