Thursday, May 27, 2010

Portrait of the artist as a young singer-songwriter

(L-R: Jill Knapp, Darren O'Neill, Joe Bergamini (standing), Andrew Durkin (seated))

One of the funny things about having spent 30 manic years writing music (out of the 40 or so years I've been on this planet so far) is that I sometimes forget about songs I've written -- even when, at the time of their conception, I thought those same songs were pretty hot shit.

This song ("Spain") is, in retrospect, definitely not hot shit, but, hey -- it ain't bad either. In any case, I had completely forgotten about it. It's another thing revived by the aforementioned Mr. Darren O'Neill, who is proving (via Facebook) to be a key resource of obscure early Durkinalia. (The master tape of this recording was in the possession of Joe Bergamini, who played drums on the tune. Darren tracked the recording down and cleaned it up for this "release.")

Spain by uglyrug

What can I say about this song? Again, it was written during a pretty dark period for me -- roughly one year after "Just To See Your Face" (so sometime in 1989, when I was 20), and shortly after I had dropped out of Carnegie Mellon and Berklee College of Music. (I was a double dropout! Alas -- for a while there, I just couldn't find a school that worked for me.)

I had picked up a few classes at a local community college, and suddenly I was taking the "quest for knowledge" seriously. Mostly because of a beloved uncle's untimely death, which made me realize how short life really is (if you will forgive the cliche).

Anyway. This song had its origins in a geography course, which was attended by a beautiful raven-haired girl, who, for reasons I never understood, always wore tinted glasses. I never did work up the confidence to develop a friendship with her, but that didn't stop me from taking the artistic liberty of weaving a psychological portrait around that one (probably inconsequential) detail. I was convinced that she had to be hiding something, or hiding from something. Of course, I was actually the one who was doing the hiding -- there were many aspects of myself that I had yet to embrace. But I was content to project all of this psychic drama onto her for the time being.

Here's the lyric:

Why don't you say what you want to say?
Why must you hide from the truth every day?
Do you believe you've got nothing to gain?
Is that your game, Spain?

What must I do to relieve the pain
I can't believe that you're running away
You never were scared of what people would say
Don't be scared now, Spain

Oh I don't believe
That you could sit so idly by
While all your dreams would fly
Fly away

Here is the life you've been looking for
Don't tell me you don't have the guts anymore
You won't take the chance cuz you have to be sure
But you never will be pure

There's always tomorrow, another day
Sleep on your problems, they might go away
And if they don't, well, there's always a way
To fight back the pain, Spain

Oh I don't believe
That you could sit so idly by
While all your dreams would fly
Fly away

In retrospect, it's pretty hilarious to me that this song was conceived of in a geography class, and is named after a country (a connection I never made until now). Of course, the official reason for the title is that the girl in question had a Mediterranean look. On another level, the title may have come from a dipthong-tastic association with Billy Joel's "James" (which probably provided something of a thematic influence as well).

That's right, I went through a Billy Joel period (I have already written about this a bit) -- apologies if this song is too precious as a result. It is, in fact, far less precious than most of my other material from the same period, and, like "Just To See Your Face," is one of the few early tunes of mine that I'd be comfortable sharing in a more "official" context. It's a decent song, goddammit, and I think it holds up, despite its bombast.

If nothing else, consider this: it's not often that you get a fusion of a classical Spanish guitar and rock drums. Credit where it's due: Darren arranged and performed the guitar part, and composed the prelude. Personally, I think the song is much stronger as a result of these contributions.

In addition to Darren on guitars, and Joe on drums, I played synth bass (hardly audible in this mix), Jill Knapp handled lead vocals, and Angela Acosta sang backup.

[photo credit: Jeff Knapp]

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

All the music you will never listen to

"Narrative arts have been always limited by the capacities of the receiver (a human being) and of storage media. Throughout history, the first capacity has remained more or less the same: today the time we will devote to the reception of a single narrative may range from 15 seconds (a television commercial) to two hours (a feature film) to a number of short segments distributed over a large period of time (following a television series or reading a novel). However, the capacity of storage media recently changed dramatically. Instead of the ten minutes that can fit on a standard roll of film or the two hours that can fit on a digital video tape, a digital server can hold a practically unlimited amount of audiovisual recordings. The same applies for audio only, or for text."

Lev Manovich

If you read this blog with any regularity, you know that the above-articulated idea is one of my regular themes. I often borrow Alvin Toffler's term for it ("overchoice"). It is, I think, a distinguishing feature of twenty-first century culture.

What it means for our relationship with art over the long-term is anyone's guess.

Does it mean the end of critical consensus? (How can you legitimately claim to be able to point to the best that has been thought or created if you are physically unable to consume a healthy sample of what's out there?)

Does it mean that we will soon lose the ability to experience art in depth, and with patience -- instead feeling compelled to experience a little bit of everything, simply because there is so much to be experienced?

Does it mean that commerce will finally be victorious in its quest to be the ultimate arbiter of taste and value, because the stuff that will "rise to the top" will in fact be the stuff that is most aggressively promoted, regardless of its actual quality? (How could anything rise to the top otherwise, given the number of things being produced?)

Beats me!

[photo credit: Andrew Choy]

Monday, May 24, 2010

Inverted man

Over this weekend, inspired by M.C. Escher (the artist, not the rapper), Thandie and I came up with a doodle that can be viewed two ways:

Top view: the cheesy sunglasses look.

Bottom view: the bald-Amish-dude-with-bad-teeth look.

Silly, I know.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Making fun

Frank Zappa once issued a CD called Does Humor Belong in Music?, and it's a question he was obsessed with throughout his life. And probably one of the records that's most interesting to consider in this light is Cruising with Ruben and the Jets, because it's regularly taken to be a parody of sweet rock and roll, or doo-wop, with the idea that if you do a parody of something, you hate what you're parodying, and you're only doing it to trash it. But you can listen to Ruben and the Jets in a completely different way. My friend Danny Huston told me that he had had a love affair that broke up, and he went home and played Ruben and the Jets, and wept all the way through, and took it completely literally.

That's Ben Watson, speaking in Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention: In the 1960s, about what Zappa called his "neo-classical" album, Ruben and the Jets.

Stumbled across this last night and thought it would make a nice addition to the Jarrett and Sardelli posts.

Is it possible to ridicule (or critique) something and to love it -- I mean really love it -- at the same time?

I think so. In fact, I would say that this is one of the more productive and useful dynamics in all of creativity -- it's one way of separating yourself from the things that have inspired you, so as to not merely reproduce what has gone before.

I would also suggest that the best human relationships are like this. No true love happens purely. Our honest disappointment in each other, our outsider's cold objectivity, makes our affection that much more meaningful.

[photo credit: gimpbully]

Sunday, May 16, 2010

We need to be offended

(Look like anyone you know?)

I'm no expert on Baroque music. I certainly love it, and I actually play quite a bit of it in my role as the keyboardist for a local church. But I'm still a bit of an "outsider" when it comes to the finer points of the genre. So you may forgive me when I say that, until recently, I had never heard of Federico Maria Sardelli.

Yes, this is another discovery from my recent Italy fascination. (Which is a full-on syndrome for me at the moment. Honestly, how could I fail to love a country that produced something as magnificent as the Decameron?)

Anyway, for those of you, who, like me, didn't know from Sardelli, the always-helpful Wikipedia provides a pretty good introduction to the man:

Federico Maria Sardelli an Italian conductor, composer, musicologist and flautist. He is the founder of the baroque orchestra Modo Antiquo and has made more than forty recordings as soloist and conductor, some of them in co-production with the German broadcast company Westdeutscher Rundfunk. He has twice been nominated for the Grammy Awards. A notable protagonist in the Vivaldi renaissance, he has conducted the world premiere recordings and first modern performances of Arsilda, regina di Ponto, Orlando Furioso, Tito Manlio, Motezuma, and L'Atenaide. For his artistic merits, on 28th november 2009 the Government of Tuscany decorated Federico Maria Sardelli with the Gonfalone d'Argento, the highest medal of honour of the Regione Toscana.

All of which sounds pretty impressive, right?

Right! Personally, I discovered Sardelli through a gorgeous 2006 recording of Scarlatti compositions (with Elisabeth Scholl singing). I was duly impressed. To my ears, the dude has all the requisite characteristics to be a leading light in the oh-so-hoary-and-exclusive early music scene.

But if you read that Wikipedia article a little farther, you learn that there is another side to Sardelli, and that he is also

a longtime collaborator of the satirical magazine Il Vernacoliere and is valued because of his satire of Italian mainstream culture, religion and religious kitsch. His nonsensical style resembles that of Monty Python and Daniele Luttazzi, but he has a recognizable style of his own rooted in Tuscan popular humor.

Notable characters and strips by Sardelli include:


'Il Bibliotecario' ("The Librarian"): a peculiar comic strip made always of two-frames variations on the same theme: in the first the librarian greets an unnamed elderly woman with an (always slightly different) flowery and archaic sentence (e.g. "May I help thee, my Peripatetic Friend: if I can be a Spring of Fulfillment for thee, consider me unfailingly at Your Disposal"). The woman will ask for an (always different, and really existing) improbable ancient book, such as the "Gabinetto Armonico" of Filippo Bonanni. In the second frame the librarian will reply with a totally unconnected, often nonsensical and, more often than not, heavily offensive behaviour (for example by flashing his buttocks and asking her for advice on his new tattoo, or claiming he's the "King of Fried Food" and insulting her).

'Merda' ("Shit") : a mute strip where various characters are nonsensically obsessed by their relationship with excrement (being unable to flush it away, bringing it to the International Bureau of Weights and Measures to be used as a standard, or being able to flush it away only to cry at the loss).

'Circo' ("Circus"): about the adventures of a circus whose animals indulge in embarrassing activities like homosexual copulation just when the show is going on.


His PiĆ¹ Belle Cartoline Del Mondo ("Most Beautiful Postcards Of The World") are elaborate stories built around kitsch 60's and 70's postcards (often representing children or couples), written in an absurdly baroque and archaic style and lexicon, full of wonderful linguistic inventions [...] and with exhilarating plots rich in political uncorrectness and cynically unhappy ends; a recurring character in these stories is that of the fictional awful dwarf Gargilli Gargiulo.

Would it be wrong (or surprising) for me to suggest that in the US, this sort of thing would be much more difficult for a "respectable" musician (whether of the classical or the jazz persuasion) to get away with?

And that we're much worse off for it?

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The purity test

And then I would, like, maybe come out, and they couldn’t calm down, and somebody would say something. And I’d say, “What?” And I’d turn, sit facing the audience, I’d say, “Okay, let’s hear it. What are we all talking about?” So somebody had asked for something, and I said, “No, I can’t do that right now.” Somebody said, “Play something long.” And I started to play these concerti. Like the Grieg, “Dah, da da dah, da da dah,” and then said, “No, no, no, that’s too long.” So it was like almost a comedy routine that they created. And then someone asked for Rachmaninoff’s 2nd, and I said, “That’s a good idea, but I usually have to play the 1st first.” So it was like they lost their inhibitions, and I did too, and you can’t hear that on the tape. But that’s what I like audiences to do.

-- Keith Jarrett (from an interview with Ethan Iverson)

Just noticed that our infamous "Incident at Umbria" video, which is about two years old now, has passed the 12,000 view mark on YouTube. Not a lot compared to, say, the Jonas Brothers, but a respectable number for an independent, hopelessly idiosyncratic ensemble like mine. In any case, it is by far our most popular video overall, which is maybe a little frustrating, given that I have written plenty of other tunes, and many of them are, um, much better.

Some of the commentary is entertaining. Consider:

This is just not funny.

Jarrett may have his personal flaws but that is COMPLETELY IRRELEVANT when you hear the music he makes. The makers of this vid just show they have missed the point and lack any understanding of the process of a true artist.

Perhaps the next thing this lot creates could be something to move the spirit rather than titilate the less worthy aspects of one's nature...

And then this one:

next time i witness vultures feeding on carrion i'll remember this...embarassment.

gulliver and kj have something in common: they've been attacked by very little people.

Which is all well and good.

Or maybe not. Honestly, I don't get how "Umbria" could be imagined by anybody as an "attack." I mean, I could've written a song called "Keith Jarrett Is a Fucking Asshole" if I wanted to attack the guy. (After all, I did write something sort of along those lines with our John McCain song.)

I don't think Jarrett is an asshole at all, and I certainly don't have anything negative to say about his music. In fact, I actually love a lot of it.

To take the words that Jarrett spoke, and to place them in a musical context -- maybe not the most amazing musical context in the world, but one that did take effort, and that has a certain merit (and that stands out from pretty much anything else you're likely to hear at a "jazz" concert) -- how exactly does it titillate "the less worthy aspects of one's nature"?

What if I was trying to savor the weirdness of that particular situation? Weirdness too makes for good art. Personally, I have no idea what demons compel KJ to act out in his patented way. But the dynamic is very interesting to me. If one is self-assured enough to be able to talk shit to a enormous live audience, and yet fragile enough to be creatively threatened by the petty (and indeed typical) distractions of live performance -- that's a fertile tension, is it not?

Well, I thought so, anyway.

Every once in a while, I'm reminded of the fact that the old jazz purism never really dies. Like anything else, it goes through a heyday, laying down a set of rules about what subjects are "safe" to write about, what chords are appropriate to play, and all the rest. It becomes institutionalized, and loses the ability to think reflexively about itself. But even when it (eventually) falls out of favor and becomes eclipsed by healthier approaches, it never really goes away. There will be no "final victory" over it. It will always be lurking in a corner somewhere, hardly able to contain its enthusiasm for the next big chance to put the brakes on cultural progress and fullness.

And that's kind of sad.

[photo credit: exquisitur]

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Today's mix

Because I thought you might be hankering for a list.

The Black Keys: "Til I Get My Way"
Cheap Trick: "Surrender"
Cream: "Blue Condition"
Cream: "We're Going Wrong"
The Dukes of Stratosphear: "Collideascope"
Fiona Apple: "Extraordinary Machine"
Frank Zappa: "Let Me Take You to the Beach"
The Fully Celebrated Orchestra: "Reptoid Alliance"
George Harrison: "All Things Must Pass"
Heartless Bastards: "My Maker"
The Hollies: "Pay You Back with Interest"
Jeff Simmons: "I'm in the Music Business"
The Kinks: "Do You Remember Walter"
Led Zeppelin: "Out on the Tiles"
The Persuasions: "You Are What You Is"
Petra Haden: "Mary Anne with the Shaky Hand"
R.L. Burnside: "Stole My Check"
Raphael Saadiq: "100 Yard Dash"
Skip James: "I'm So Glad"
The Turtles: "You Showed Me"
Yes: "Going for the One"

I'm sure there's a connection between all of these tunes, but I'm not sure what it is in every case.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Back to the dust

Today we had to put poor Sadie-cat down. (I ain't a-tryin' to bum you out, but writing is what I do, and it's how I cope. So I'm writing.)

Every other animal I have ever owned has just died in its own way -- I've never had to initiate the process as an act of mercy. But Sadie had grown so weak that she wasn't even able to leave the couch on her own. In fact, over the past few weeks she had become afflicted by symptoms of her underlying condition so wretched and humiliating that out of respect for her I refuse to describe them for you. The bottom line is that we knew the vet's recommendation (euthanasia) was the humane thing to do. Of course, you know the kicker: that knowledge didn't make the experience any easier.

We had originally been thinking that we'd get Sadie cremated, but when I arrived at the vet's office and the nurse asked me what sort of "after care" I wanted (interesting term, by the way: "after care"), I had sort of an epiphany. We left LA (four years ago) in part so we could afford to own a home and a yard. Homes and yards are meant to be lived in, and to bear the evidence of that living -- not just in the obvious, display-oriented ways (e.g., portraits hung on walls), but also in the sense of the residue of important moments becoming embedded in and absorbed by the space itself.

In short, I was overcome with the feeling that it was very important that Sadie be allowed to physically become a part of the environment she had brought such joy to. So I asked that they let us bury her at home.

And actually, it was Thandie who put this idea into my head. We had been very up front with her through every step of Sadie's demise, and I'm incredibly proud that my girl did not shy away from the evidence of death when it finally came. She wanted to see the hole, she wanted to see her dead cat, she wanted to help with the burial, and she wanted to decorate the grave with flowers and pine cones:

Those of you who live in Portland know that we've been experiencing a period of pretty intense weather, most of which has been expressed as precipitation of one sort or another. Today was no exception -- driving home from the vet, the rain was heavy and fierce. But when the moment came to finally lay our cat to rest, the rain stopped, and the sun came out.

In an Oliver Stone movie, that would have seemed like heavy-handed symbolism. But in real life, it did my heart good.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Portrait of the artist as a young alt-rocker

Oh, my mis-spent youth.

I'm afraid it's time to inflict upon you (once again) some of the music I wrote when I was but a wee lad. (In this case, a wee lad of 19.)

Complaints regarding the following should be directed at one Mr. Darren O'Neill, an old friend and musical associate, who recently dug the below recording out of his own files (thus reminding me that this music even existed).

The year was 1988. I was living in Pittsburgh, attending Carnegie Mellon University for the first year of my undergraduate career. I would drop out by the summer, ending up at Berklee in the fall.

Ah, Carnegie Mellon. I initially made a brave attempt to "succeed at college" (whatever "succeeding at college" means). But halfway through that first year, haunted by a deep existential confusion over what I really wanted to do with my life (or, perhaps more accurately, how to do what I really wanted to do with my life), I succumbed to a vampire-like existence, sleeping all day and staying awake all night, and only making it to class, well, once in a while.

(And by the way, while I was at Carnegie Mellon, someone painted a crime-scene-esque body outline at the base of a five- or six-story stairwell in the computer science building. It was an image I could relate to.)

Alas, most of my CMU friends (we all lived in the same dorm, and collectively referred to ourselves as "Monkey Pus") went through the same transformation (from relatively innocent high schoolers to anti-social ne'er-do-wells). Like me, many of them would drop out of this esteemed institution by the end of the school year. At least one would go on to appear in a soap opera. Others were probably involved in the invention of the Internet.

But my closest friend was a fellow named Don Michaels, who (I seem to remember) was fond of saying that he had come to college for the express purpose of starting a band. Which of course seemed like a great idea to me, except that Don and I had very different musical tastes. He came from more of a "alternative rock" scene, and was a fan of bands like U2, REM, and the Cure, which I, coming from more of a classic rock / 80s metal vibe, didn't know much about at the time. (Keep in mind that this was before U2 and REM had achieved true "mega-star status" -- REM's Document was breaking just as I arrived at CMU.) Don was also completely untrained, musically. (So of course he became our singer.)

Still, I have never been one to scoff at an unusual creative opportunity when it presents itself. As we both grew more and more disaffected with the regimentation of higher education, Don and I started working on songs together, in what was probably one of the most directly collaborative experiences of my life.

I actually consider all of my music collaborative to some extent. That is: I know each piece I write is going to be transformed at least a little by the people who perform it. But the stuff Don and I wrote together at CMU was collaborative from the moment of its inception. As I recall, neither of us ever started writing outside of the context of that partnership. Everything would emerge during the songwriting session itself.

The very first song we wrote was a thing called "Just to See Your Face," and it is this song (unearthed by the intrepid Mr. O'Neill) that initiated the post you are now reading. Because even after all these years, I still kinda like it, despite its simple, innocuous catchiness.

As I recall, "Face" came about during an afternoon spent hanging out in the lounge of our dorm. I was fiddling with the guitar, and came up with the melody and, I think, a few of the words. (At least I'm pretty sure I came up with the opening salvo: "Give me sanctuary / I'm without a home"). Generally, when we wrote together, I got the idea of the song going, but Don finished it off, lyrically. He was superb at filling in the details and maintaining the concept of the thing. (Left to my own devices, I might've been inclined to corrupt it somehow.)

The very same evening (as I recall) we stayed up all night recording numerous versions of our first masterpiece onto cassette, with our friend Mark (the above-linked soap star) attempting to provide a bass line. At the time, it was a blast, though I don't know if the documentation still exists. Probably not. And probably for the best.

Fast forward to the summer, after I had, you know, dropped out (cue sinister music). Don (who lived in Rhode Island) came down to NJ for a visit, and we ended up making a "real" recording of "Just to See Your Face" (plus two of our other tunes) with the aforementioned Mr. O'Neill providing an impressive guitar orchestration, and another friend and local heavyweight, Mr. Joe Bergamini, playing drums with his usual flair.

It was, in retrospect, a pretty pivotal period of my life. Shortly before the demise of my first real relationship, shortly before the death of a very close and important family member, and long before I finally found my post-high-school footing, the moment was chock-full of significance for me. This song still reminds me of how it felt.

I can't guarantee that you'll like it too, but feel free to check it out. At the very least, it's a lot different than anything you've heard from the IJG:

Just to See Your Face by uglyrug

Anyway, thanks, Darren, for this stroll down memory lane.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Danger belongs in music

Yesterday I had my first experience with the cultural juggernaut that is Cirque du Soleil.

Daphne and Thandie were both born in May, and in a sense, this outing was an opportunity to celebrate both birthdays at once. It was something we could all enjoy together, at least theoretically. Of course, I'm not sure it was the sort of thing I would've sought out if left to my own devices. But if nothing else, I was extremely gratified (and moved) to see the look of wonder my kid had on her face for three straight hours.

I won't make any argument from the weirdness on display -- though once again I do see a mingling of the so-called "avant-garde" and the so-called "mainstream" in this production. Nor will I expound on the delight I experienced at the consistently bawdy undertone to the whole thing. Except to say "Bravo!" (After awhile I lost count of the fart jokes, and the sex jokes.)

But the show did get me thinking about the notion of "safety" in art.

As I watched two demon figures do their ridiculously insane routine on the gigantic rotating gerbil wheels, who knows how many feet up in the air, I thought: "There is absolutely no room for error here." Everything had to go exactly as planned, or someone would be killed -- and rather spectacularly, too.

Of course, that demand for precision, executed at a very high level, is where the tension -- and the pleasure -- comes in for the audience.

At the same time, very little about the production had the feel of improvisatory openness. Even the clown routines (in which physical safety was not an issue, per se) felt like they were highly scripted, so as to ensure accurate syncing with the sound design. At one point a member of the high wire troupe seemed to slip and nearly lose his footing -- a move that only made his second attempt at the same routine appear even more triumphant. Turned out this was planned too, because the exact same thing happens on the DVD.

All of which is well and good, and entirely appropriate for the sort of production that Cirque du Soleil is. My point is just this: the experience of art is enhanced by the threat of danger. For the musician, that danger may come in the form of a complex passage that must be executed just so, or a section that has been left open to interpretation, or improvisation.

For the circus performer, the danger is more literal, and more physical, but not more real.