Friday, January 29, 2010

A comment re-posted, without comment

Via Balloon Juice, this, from commenter aimai:

The problem the blogosphere was having, to the extent that its a problem, is that Obama has tended to work hard and methodically in a very unshowy and uncampaigner-y way. He’s fantastically busy—just looking at his white house flickr page makes me tired because the guy is always working—but in a very real way he’s less available to his supporters/voters than he was on the campaign trail. He’s done less explaining and exhorting than I think they wanted. The reason they wanted him to be more visible is because so much of his policies and our progress was mired in the House and the Senate. People could see that his stated goals—our stated goals—were going down the tubes and they at least wanted some major sign from Obama that he felt their pain and their rage.

That, to me, is the meaning of all the almost pathological tea reading of the white house and its various flotsam and jetsam. Sometimes it seems like a kind of “No Parrots were killed on the M1 today” sort of news as each constituency came out and said “no progress on my issue” or “senate went backwards for me today.” Because Obama is viewed as at the top of a pyramid of power, or at least in a pivotal position between the House (where he works closely with Pelosi) and the Senate where he used to be a member people have a lot of inchoate feelings about how he needed to be more involved, more obvious, in saving the failing health care bill.

In other words, I think a lot of people’s expressed feelings of angst were relieved by the SOTU speech because at least Obama got up there and said, more or less directly “yeah, I’m with you all. Just like I’ve always been.” It needed to be said because people needed to hear that.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

What is listening?

I recently came across this interesting conversation about year-end lists over at David Adler's blog. The subject of year-end lists, of course, interests me greatly -- though at this point I have said my piece on the matter (at least until next year).

No, what I really wanted to riff on from the Adler piece was this phrase:

[...] I listen to some 700 CDs a year [...]

700 CDs. That's a lot. Something like, what -- two CDs a day, right?

Thinking about it, I started wondering: how many CDs do I listen to in a year? It must be more than a few, right? I mean, I try to pass myself off as sort of knowledgeable about music. (Ha!)

Well, actually, if we're talking physical CDs, it's not a lot, because most of my listening these days is focused on digital files of one sort or another. But if we're using "CD" as a metaphor for a group of tracks released as a single entity, and meant to be enjoyed in one sitting (more or less) -- sort of the modern equivalent of the "album" -- then, yes, it's a lot. It may be in the 700-a-year range. Who knows? It may be a little more, or a little less.

(I'm actually very curious about this, so I've started keeping track of titles as I listen to them. I plan to check back in with myself in a year to see what's what.)

Anyway, I have two categories of inquiry here.

First: is there a relationship between one's personal CD-per-year rate, and one's critical (or compositional) authority? Are we more trusting of a critic's judgments, or a composer's output, if we know he or she has consumed superhuman quantities of music? And if so, should we be?

Or, on the flip side: is there a certain point beyond which one can make useful statements about / contributions to music without necessarily embracing the compulsiveness of a completist ? Maybe there is some finite magical number of recordings which, once carefully studied, can provide you with everything you would ever need to know about the art?

Second: what the hell is "listening," anyway?

(I should admit here that though I appreciate music's power as a social unifier, I am equally motivated by a fascination with its ugly little cousin, perceptual variance.)

I would submit that everybody who actually cares about music has a preferred scenario for experiencing it: the ideal environmental setting, state of mind, playback technology, and so on. That's the scenario in which a listener can be most gracious, most receptive, most insightful, and most understanding re: a given work. That, for want of a better term, is "optimal" listening.

But how frequently do the stars so align? Most of my own listening occurs either in the car, or late at night, in front of a computer, occasionally accompanied by a glass of wine. Some of it occurs in the company of other people. Some of it occurs while I am doing one of the many other things I usually have to do throughout the day. And while I enjoy listening in all these ways, I suspect that none of them is optimal.

In other words, sub-optimal listening is inevitable (and is probably in fact the dominant mode of listening) for anyone not living in total sequestration from the ebb and flow of the world (including, of course, music critics and composers). But does sub-optimal listening "count"? (An analogy, I think, would be to say you have "read" a novel even though you have merely taken in most of the words.)

Or, is this no big deal? Do experience and critical wisdom give one the means by which to listen optimally, even when the optimal listening conditions have not been met? Has the human mind evolved an increased capacity for filtering out distractions?

And then there is the issue of frequency. Have I really "listened" to a CD if I merely play it once? (How many times have I hated something at first blush, only to fall in love with it a little later?) Does every recording deserve at least three full spins (say) before one can legitimately be said to have "heard" it?

As you can see, all I have tonight are questions.

[photo credit: Yuliya Libkina]

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The change monster

"The human nervous system ceases to perceive phenomena that do not change."

--Robert Jourdain

In the waning days of this debate over health insurance reform -- a debate which may, it turns out, have been for naught -- I'm trying, as part of an internal misanthropic dialogue, to understand the philosophical underpinnings of modern conservatism. (Which, incidentally, is kind of like trying to answer the age-old question: "What the fuck?") Not because I have nothing better to do, but because I'm at the end of my rope when it comes to the eternal ping-pong-game-from-hell that is American politics.

The problem with such an inquiry, as you probably know, is that much of what registers as "conservatism" these days is hardly "philosophical" at all. (Indeed, the more pompous right-wing pundits would probably brand me an "elitist" for daring to use those words in tandem.)

Of course, in 2010, political labels in general are badly mangled approximations of understandable English. "Liberals" take their name from the Latin root that also gives us the word "liberty" -- and thus can at least point to an etymology that centers on the notion of "freedom." Sounds great, right? (Which reminds me: when was the last time I saw a liberal make this very straightforward, potentially useful point in the context of a Republican attack? Oh, yeah: never.)

And yet in current usage, liberals are typically accused of being freedom fuckers. See for instance the handy phrase "government takeover," recklessly tossed out like so much splenetic confetti over the last year. See too the long history of the word "socialism," used as a sloppy pejorative. See the Hitler references ad nauseum.

"Conservatives," on the other hand, get their label from a different Latin word, conservare, which means "to save" or "to preserve." And so while conservatives also claim to be interested in "freedom," that interest is trumped by a deep and extreme cautiousness toward (read: a paranoid resistance to) new things. (Or, more specifically, new things that are not also war.)

That may be overbroad, but it's surely how things have played out in the health insurance reform debate. Consider, for instance, this excerpt from a David Leonhardt piece in the NYT:

Together, the cost-control measures are serious enough that the Congressional Budget Office estimates they would save the government $1 trillion in the next 20 years, over and above the cost of covering the uninsured. Some experts remain doubtful of these projections. Others, though, think the budget office is underestimating the savings, as it has with past Medicare changes.

Someone like me looks at that paragraph and impatiently thinks: "Okay. The fiscal brilliance of this proposal is perhaps not guaranteed, but the odds that it is financially sound are pretty damned good. Also (and this is of paramount importance): the status quo is bloody horrible. Pass the damned bill!"

A conservative looks at that same paragraph and says: "Fuck you. I'm not interested in taking chances. I'm interested in guarantees. The status quo may not be perfect, but it is preferable, because at least it is certain."

Moral impatience/risk versus inertia/certainty. In a time of economic and political upheaval, which side do you think is going to win? (Well, that depends, of course. But on this side of the misery tipping point, which has enough built-in distractions to assuage the pain of "keeping on," you can bet that inertia will win.)

What is so exasperating about all of this is that few people are even framing the issue that honestly. I can't tell you how many conservative friends have in recent weeks insisted to me that they are "for reform" -- even though Republicans have never truly tried to own health care as an issue. Instead of coming clean that this is a debate between adventurousness and sticking with the familiar, we have had a year's worth of truly nonsensical discourse. And that, it turns out, is what may actually seal the deal.

"Adventurousness," eh? I know, I know. The analogy to starting and running a big band (or indeed, doing anything artistic in modern America) is not lost on me.

Actually, the analogy to culture in general is not lost on me. Every day I have to grapple with the fact that some significant percentage of human beings prefer the musically familiar over the musically unknown. On some level, I can't necessarily blame them: I have to acknowledge that the risk of exploring new music doesn't always pay off, and can even be costly.

At the same time, of course, I have staked my career on the idea that to studiously avoid that kind of risk is to deny at least a little part of your soul.

Turns out it may deny you a functioning country, too.

[Photo credit: cometstarmoon]

Monday, January 18, 2010

Fellini on improvisation

From I, Fellini, an as-told-to autobiography assembled by Charlotte Chandler:

I find "improvisation," a word used frequently in connection with my films, an offensive term. Some people say I improvise and mean it as a criticism. Others mean it as a compliment. It's true that I am not rigid. I am open to possibilities. I admit I change quite a lot, and I must be free to do this. But I prepare everything, even more than is necessary, because that gives me the freedom to be flexible. I have removed the pressure because I am prepared, in case the adrenaline doesn't flow. In case there is no sudden inspiration, then there is preparation. But the juices always flow -- thus far.

My films are not made like Swiss watches. I could not work with that kind of precision. They are not like Hitchcock's scripts.

Hitchcock could work with so precise a script; not only every word, but every gesture was preplanned. He saw the film in his head before he made it. I see the film in my head after I have completed it. I know he worked from drawings, as I do, but he used his drawings in a totally different way than I do. He used them like architecture drawings. Mine are for creating and exploring character, so the story can come from character. I see many movies in my head, but the final one is different from all of them.

[photo credit: They-Speak A Different-Language]

Friday, January 15, 2010


"They said, we will serve you if you will get us free from the French. True story. And so, the devil said, okay it's a deal."

Televangelist Pat Robertson, on the January 2010 Haitian earthquake

"Haiti had been terra incognita to most Americans, though it was only six hundred miles away. As the first black republic, founded in 1804 after Toussaint L'Ouverture's revolt in 1791, it had been seen as a frightful omen by the slave states. Southerners spoke with dread of a 'second Haiti' [...]"

George Black, The Good Neighbor

"Thou hast left behind
Powers that will work for thee; air, earth, and skies;
There’s not a breathing of the common wind
That will forget thee; thou hast great allies;
Thy friends are exultations, agonies,
And love, and man’s unconquerable mind."

William Wordsworth, "To Toussaint L'Ouverture"

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

I stand corrected

Turns out I was wrong (I'm happy to say). Some people do dance in New York. Here's the evidence:

That's (fellow New Jersey native) Marco Benevento (and trio), performing as part of NYC's recent Winter Jazzfest. In case you missed it, various writeups and responses have been helpfully catalogued by Peter Hum (who, like me, was unable to attend, due to a hellish commute). I was particularly struck by the stories of sold-out shows and standing-room only crowds on Saturday evening. Not bad for a lineup that was decidedly not dominated by international-headliner, household-name, jazz-legend types. Ben Ratliff even referred to the event in terms that some of us have been dreaming about for a few years now, as "a jazz equivalent of South by Southwest."

In other words, a very strong way to start 2010.

Of course, it's not like that sort of thing had no precedent in the aughts. The Bakersfield Jazz Festival, for instance, has consistently (and successfully) managed to present a small but compelling sampler from the broad spectrum of jazz, for an audience of thousands. Still, reading the exuberant WJF live-tweets on Saturday night, I got the impression that something that has been building for a while, in furiously-spinning but disconnected eddies, finally had a chance to coalesce somehow.

Maybe this will be the year that the prospect of being an "up-and-comer" in jazz no longer seems like an exercise in futility. Maybe the music will even become broadly relevant again. (Is that too ambitious? You may be surprised to learn that I do in fact have a very stubborn Romantic-idealistic streak. No worries -- check in with me again tomorrow and I'll be back to my cynical self.)

Did something change in the last year? And if so, what?

Are we merely looking at the best-case-scenario impact of the social web? Of the new bloggers that appeared almost daily in 2009? Of improvements to the delivery of digital music? Of the #jazzlives campaign?

That all seems probable, even obvious, but does it explain things fully? The social web, after all, has been around for awhile. Perhaps something deeper has shifted.

Perhaps the music is finally benefitting (in a broader way, and somewhat counterintuitively) from the fact that we are now several generations into its institutionalization. Maybe that's time enough to allow for a bit of self-reflexiveness about formerly tempestuous subjects like the "jazz wars." And for the emergence of a critical mass of work that is neither slavishly enthralled by "the tradition," nor hell-bent on trashing it. Maybe we're even in for a new period of synthesis in the jazz dialectic.

I wonder.

The real test of this (admittedly half-assed) hint of a hypothesis will be whether something like WJF 2010 is broadly and consistently replicable going forward -- as opposed to being a geographically-limited, one-off fluke.

I'm sincerely hoping for the former.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Wall of sound

Don't ask me why, but I recently enjoyed reading this excellent wikipedia article on bass amps. In particular, I found this paragraph pretty entertaining:

In the 2000s, virtually all of the sound reaching the audience in large venues comes from the PA system. As well, in the 2000s onstage instrument amplifiers are more likely to be kept at a low volume, because high volume levels onstage makes it harder to control the sound mix and produce a clean sound. As a result, in many large venues much of the onstage sound reaching the musicians now comes from the monitor speakers, not from the instrument amplifiers. Stacks of huge speaker cabinets and amplifiers are still used in concerts in some genres of music, especially heavy metal, but they tend to be used more for the visual effect than for sound reproduction.

[photo credit: Sunn 0))), by wot nxt]

Friday, January 08, 2010

I gotta take my clothes off / tryin' to play some bebop

(A free LEEF CD to the first person who gets the titular reference.)

I was fascinated to read Marc Myers's recent death-of-jazz-ish post, not because I have strong feelings one way or the other on the topic of the music's mortality (actually, that topic pretty much bores me), but because Marc's commentary touches on the tension between visual and auditory perception in 21st century writing about jazz.

He notes:

Today live music for large numbers of people no longer is solely an audio experience—or an acoustic one. Sadly, most music now demands visual excitement, shock and a techno dynamic. Musicians standing and playing together no longer is sufficient for a growing segment of the concert-going public. There's not enough theater or impact.

On the one hand, I sympathize with this view. It references the very stereotype of "the music fan" that I have been so inconsiderately lampooning, via the Industrial Jazz Group, for a few years now. This is, after all, yet another reason we wear the crazy, half-assed costumes of our current show -- we recognize (and lament) the fact that the larger music industry is very much about appearances, often at the expense of sounds -- and we try to highlight that phenomenon with an ironic wink.

But to assume that jazz (as a subset of the larger music industry) is, or ever was, totally immune from the impact of visual culture -- as if, living in the West, anyone but the blind could have "solely an audio experience" -- is to fall back on an argument that is deeply frustrating in its unbridled purism.

There's a moment on Burnt Weeny Sandwich (okay, okay, it's a personal favorite of mine, but you know where I'm coming from) when a heckler shouts out an admonition to "take off that uniform!" (I've heard different versions of what this dude was actually talking about, but my favorite, which is probably apocryphal, is that he was addressing the Mothers themselves -- because, of course, they too were inclined to dress up.) Zappa's response seems to me to be somewhat devastating, and is, I think, addressed to the audience as a whole: "Everyone in this room is wearing a uniform, and don't kid yourself."

Precisely. It's not that jazz fans are somehow able to magically "tune out" visual stimuli when listening to the music they love. (The very fact that hardcore aficionados sometimes react negatively to the IJG's proclivity for costumes is, it seems to me, pretty compelling evidence that ocular information is actually more important to these folks than they want to let on. Jazz musicians, apparently, are supposed to "look the part.") For all its auditory power, jazz has always been informed to some extent by a strong (and even striking) visual aesthetic. If it wasn't, why would there even be a market for a book of Blue Note album covers? Why would we package the music at all?

In this country where jazz began, even the most serious jazz musician makes time to "prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet." It's a truism of our society. And while practitioners and fans of this music may be more interested than most in the nature and mechanics of sound (I do believe that's true), that doesn't mean they (we) are uninterested in (or unaffected by) the visual trappings of the art.

[photo credit: IJG at the Bell House, by Steven Noreyko (October, 2009)]

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Dude, you're getting a Dudamel

I recently discovered that the LA Phil's website has a cute, pointless game.

This species of digital edutainment seems to be all the rage in the online classical world. (I once turned a similar game, located at the Berliner Philharmoniker website, into a kind of performance art.)

I assume these things are supposed to make more people interested in classical music. I'd be curious to know: do they work? Does anyone actually play the Gustavo Dudamel game, for real?

[photo credit: permanently scatterbrained]

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

When we was jazz

I've been lax in keeping you up on the doings over at the official IJG blog. Mea culpa. Let me rectify the situation.

Here is a set of piano/woodwind miniatures improvised by me and Cory Wright (or is that "Cory Wright and I"? I'm feeling rather ungrammatical this morning) during the Star Chamber session, back in 2003.

And here is the first IJG album, Hardcore, out of print since last year but now available as a free download. (Or, technically, a pay-what-you-want download.)

If all you know of the IJG is "Big Ass Truck," you're in for a bit of a surprise with these two posts.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Invasion of the Neptune Men

Because I have no shame. And neither, apparently, does Nate Trier, who pointed me to this smorgasbord of a site recently.

"B movies"? You say that like it's a bad thing! To me, the "B" in "B movies" is like the "B" in "Grade B Maple Syrup." That's right: it means "better."

More substantial posts coming soon, but at the moment I have a lot of cinema to watch.