Thursday, December 31, 2009

Eau de music criticism

I've been re-reading Nicolas Slonimsky's infamous text, The Lexicon of Musical Invective, and was tickled when I came across this passage in the droll but perceptive Peter Schickele foreword that graces the edition I own:

As a serious composer and also as the sole discoverer of the putative music of PDQ Bach, I have been on the receiving end of both pans and raves, and, everything else being equal, I prefer raves. Any highly flattering review I get is, of course, humbly accepted and appreciated, but one stands out, head and shoulders above the rest. It appeared in a respected magazine, and it can only be described as an artist's wet dream: 'Having banished Mr. Schickele some time ago from my conscious mental life as being a fellow whose spoofs of Baroque music, both on records and television, struck me as labored, clumsy, and utterly sophomoric, it was not with alacrity that I reached for the latest sample of his wares. Mr. Schickele, I recant! I grovel before your genius, an abject idolater. Obtuse and inattentive, I have grossly misunderstood your methods and your motives. You are the most.'

Now that's what I call music criticism.

Hell yeah!

Here's to 2010. May we all suddenly and inexplicably graduate from "labored, clumsy, and utterly sophomoric" to "the most."

[photo credit: "The Future of Rock 'n Roll," by fmgbain]

The reproducer

If you've never seen or heard a reproducing piano, mentioned in that last post, here's a useful vid. (Holy crap, is there anything that can't be found on YouTube?)

Monday, December 28, 2009

Lumpy Monday morning

I have no good reason for posting this video, other than the fact that it has a criminally teeny number of YouTube views.

Just doing my part.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

A list you can actually abuse

Since I've been throwing darts at the idea of the best-of list, why not a best-of list you can throw darts at?

Here, according to the elves that run google analytics, are my top ten blog posts from the past year, measured strictly in terms of page views. (Obviously, there are all sorts of problems with this list as a metric of "quality." But as a general introduction to JTMoU, or as a reminder of some things you may have missed, it ain't half bad.)

10. What Passes for Scholarship These Days: Introduction, part one (The first installment in my seemingly endless dissertation-posting series.)

9. We are the world, and we suck (Commentary on the death of Michael Jackson.)

8. The Impossibility of the Avant-Garde (On the pointlessness of trying to be "subversive" in art.)

7. Jazz: the Music of Un-enjoyment (Actually that's an older post, but it was popular this year because of a twitter hashtag. A catalog of shite gigs I have experienced.)

6. No One Dances in New York (My response to Nate Chinen's NYT review of the IJG's Bell House show this past October.)

5. The Funmaker (Lots of pictures of a vintage organ I acquired over the summer.)

4. The Watts Ensemble (The only interview I have done so far: composer/drummer Brian Watson.)

3. Jazz Populi (A response to the Jazz Now project initiated by a consortium of youngish jazz bloggers this past year.)

2. Research & Development (A focus group on the Jazz Now project.)

And the number one JTMoU post of 2009:

1. RIAA breaks guitars, and music in general (An essay on the Joel Tenenbaum case, and the copyright fight as it stands in 2009.)

Many thanks, everyone, for reading, commenting, linking, tweeting, and referencing this year. It's been fun.

[photo credit: Alex Ford]

Friday, December 18, 2009

Speaking of English literature

I know it may seem curious for "Dr. Frank C. Baxter, Professor of English, University of Southern California" to be introducing a film as lovably kooky as 1956's The Mole People. (By the way, you know that a film is "lovably kooky" when it never inspires a remake.)

But he was a real guy, and a real professor, with real experience in the entertainment biz!

And here's a real sun, and a real moon, and then a rather shadowy and formless mass of electric potentiality with little bright sparks in it, and they give us the sense of our stars.

You may in fact remember Professor Baxter from such edutainment classics as "Hemo the Magnificent," directed by Frank Capra. (I sure do. Third grade science class, if I recall correctly.)

Unfortunately, the good doctor passed on long before my tenure at USC -- but I'd like to think that something of his goofy irreverent academic spirit lived on in those hallowed halls, and eventually made its way into an IJG tune or two.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Now you know why I was an English major

Via Big Think, Lea Carpenter's writeup of a writeup on Peter Ackroyd's particularly bawdy translation of Canterbury Tales. What can I say? Carpenter had me at the title ("Fucking up Chaucer").

It's easy to avoid Chaucer. Or rather, easy to attempt avoiding him even when electing English as a major, or as a passion. Nothing about the academic marketing of Chaucer would lead one to believe he is sexy, or current. Yet he was both.

Actually, when I was first exposed to Chaucer, in the early nineties, it was under the tutelage of a flaxen-haired, husky-voiced associate professor on whom I had a ridiculous, intense, and fleeting crush. And when she read the Tales, aloud, and in the original Middle English (which even on the page always seemed beautifully eerie to me)... well... it left no doubt that this was a poetry that spoke to the soul through the body.

I graunte thee lif if thou canst tellen me
What thing it is that wommen most desiren;
Be war and keep thy nekke boon from iren.

(from the Wife of Bath's Tale)

Anyway, Carpenter goes on to quote Joan Acocella, author of the New Yorker essay on Ackroyd's text:

When Chaucer has the Wife of Bath saying, in defense of love, "For what purpose was a body made?," Ackroyd translates, "Cunts are not made for nothing, are they?" She also cites King Solomon, with his many wives. "On his wedding nights," she says (in Chaucer's original) "he had many a merry bout with each of them, so lively a man was he." Ackroyd translates, "What about all those wedding nights? I bet that he did you-know-what as hard as a hammer with a nail. I bet he gave them a right pounding." When, in the Miller's Tale, Alison says to her swain, "Love me at once or I will die," Ackroyd gives us "Fuck me or I am finished."

And glosses it accordingly:

This is literary history: a loving "fucking up" of English Literature. Wouldn't we rather spend afternoons reading lines like "fuck me or I am finished" than deconstructing the latest evolution of the Kindle's hegemonic rise?

Yes! Or the latest essay on "The Stasis of Language: Social realism in the works of Smith"? (That's a random title spewed out by the delightfully spot-on Postmodernism Generator. But it's not unlike much of the stuff written about literature in the last twenty years.)

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Too small to fail

A few weeks ago I came across a very smart comment appended by Alex Rodriguez to a post that appeared on NPR's excellent in-house jazz blog. The issue was NPR's "The Decade's 50 Most Important Recordings" list, and the relevance or irrelevance of jazz to same. Alex wrote:

I'll go ahead and say it: jazz doesn't belong on the "50 most important albums" list. Sorry, jazz fans, but we're too small and culturally irrelevant to be taking spots from the real musical trends in modern music. I suppose there's a case to be made if "important" doesn't measure overall cultural impact, but more along the lines of "artistic merit" or some equally-vague concept, but a few jazz fans typing around on the internet about their favorite records does not equal relevance.

It's a sentiment I tend to agree with, but it made me wonder: in 2009, does anything really belong on a hypothetical "most important albums" list? Or have we finally passed the moment in which one could sustain the fiction of the macrocosmically relevant (which of course is the assumption behind such lists)?

Most musicians I know are pretty ambivalent about the ritual of listmaking, and are simultaneously inclined to complain about and participate in it.

For instance, one would be hard-pressed to find a musician who was unhappy to have their work featured as one of the year-end critical picks in a given rag, or who would go so far as to punch the hierarchical gift horse in the mouth. And in terms of creating such lists, what true music fan is going to be shy about sharing his or her opinions? Especially when asked?

But does anyone really believe that these lists are not prone to at least some degree of silliness, and particularly the silliness of the self-serving? Almost invisibly, the (self-appointed) right to bestow a label like "important" confers upon its giver an aura of... importance. Talk about a conflict of interest!

Of course, the potential for silliness is directly proportional to the grandness of the claims being made. (The 50 most important albums of 2000-2009? Really? You can actually see, from the future, their historical and "game-changing" impact?) So the best such lists are always the ones that go out of their way to qualify themselves:

It’s customary at the end of any period of time like this for people to put together their lists of greatest/best/most significant/blah-blah-blah music of the decade. Most such lists end up being fairly cynical ploys to bait readers into agreeing/disagreeing, and the hagiographic consensus that gets built up around so much banal, tedious music always leaves me baffled.

So I shan’t attempt to speak for anyone else, or to put a stamp of importance or significance on the following list. Instead, I’ll just list the albums that meant most to me that were released during the last ten years. For a whole mess of reasons. Some trivial, some far deeper.

It's a cliche by now, but the last 10-15 years have provided copious evidence that the old (top-down) music business is dying, and being replaced by something less centralized, more dispersed, more DIY, and more directly controlled by musicians themselves. And this (slow, incomplete, but ineluctable) democratization of the music business, which puts more music into the world than ever before, consequently undercuts unselfconscious and uncritical notions of macrocosmic relevance.

Set aside the issue of aesthetic justice (the usual response to any "best of" list is to point to all the deserving artists who were overlooked). This is actually a practical question. It has to do with the fact that the unimaginably huge cultural bounty that is the Internet has become impossible to track accurately. (Does anyone even know how many recordings were released last year?) And because of the limits of the human capacity for cultural consumption, ultimately there will be a time (and maybe it's already here) when the "best" art produced in any period, by any criteria whatsoever, will surpass the listening audience's capacity to perceive it. Your desire to support the arts, your passion for good music, will be beside the point. There will be more good music than you can reasonably expect to be able to enjoy in a single lifetime, let alone in a single year or decade.

Powerful media entities like NPR will, understandably, but out of habit, continue to assert the notion of a broad-yet-manageable view of the entire field. But we can't have it both ways, can we? Unless we consciously and collectively choose to go backwards, to undo the zeitgeist of DIY, the technological shape of the new music business is pushing us hard towards a hopelessly complex and detailed ecology of musical microcosms. And assuming we cannot surgically expand the perceptual capabilities of the human mind, going forward we will each have to be satisfied with a tinier fragment of the overall musical pie.

And that's fine with me.

* * * * *


I suppose the deeper question is whether the impulse to pursue and propound macrocosmic relevance fulfills some psychological need. Is it just a habit? Or does it serve a more religious purpose by giving music fans a sense of plugging into something bigger than themselves?

[photo credit: ...Tim and 27147]

Sunday, December 13, 2009

This one goes out to Senator Joe Lieberman

What a disgrace.

How saving a farming village from bandits in feudal Japan is like being in a big band circa 2009

Because good musicians playing in a big band are like samurai deigning to fight without hope of glory, of course. They have to really love what they do, and they have to be willing to be paid in rice if need be.

Kambei Shimada, pondering the prospect:

First of all, it's not easy to find trustworthy samurai. What's more, all you have to offer is food. Only those out to fight for the hell of it will agree. Besides, I'm sick of fighting. Age, I suppose.

Kambei Shimada, attempting to convince another samurai to join the cause:

Kambei Shimada: It pains me to tell you, but we're fighting for farmers.

Potential comrade: Farmers?

Kambei Shimada: That's right. This job offers no stipend and no reward. But we can eat our fill as long as we fight.

Potential comrade: This is absurd! My ambitions are greater than that.

Kambei Shimada: That's a shame. Won't you reconsider?

Potential comrade: I will not.

KatsushirĊ Okamoto: Sir, we lost a good man there. Such a fine swordsman.

The few and the proud.

[photo credit: jetalone]

Thursday, December 10, 2009

A list you can actually use

I feel some commentary on "end of the year lists" coming on, though I suspect I can't really improve upon the words that are found here or here.

In the meantime, how about this: "10 of the Dumbest Inventions of the 20th Century"?

Now that's a list I can truly enjoy!

Why? Well, if necessity is the mother of invention, failure is its father. In some twisted way, without the "phone answering robot" (pictured above), modern-day voicemail systems would have beeen just a little less possible. Not impossible, mind you. Just a little farther away on the horizon by... oh, I don't know, a few miles?

Particularly hilarious are the gadgets designed to help you care for your kids. E.g.:

Humans in the 1930s had a much higher infant mortality rate than the one we experience today, and we think we’ve found the reason: inventions like this insane baby cage that suspends your precious bundle of joy out of the window, high above the very hard pavement below.


And this is equally precious:

The cigarette holder for two: for when you really want to share your lung cancer with the one you love.

Go read / view!

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Good cheer

As the year winds down, and the decade winds down, and the "best of" lists appear, and the Grammy lists appear, and the momentous political issues of our day acquire a screaming white-hot intensity, and I embark upon my forty-first year on this planet, and the first frost arrives, and my kid really hits her stride with the whole kindergarten thing, and the scent of grand fir fills the house, and I madly plan for the next phase of my "career," and another stack of B-movies arrives in the mail, and...

And, and, and. As all this is going on, here I am, just trying to relax and savor the experience of being alive. It's a struggle sometimes.

Other times, it's not. Last night, as I was goofing off at the piano, Thandie brought over a book of Christmas carols (donated by one of the well-meaning grandparents, no doubt, because neither of her parents are huge fans of Christmas carols) and demanded I play. Before I knew it, all three of us were singing "Silent Night" and other such dreck. It was like a friggin' Irving Berlin musical come to life -- except that it was real, and my usual defenses against sentimentality were all but annihilated. I just went with the energy.

And it was remarkable. And then... it was wonderful.

It's interesting that we were singing, though, because the incident reminded me one of my favorite lines in the history of songwriting, c/o Paul Simon:

Sometimes even music cannot substitute for tears.

Yes. I hear that as a nod toward the "music is everything / music is nothing" idea, but it's also another way of saying art only attains its "importance" experientially. Making art is itself an experience, of course, but so are a lot of other things. And only making art never makes for good art. In my own case, I know that sometimes I forget to put my own obsessive creativity in the context of, you know, the rest of the cosmos. Over the last five years I have discovered that that sort of narrow-mindedness is particularly irrelevant when you have a kid. It's a discovery for which I am grateful.

* * * * *

The public perception of the modern musician-Dad has generally been negative. Male musicians, according to this general view, just aren't involved in their kids' lives, because of the demands of touring, or for worse reasons. Historically, this perception is probably grounded in a certain amount of truth.

I won't say we've fixed whatever the underlying problem is, but I have noticed that, in this era of digital communication and the technologies of DIY music production, and undoubtedly because of the hard work of generations of feminists, there is now a noticeable contingent of dude musicians who, if the internets are to be believed, are downright wrapped up in raising their own offspring, while simultaneously continuing to define themselves as musicians. Off the top of my head, that list would include folks like Chris Schlarb, Kris Tiner, Chris Kelsey, Ward Baxter, Tim DuRoche, Rob Mader, Josh Sinton, Nate Trier, Gary Lawrence Murphy. And so on.

That too, seems remarkable.

I am not offering a New Age-y paean to fatherhood here. Raising kids in general is not for everyone, and if you're opposed to or offended by it, you'll never have to sit through a boostery lecture from the likes of me. To each his or her own, I say. But whatever your feelings on the subject, "dude musicians who are downright wrapped up in the lives of their offspring" seems to bode well, in some small way, for art and life now, and art and life in the future.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Contest mania

(This image has nothing to do with this post. I just liked it.)

A friendly reminder that we currently have two Industrial Jazz Group contests running, both of which feature a cash prize:

1. The Howl Remix Contest. $50 prize. Deadline: January 31, 2010.

2. The Job Song Video Contest. $250 prize. Deadline: January 31, 2010.

All details are at the links above. Contestants, start yer engines!

And speaking of contests, check out this awesome "name that genre" contest (H/T: Tom D'Antoni). It concerns some of my very favorite Portland-area bands, including 3 Leg Torso, March Fourth Marching Band, and the Portland Cello Project. Prize: a night for two in a Chinook Winds Casino ocean-view suite and dinner! Well, hot damn!

And speaking of my very favorite Portland-area bands... hmmm, actually, I'm going to hold off on that bit of news for a few days. Suffice it to say I have a very exciting project in the works.

(I know, I know, I'm always saying that.)

[Photo credit: Lamerie]

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

You could be president someday

For a long time, my personal criteria for evaluating a president was to ask the question: could I do the job better than this schmuck is doing it?

With every president I can remember -- Republican and Democrat, going all the way back to Reagan -- I always (bombastically) answered that question in the affirmative.

That's right! I could easily have been a better president than Reagan. You could have too! Intellectually, the bar was set pretty low (it would of course be set much lower at a later date). It was persistence, timing, money, marketing, and ideology -- not excellence -- that got the Gipper into the oval office.

Nowadays, my question just doesn't seem relevant anymore. Could I do a better job than Obama is doing? Hell, I have no idea. I still know what I believe, politically, and I know where I disagree with the man. But personally, I would never want to experience what it's like to be president in 2009 -- and I bet you wouldn't either. The job now seems like a special flavor of hell.

Consider this comment from "Cat Lady" over at Balloon Juice (in a discussion about the Afghanistan speech):

All I know is that I’m glad I don’t have to be Obama for even one minute. On top of the ever increasing complexity of the problems he’s facing, the constant barrage of attacks from all sides, the shifting information, the ridiculous demands on his attention and time, he’s trying to be a good father and husband.

Just typing that makes me want to hide.

Honestly, what's the payoff? You've got access to the button and a personal plane. Big deal. Where does the job satisfaction come in?

Do you remember how American parents used to posit "being president someday" as the ultimate aspiration for their kids? "You're smart enough to be president someday, kid," they'd say. It was held out as the ultimate achievement.

Nowadays "you could be president someday" seems more like an insult or a threat than anything else. It's like saying "you could grow a goiter someday," or "someday you'll end up in jail." And that's just sad.

[Photo credit: Beverly & Pack]

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

AM paradox

I love how art can simultaneously seem like both the most important thing in the world, and the least important thing in the world. So of course I took note (and had to share) when I came across this comment by Marcel Duchamp (a hero of mine, yes):

I've decided that art is a habit-forming drug. That's all it is, for the artist, for the collector, for anybody connected with it. Art has absolutely no existence as veracity, as truth. People always speak of it with this great, religious reverence, but why should it be so revered? It's a drug, that's all. The more I go on, the more I'm convinced of it. The onlooker is as important as the artist. In spite of what the artist thinks he is doing, something stays on that is completely independent of what he intended, and that something is grabbed by society -- if he's lucky. The artist himself doesn't count. Society just takes what it wants. The work of art is always based on these two poles of the maker and the onlooker, and the spark that comes from this bi-polar action gives birth to something, like electricity. But the artist shouldn't concern himself with this because it has nothing to do with him -- it's the onlooker who has the last word. Fifty years later there will be another generation and another critical language, an entirely different approach. No, the thing to do is try to make a painting that will be alive in your own lifetime.


I'm afraid I'm an agnostic in art. I just don't believe in it with all the mystical trimmings. As a drug it's probably very useful for a number of people, very sedative, but as religion it's not even as good as God.

(From The Bride and the Bachelors, by Calvin Tomkins.)

[photo credit: Arenamontanus]